In a strange case of history repeating, Bethesda Game Studios has once again come up against the Australian Classification Board (ACB) over the use of drug use in its games. As revealed in an official ratings judgement published in mid-March 2023, the studio’s upcoming space adventure, Starfield, has been hit with a harsh R18+ rating in Australia because of it.
This restricts the sale of the game to those over 18 years of age, a factor that could slightly impact its sales potential in the wider market. Although, an R18+ rating has rarely stopped popular games from achieving success – Grand Theft Auto V being a prominent example.
In assessing video games, the Australian Classification Board breaks down ratings into multiple themes including: violence, language, drug use, nudity, and sex. The impact of individual categories are then assessed, via an overall review score. Should any category earn ‘high impact’, the game is immediately flagged with an R18+ rating to ‘protect’ audiences.
Starfield reportedly earned the follow ratings in each category, per the ACB:
- Sex: None (N/A)
- Nudity: Very mild impact (G)
- Language: Moderate impact (M)
- Drug use: High impact (R18+)
- Violence: Strong impact (MA15+)
- Themes: Moderate impact (M)
While the game is noted as being fairly violent, it’s the inclusion of drug use that has really elevated the game’s overall rating. Notably, the ACB has always been extremely strict on depictions of drug use in video games, with rulings often tied to the functionality of these in-game items.
Starfield is rated PEGI-18 in Europe, and M (17+) in the United States.
Bethesda, Australia, and drugs
In 2008, the ACB outright banned the sale of Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 3 in Australia, because of its inclusion of morphine as a consumable item which provided ‘incentive for use’ – a feature that frequently results in instant bans or harsh ratings for video games in Australia. At the time, Australia did not have an R18+ rating.
‘In regard to the computer game Fallout 3, the Board is of the opinion that the use of morphine in the game has the positive effect of enabling the character to ignore limb pain,’ the ACB told Kotaku Australia at the time. ‘This ability to progress through the game more easily is the incentive to take the drug while the reward is in the character’s abilities.’
Following review, morphine was changed to a new, fictional drug known as ‘Med-X’ in all copies of the game globally, and this was enough to satisfy the ACB, and allow the game to nab an MA15+ rating. The abstraction of the drug reduced its connection to a ‘real life’ counterpart, rendering it safer in the eyes of the ACB.
The case study of Fallout 3 was one of many examples that the industry used to lobby for Australia to finally adopt an R18+ rating for video games. However, there are games that have been banned for drug use since – including the serene narrative adventure Lake, and the critically-lauded RPG Disco Elysium. Both these bans were overturned after an appeals process, which contextualised their use of drugs.
While the exact reason for Starfield‘s R18+ drug rating has not been detailed, it’s fair to assume the game’s depiction of drug use, or perhaps even simply the name of its in-game drugs, is part of the reason for its rating.
Despite calls for reform, the ACB still operates within a rigid ratings structure that remains in dire need of more flexibility, particularly as the tradition and culture of modern society evolves. For now, it remains extremely averse to drug use in particular, and how popular media depicts it.
Whether Bethesda Game Studios chooses to appeal the decision remains to be seen – but should it pursue a reduced rating, there’s certainly lessons learned from Fallout 3 that may come in handy. Stay tuned to hear more about plans for Starfield, and whether its Australian rating will change in future.