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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

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Sun 11
Oct
2009

Zombies Are For Grown-Ups: Why Banning Video Games Makes Them More Violent

What Max Reckons Left 4 DeadI’m a parent. I also like to slay zombies. Lately, my wife and I have spent nights side-by-side, mowing down hordes of gibbering undead with automatic weapons. Sometimes we blow them up with pipe bombs, or set them on fire. We don’t go looking for them. They rush at us out of darkened city alleys. They break through doors. It’s us or them.

I’m talking of course about the computer game Left 4 Dead. It has a sequel, due out next month, which looks similar—so similar, in fact, there is a protest by Left 4 Dead fans that it should be a free update, not a new full-price game. The main difference seems to be that it has hand weapons, inviting players to bludgeon zombies with baseball bats, chop them up with axes, and dismember them with chainsaws.

This was too much for the Australian Classifications Board, which ruled that the game’s “unrelenting violence” was “unsuitable for a minor to see or play.” Of particular concern were those hand weapons, which:

…cause copious amounts of blood spray and splatter, decapitations and limb dismemberment, as well as locational damage where contact is made to the enemy which may reveal skeletal bits and gore.

Australia has no adults-only classification for video games: all games must be qualify for MA15+ or lower to be allowed on sale. (We are, apparently, the only developed democracy in the world without an 18+ category for games.) The chief advocate of this position is South Australian attorney general Michael Atkinson, who responded to the banning of Left 4 Dead 2 by saying: “It certainly does restrict choice to a small degree, but that is the price of keeping this material from children and vulnerable adults. In my view, the small sacrifice is worth it.”

I’m not quite sure what he means by “vulnerable adults.” Possibly Atkinson thinks there is a class of grown-ups who really aren’t: who should be treated like children their entire lives. Possibly this class includes adults who like to play video games.

But that’s not the point. The point is what happened next: the game developer, like other developers before it, deleted some of the gorier parts and resubmitted it. The Australian Classifications Board noted that “large and frequent blood splatters are seen,” but now “dead bodies and blood splatter disappear as they touch the ground.” You can still rip zombies to pieces with a chainsaw, but “no wound detail is shown.” It was awarded an MA15+ classification (meaning 14 year olds and younger require a guardian present), tagged: “Strong bloody violence.”

Instead of Australia having a violent, bloody computer game restricted to adults, it will have a violent, not-quite-as-bloody game on sale to children. This is the effect of our law: to take content that was designed for adults and tweak it until it scrapes under the MA15+ bar. We’re making available to children material they would not otherwise see, clustered at the extreme end of what is acceptable.

Left 4 Dead comes with a developers’ commentary audio track, like a DVD. (The industry has grown up: popular titles cost as much to produce as blockbuster films, are promoted as heavily, and generate as much revenue, or more.) You can hear the designers describe how they used sound, light, and dramatic techniques to create an atmosphere of dread. How each zombie has a unique face and behavior: sometimes they wander around, or sit, or put their faces in their hands and sob. When they die, their flailing movements are based on a motion-captured stunt man, to look more realistic.

We need to worry less about 15-year-olds seeing “wound detail” and more about immersing them in an environment of unmitigated horror. The most shocking films and books are not merely graphic, they are suggestive. Even the most explicit horror movies chill primarily not because of what they depict, but what they might. Any storyteller knows: the monster is scarier before it’s revealed. There is more to terror than blood.

So far this debate has been framed as an argument between protecting children and upholding adults’ freedom of choice. We’re doing neither.

Comments

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Christie (#2970)

Quote: "I've listened to David Bowie songs that made more sense than this."
Posted: 1844 days ago

I suspect that "vulnerable adults" means adults with learning difficulties or mental illness.

I agree with your point, but I just thought I'd throw that in.

Simon (#3192)

Location: Melbourne
Quote: "I'd rather be arrogant than wrong"
Posted: 1844 days ago

Or politicians maybe?

Thomas (#1221)

Location: Germany
Quote: "One more, and I'm going to consider you my penpal."
Posted: 1844 days ago

It's the first time I've heard the "vulnerable adults" argument anywhere.
Seems simply like a fabricated argument without substance, maybe designed to distract, maybe said in a heightened state of zeal.
Max, you should write more about the topic. Politics is just marketing, the target group are the voters. Of course, as a politician, I make as huge a deal as I can out of violence in video games, because a large chunk of voters are parents. Parents want to protect their children, and parents get a special hyperbolic drive button built in when they get their children in the hospital.
That's why the father's sometimes pass out. Their system has trouble adjusting.
So, obviously, simply condemning violence in video games publicly is a guaranteed vote generator. I bet it's so popular, because it's easy to do, barely has any negative ramifications, and by the time teenage gamers become eligible and even go voting at all, most of them have forgotten, care about other issues, or have themselves become parents.

You're different, because you specialize in seeing through the marketing masquerade.

Anyway, you made a good point about the clustering of fringe-violent titles, caused by the intricacies of Australia's laws. It's an argument anyone should be able to understand, yet if you brought it up with a representative, you probably wouldn't get any support at all, because there's hardly any gain in it.

Machine Man subscriber Adam Willard (#4231)

Location: Madagascar
Quote: "What unseen pen etched eternal things in the hearts of humankind... but never let them in our minds?"
Posted: 1844 days ago

Excellent blog! I think you've framed the debate in the most pragmatic and sensible way. Though Thomas may disagree, I'd be willing to bet that if your voice was heard by a significant enough majority there, that even politicians would be able to understand it and realize that an adult rating is actually more beneficial for everyone than it is to slightly water down a few pixels of blood so that kids can play just as nasty of a videogame. I totally agree that what makes a game possibly unsuitable for children is its degree of horror and encouragement of what society considers negative or aberrant moral attributes. Neither of those need to be depicted with an overflow of pixels of blood and thus can easily be passed on to kids that may simply be too impressionable or just plain scared out of their wits.

On the other hand, I'm from America and we DO have an adult videogame rating. And it DOESN'T keep kids from getting their hands on adult videogames. And maybe your politicians know that. I've worked at video rental stores where 10 or 12 year old kids are renting some of the creepiest videogames I'd ever played... and their parents aren't even with them. Now, normally I'd have to tell the kid, "no", but their parents checked some box on their rental application that said their kids could rent anything they want - from "Adult" videogames to "Adult" movies. Other times I've been in a videogame store and a 12-yr.-old (or so) is there with his mother buying videogames for his birthday. He chooses Grand Theft Auto: Sand Andreas (a videogame I've enjoyed, but easily recognize as VERY much counter to societal values)... the clerk warns his mother pretty heavily about the content of the game, but the kid's begging, so the mom just buys it. Pretty ridiculous in my opinion. And the truth is, it highlights what may be an altogether different shortcoming in American society. Nonetheless, if your politicians see a similar situation coming, maybe they see a similar shortcoming with parents' inability to make responsible choices for their children, then maybe the politicians feel it's their duty to try to at least "lessen the impact" and make the games hard to acquire inside your country at all. Still, smart kids of today will just download the "unrated" version of the game, or they'll order it shipped from overseas... even if they're only 11 or 12.

The way I see it, there's very little way to "win" when it comes to placing restrictions on media based on moral standards. There's always a way around the restrictions. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to take away most the restrictions and simply publicize better just what exactly it is that's considered morally offensive about a given piece of media. At least then if a parent's kid really does flip out after playing an 18+ game, it'll be a bit easier to blame the parent. Or maybe society will just get to where it's going that much sooner. But to think the restrictions work is a bit ridiculous in my opinion.

Machine Man subscriber fredzfrog (#2368)

Location: Moe
Quote: "Fredzfrog"
Posted: 1844 days ago

blame the parent? you think aca or t/t will take that stance?! theres 2 shows that should be banned.. :)

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1844 days ago

@Christie: Yes, I assume so, and I can even buy the underlying point that not everybody suddenly gets "mature" on their 18th birthday. But I have trouble with the notion of a government deciding some people get to be adults (and watch explicit movies, and own property, and vote...) and others don't.

That's probably another blog, though.

Machine Man subscriber Jeff (#787)

Location: Cleveland, OH
Quote: "Give a man a match and he'll stay warm for the rest of the day; Set a man on fire and he'll stay warm for the rest of his life."
Posted: 1844 days ago

Excellent argument!

RayRay (#3747)

Location: Texas
Quote: "Sometimes late at night Wearing a cat on my head I get transmissions."
Posted: 1844 days ago

Everyone will be effected by the inevitable zombie apocalypse, so we should all be able to avail ourselves of training material.

Machine Man subscriber fred (#3690)

Quote: "well thats weird. i was under the impression that you were incredably stupid."
Posted: 1844 days ago

Not to mention that by completely banning a game, you force gamers who want it to resort to piracy.

Machine Man subscriber Randy (#2374)

Location: Ravena, NY
Quote: "I could write a book about being lazy. I just don't feel like it."
Posted: 1844 days ago

I generally find a governments need to think for parents disconcerting. I play L4D routinely with my pals while my 11 year old son is looking over my shoulder; usually after he has finished a round of TF2 (which he schools me in). We have had discussions on how video games are not real and of the horrorific things that go on in the real world. Guess what? He is a perfectly normal A-student who spends a considerable amount of his time playing sports...outside. If parents took an active role in their childrens lives, instead of delegating it to public school systems and government programs, we would not be having these discussions.

Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: Austin, TX
Quote: "Hope is but the first step down the path to disappointment."
Posted: 1843 days ago

So Michael Atkinson is like Australian Jack Thompson?

Max, you gotta tell me your Steam name so we can gooify zombies together! I call Francis.

Ted Kern (#3864)

Location: Las Vegas
Quote: "The problem facing the world today is stupidity. I'm not saying to kill the idiots off, just take the safety labels off everything and let the problem fix itself."
Posted: 1843 days ago

It is entirely ridiculous that they censor these things, just slap an adult rating on it and require an ID like here in the US, or just move it from 15 to 16, don't take it away. I played MA games growing up and I was an A student, wasn't traumatized, and didn't shoot anyone up. I don't see the problem. Its the parents fault that this is happening, tell parents these things when they buy it, and with Gusto, not like here "This is rated M are you sure you want to get it?", make them say "Ma'am, this game has dismemberment and a lot of detailed gore. Are you sure you want to let your kid play this?". And even then if the kid is under 13 don't sell it, as Adam described.
Its ridiculous in modern society how these parents just toss out their kids like so, giving them free reign. For the argument that they cannot be shielded from this stuff forever, they can't, but why would they need to see it in the first place? There is nothing like this in the real world. If you are going to show it to them, you have either a sick sense of reality or you expect them to deal with suicide bomber cleanup in the Middle East? I will protect my child from this until he asks, because telling someone something is off limits makes them want it more, and at that point they want to see it, shielding it from them will give them the wrong impression.

And Max, tell us your Steam names! I'll play anyone, just as long as I can get the role as designated witch crowner!

Maarten schroders (#4382)

Location: West Terschelling, Netherlands
Quote: "why yes I do hate God, thats nothing personal, I hate all insane powerhorny mass murdering pschycos that tell me what I should do"
Posted: 1842 days ago

like those ratings matter at all, Ive been playing GTA games since I was what, 8? and I barely ever go on a murderous rampage in RL.

I say parental license, if your the kind of father who doesnt know what turns your kid into a pchyco and what keeps him quit for some time, youll get a small operation and poof, your done, and same goes for the mommys.

The responsible smart people breed a new generation of boring snobs, and the party people can trow away all their birthcontrol and party it up!


Im all for freedom of games, but the new generations, me included are treated WAY to free, not just whit games but whit everything, I am tought no respect for elders, 3/4th of my teachers is less then 150% my age (I am in highschool) and I respect only 1/4th, thats right, the older, wiser, more expierienced and more old fashiond teachers who demand respect and authority, the kind that cant get a job caus their outdated.

my point, ban guns, raise your kids properly and come to the realisation its not the game thats dangerous, its the parents and teachers responsible for the kid playing em.

Hugo Edwards (#3925)

Location: Philadelphia
Quote: ""Science!""
Posted: 1842 days ago

Definitely one of the better write-ups I've read of this whole situation with Australia's Video Game Laws.

I agree with essentially the whole thing, and it puzzles me why a developed, democratic nation such as Australia resorts to such a rudimentary system. Here in the U.S., it's quite simple: there's some ratings, and they're really just suggestions, until you reach "Mature" and "Adults Only": only those 17 years and up purchase M games and AO is restricted to those over the age of 18.

It's not perfect, and there are plenty of arguments over it, but it works enough that games are only ever censored if they reach AO, so they can reach a larger audience. In Australia, that is simply cut out: like you say, it restricts adults yet allows children to access content that is not designed for them.

The purpose of the discussions over this debacle is not to argue about what kinds of effects games have on children. It is to analyze the fact that adults are being treated like children, and children are being treated like adults, or something close enough to it. It's a broken system, certainly, and hopefully the Australian Government realizes this one day and fixes it.

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 1840 days ago

Reminds of the Eighties, Tipper Gore and her crusade to ban vulgar heavy metal music. The result, of course, was that whoever produced the trashiest lyrics and most shocking album covers got instant fame from all the protests and album burnings, and there was a tidal wave of crappy popular music drenched with swears and pornographic content. The same thing happened with video games (remember Grand Theft Auto? Damn right you do). The more stuff is banned, the more popular it is.

steve (#4495)

Location: ottawa, canada
Posted: 1840 days ago

Pity.

Left 4 Dead is the first GREAT co-op game for the PC. It's really obvious, playing the game in pick-up-groups, that some kids (and some adults) have no idea how to respect other people when their own goals are even slightly in conflict. The teams are only 4 people, and that's SMALL. Everyone is important to the team - much more so than in say, a soccer or hockey team. I think games like this are a place some socially awkward people can learn a bit about the value of teamwork and not always thinking only of themselves...and the fact that nobody is interested in playing with them in a co-op game if they can't be polite, etc. Yeah, this particular co-op title is a gory game about killing zombies, but it's success would/will pave the way for other carefully crafted co-op games. That seems much more important than shielding the public from a bit of zombie goo.

Celeste (#2590)

Location: St.L. MO, USA
Quote: "You can't child-proof the world, so world-proof the child."
Posted: 1835 days ago

I agree, Max. I got nightmares from watching scary movies on regular tv well into my thirties. (Including the Dr. Who season that contained lots of vampires).

I almost think taking the excess blood and gore out of it is worse- not only are you conditioning unsupervised teens to violence- there arent any vomit causing consequences like there is with real violence.

Like you and I have observed, It is just as easy to be frightened by the suggestion of what happened, without even seeing it. Allowing children to see it unspervised implies that we think they can handle it- which means that, they are less likely to tell us that they can't. (I should be mature enough to handle this- cant let a grown up see that I'm not).

My sons have been exposed to far more violent video games than I would ever have approved of if I was present (the joys of divorce) -but they were not unsupervised, and I have made them deeply aware that animation is not real life and NO real life violence will be tolerated. When something has disturbed them they have always come to me to tell me about it, and they are able now as teenagers to censor themselves.

They both prefer the strategy games over the FPS games, and they loathe zombies!

Content should be realistically categorized, and then let the adult consumer make the free choice.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1809 days ago

Incidentally, this is what Michael Atkinson says about my argument:

"It has been suggested that games that would otherwise be classified R18+ are instead slipping through as MA15+ and becoming accessible to children. This argument does not support an R18+ classification for games. There may be games some people consider too violent for the MA15+ classification but the solution is not to create a classification to permit even more violent games in Australia. MA15+ games are restricted to children over 15 and if younger children access these games it further justifies complete protection from R18+ games."

ephemeriis (#4580)

Posted: 1807 days ago

The problem, essentially, is that folks still have the idea that video games are just for kids.

Here in the US we have an 'M' rating with is supposed to indicate that a game is aimed at adults. Nobody cares. Folks buy M games for their little children on a daily basis. And parents get annoyed when shopkeepers refuse to sell them to small children, making it necessary for the parent to show up and make the purchase.

I don't think anyone would approve of letting a 7-year-old watch Reservoir Dogs, certainly not by themselves without parental supervision. But I've had numerous parents allow their 7-year-old children to play games like Grand Theft Auto - without parental supervision.

Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: Austin, TX
Quote: "Hope is but the first step down the path to disappointment."
Posted: 1806 days ago

Max! Have you gotten L4D 2 yet? I need to play it with someone who's not terrible or mean.

boofhead (#4582)

Posted: 1805 days ago

Goodday as a dinosaur may I remind you of Port Arthur ,Fort Hood any of thousands of cults ,brown shirts what are
"vulnerable adults" or mature adults?? read the news a bit more check out shykers armoured vechiles with 18/19yrs useing game controller and video screens to kill or drone air craft yes I play total war kings of chaos ,age empires ,I have use a rifle yes have I killed and gutted animals . COULD I kill| yes I know difference can you say the same how many under 30 know the value of human life I wish well boofhead

Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: Austin, TX
Quote: "Hope is but the first step down the path to disappointment."
Posted: 1803 days ago

You know, after "as a dinosaur" that comment actually makes sense. You just have to read carefully.

Machine Man subscriber Alan W (#1427)

Location: Spokane, Washington
Quote: "Corgis are like potato chips"
Posted: 1790 days ago

In related news:

http://kotaku.com/5418963/rebellion-refuses-to-sanitise-avp-for-australian-release

Machine Man subscriber Alan W (#1427)

Location: Spokane, Washington
Quote: "Corgis are like potato chips"
Posted: 1790 days ago

PS: Max, you need me to mail you a copy? =)

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