This article discusses sexual assault.
By now you’ve probably heard the news that swept across Australian video gaming channels last week: Outlast 2 has been refused classification in Australia. I know, I’m disappointed too.
It was refused classification because it depicted implied sexual violence. I’ll spare you the explicit details, you can read them here if you so wish, but the scene in question involved a cutscene where the protagonist character comes across a bunch of “humanoid creatures” having an orgy around his captured wife, and in an attempt to rescue her he is sexually assaulted by one of the female creatures.
Wow, that’s actually pretty full on. Yikes…
The Board’s decision has certainly caused quite a stir among Australian gamers, with some feeling glad such depravity is being kept at bay, while others shout “but MUH RIGHTS.”
Personally, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I’ve always been an advocate of “games as art” and am open to them depicting and exploring dark subjects and themes, providing they are respectful and contextually justified. I haven’t played Outlast 2 yet, so I can’t speak on the contextual relevance of the offending scene with experience, however in my opinion I don’t expect the developers would give me a better justification other than “because it’s so fucked up!” They can feel free to prove me wrong.
Honestly, I’m just not a fan of rape scenes in media generally, especially in my horror. Graphic violence? Sure, I can hack that, and sometimes even find it outrageously amusing. But once the horror turns sexual I find it twists the experience from being entertainingly creepy/disturbing to being actually disturbing, and that’s not for me. They’ve been exceptions, Alien and It Follows spring to mind, but on the whole I find that kind of horror is the bad kind of horrifying.
Being OK with gratuitous violence/murder in my media but drawing the line at gratuitous rape is a hypocrisy I can’t justify to you, it’s just who I am. Others feel differently. And that’s one of the reasons classification systems exists: that if you are uncomfortable seeing something you can know ahead of time and decide it’s not for you, while also allowing others to view it if they wish.
Or at least, that’s how it works with film in Australia. Video games, on the other hand, are heavily discriminated against when it comes to depicting adult content, particularly sexual assault but also other subjects like the misuse or addiction to drugs. To explain my argument there’s a lot to unpack, but stick with me here, this is a discussion we need to have.
We need to start with the legislation that governs the classification of media in Australia: the National Classification Code (May 2005). Yep, you’re reading an article about classification policy, you bet we’re diving into the goddamn legislation.
Section 4, 1(a) of the Code says video games must be refused classification if they “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified.” This is the clause Outlast 2 breached, forcing the Board to issue the RC.
Now the same wording is used in Section 3, 1(a) to clarify what constitutes a film being given an RC, but the specific guidelines for classifying films and games differ in significant ways. For example, films can depict graphic and/or sexual violence provided it is not “gratuitous, exploitative or offensive”; sex provided it isn’t bestiality or gratuitous incest/fetishes; and drug use providing it isn’t promoting or instructing it. Video games adhere to the same, but with the added restrictions of no sexual activity that is real or simulated explicitly/realistically at all; and absolutely no drug use or sexual violence full stop.
These distinctions are interesting because it means Outlast 2 must be banned while I could still walk into a JB Hi-Fi right now and purchase copies of The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit On Your Grave or Evil Dead on DVD. They are all R18+ horror films that depict implied sexual assault. Heck, I could even purchase obscure sci-fi horror movie Splice, an MA15+ film with a scene similar to Outlast 2’s where a female character is raped by a humanoid creature she helped create.
Aside from the notion that the Board found the sexual assault scenes in these films didn’t “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” while Outlast 2’s did; things get even more interesting when you consider the opening section of the National Classification Code.
The Code begins by stating classification decisions are designed to implement several principles to the best of their ability. Those principles are:
“(a) adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want;
(b) minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
(c) everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive;
(d) the need to take account of community concerns about:
(i) depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and
(ii) the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.”
Points (c) and (d) are pretty standard, rating symbols give warning to content so people may avoid them if they wish, and they don’t want material advocating violent crime. But it’s how points (a) and (b) are treated that I find particularly interesting.
Going back to examples of The Hills Have Eyes and Evil Dead, by classifying them R18+ it can be reasonably assumed the Board is satisfied that, since they cannot legally buy them, minors are “protected” from them, while adults who want to watch them can do so. But when it comes to a video game, it would seem they believe the same logic doesn’t apply, and instead just ban them outright.
The Board seems to trust that a minor will remain safe from a graphic film if they just put an R18+ rating on it, but don’t think the same if it’s a graphic video game. Why? Is it because it’s an interactive medium and they believe the level of potential harm is greater? If that’s the case, that’s more of a reason to put an R18+ on it, to restrict it to the people you’d ideally think are mature enough to play it. Are they worried about the parents who just assume “games are for kids” and blindly buy it for them? That’s an unfortunate reality, to be sure, but that’s an education issue for the parents. It’s also something that’s impossible to police so you can’t base your logic around that.
This isn’t all to say that I’m calling for there to be more sexual assault in my video games, or that I believe anything goes when it comes to what we see portrayed in them. There must be a limit. I don’t envy the legislators because finding where to draw the line in a way that will satisfy everyone is certainly impossible. When it comes to sexual assault in video games, I draw the line at any kind of “press X to rape” or that interactive VR sexual harassment simulator tacked on to Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 last year.
Then again, I had a good long Twitter argument with someone who thought it was totally cool, so there’s always going to be someone pissed off by the blowback.
Look, I don’t have an answer to this issue. The Australian classification system is clearly broken, since an entire medium seems to be banned from exploring the same themes another has been exploring for a century. Not only with regards to sexual assault but also drug use, ala Fallout 3 having morphine renamed to Med-X to avoid an RC, or Saints Row IV getting one rewarding the player when taking an alien drug.
Maybe the immersive interactivity of video games should play a role in classifying them, particularly now that VR is a thing, and we also can’t just let depravity run wild. But right now the system is heavily discriminatory towards the medium, and that needs to change. As to how in a way that will satisfy everyone? That’s probably not ever going to happen.
As for Outlast 2, I still want to play it. I’m not a fan of the offending scene as described. But as an adult, and as a fan of the original game, I’d appreciate being given the respect to make the choice whether to play it or not myself.