Art Can Be Offensive, And That's Okay (UPDATED)

The next sequel of Volition's ostentatious open-world action franchise, Saints Row IV, was banned in Australia due to offensive and illicit content. And, that's a bad thing.

By Tony Walter | Jun 25, 2013

UPDATE: Shortly after the time of writing, I received clarification of exactly what caused the refused classification. That is, an alien probe weapon and an alien narcotic. The weapon is the typical alien invader stereotype: a device shoved up the rear of characters (and to fully clothed characters nonetheless). According to the board, this science fiction trope is tantamount to actual sexual assault. Further, the alien narcotic serves to give the players super powers during some missions of the game. This, the board believes, encourages real world drug use.

I hate to say I told you so, but, I told you so. The ridiculous nature of Australia Classification Board's decision shouldn't confuse the issue here; censorship is a destructive force against art. If anything, this news only proves that.

It's probably fair to say that Saints Row has always been the type of series that has offended people. Generally speaking, the sub genre that the series exists in has always drawn the eyes of the public for sometimes explicit depictions of violence, drug use, and sex. So, maybe it shouldn't be so shocking that Saints Row IV, due out this August, has been banned in a country notorious for government moderation of video games.

In the Board’s opinion, Saints Row IV, includes interactive, visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context... In addition, the game includes elements of illicit or proscribed drug use related to incentives or rewards. Such depictions are prohibited by the computer games guidelines.

The Australian Classification Board, headed by Donald McDonald, classified the game with RC (refused classification). This is despite the new classification introduced for adult video games earlier this year, R18+. Saints Row IV - providing Volition's appeal is denied - will be the first game denied classification since the introduction of the new rating. However, the banning of video games is nothing new in Australia, such games as Left 4 Dead 2, Syndicate, and The Witcher 2, are all still not to be sold in the country. Many other games, which faced banning, have altered content to meet the strict standards set in place by the Classification Board (e.g.: Fallout 3, every Grand Theft Auto game since Grand Theft Auto III, and Mortal Kombat 2011).

What's truly troubling here is that, despite their attempt to open the standards up to more mature games, we're still seeing games be banned only six months after the new rating was implemented. As anybody who has ever looked forward to a big budget game might know, January through June aren't usually the most active release months in the medium either. This decision on part of the board forebodes of a failure on part of the extended classification system, and hints that as we get closer to a more crowded release schedule, we'll see more classified under RC.

There is another side to this argument though. One I heard as I came across the story. One that not only condones the censorship in countries like Australia, but encourages games that might be offensive to be withheld from public consumption. Emphasis on might. Let's face it, none of us have played Saints Row IV yet, and our knowledge of what it contains is limited to previews and what the Australian Classification Board has told us. I personally haven't seen any previews that imply sexual assault is contained within the game in a capacity that would trivialize and mock victims - or any capacity at all. So, I'd have to take the word of the governing body that banned a game because it glorified graffiti. No thanks.

Society evolves art. Saints Row The Third featured a mode called "Whored Mode". We hated the name because it's gross, demeaning, and a really, really lazy pun. Volition heard us, and there is no Whored Mode in Saints Row IV. Society evolves art.
Further, even if Volition openly acknowledged that the allegations were true, I still can't feel comfortable in supporting any government body that censors the arts. If the game comes out and contains material that is poor, then that's bad art. And, you can bet I'll acknowledge the problems with it at that time, but we do not need any construct to determine what can or can't be seen. A self governing audience is far more useful to society and culture, and something that can't be duplicated with any amount of classifications or study groups. If something is bad, we won't buy it. Or - worst case scenario - we do buy it, and we learn. It provides a platform for discourse. We discuss why this depiction of sexual assault is horrible or why that depiction of drug use is unrealistic. And this freedom of speech thing is a two-way street. If they're allowed to make horrible, demeaning art, we're allowed to be mad about it and tell them. That's how art evolves, expands, and adapts. Personally, I'd rather see a Volition that learns from mistakes and grows, than one that's shut down because it couldn't sell the product that they spent the past three years working on.


  1. That, my sharp-witted friend, was a very well-written piece, thank you for your effort.

    I am OK with the restrictions placed on this shoddy piece of child-bait masquerading as an 'adult' experience.

    To me, and please correct me if I'm ignorant, art is the space between expression and interpretation.

    Saints Row is a smirking moron vandalising that area with a badly-drawn graffiti penis.

    I take your point regarding bad art is still art, but I don't think cynical laziness such as this title even scrapes into that category.

    My point is: I am tired of this topic having to come up. If developers could stop trying to take the fast route into notoriety, they wouldn't have to have their feelings hurt when somebody points-out their poor standards. This 'ban' isn't about censorship or freedom of choice in my eyes, it's about slamming the door in the face of people old enough to know better when it comes to the term 'mature'.

    1. First of all, thank you for reading. And, thank you for the (civil) comment, I genuinely appreciate that.

      If I'm going to be honest (I am), I have to disagree with you. First of all, I think the franchise catches undue flak because its mature (or immature?) nature is done entirely in a comical manner. All of the aspects of this game are found elsewhere, but taken more seriously, so they seem to be given a pass. Violence, sex, and drugs are all ubiquitous in video games, but as soon as the issues are tackled via humor a problem forms. I think that's an unfair way to view comedy as a genre. I'm not sure if that's where you're coming from, but it's a vibe I get from the general conception of this franchise. I could continue debating the quality of the games, though that's not really the point at all. And besides, this is more about a sequel that - presumably - neither of us have played.

      The reality is, the specific game doesn't matter here (later that day State of Decay was also banned, and I imagine more still are to come). Part of it is that an entity is deciding for an audience what is or isn't in good taste. Like the information I received after I finished the article revealed, this ban is kind of baseless. An anal probe weapon and alien narcotics mean this game can't be sold in a country? What's the true fear here? There are studies available that show there is no one-to-one correlation between games and violent human behavior, in healthy adults anyway (the audience that R18+ games would be sold to), logic would dictate the same applies to substance abuse (Source:

      So, if it's not that, and it's what you argue - the Classification Board shutting the door in the face of bad art - why the ban? Is there an honest fear that sub-par art is going to culturally drain a society? I doubt that. Even if this were the case, censorship (and that is exactly what this is regardless of their intentions) is destructive to art. If what their ultimate goal here is to encourage better art from a society, then free expression should be paramount. Art grows through its audience. Art grows through its failures. That's how it works. People experience art, and they learn from it, and they're inspired from it, and when future artists make their creations it is based on what they've seen - for better or worse. I can assure you, I've progressed far more from receiving real, genuine feedback on my mistakes more than I have ever progressed based on positive feedback on my successes.

      What the Classification Board accomplishes here is nothing. They perpetuate negative stereotypes that art can be a destructive force; that art should be feared. The reality is that for every (very rare) crazy person who is "inspired" to commit mass murder, there are thousands more that progress humanity with their art. And the crazy people still exist regardless if they get to play Saints Row IV or not.