I rise to speak on the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012
There are few topics capable of provoking as much irrational fear and wrong-headed moral panic as video games. It’s a remarkable thing really, when you consider that electronic games are nothing new.
The first pinball machine was invented in 1937 and it wasn’t long before slot machine manufacturers saw their potential and began developing pinball machines that gave pay outs based on the player’s score.
At the time the authorities viewed these machines as a dangerous combination of youthful recreation and gambling and were quick to crack down on them. In 1939 the then Mayor of New York City Fiorello LaGuardia successfully passed bans to make all pinball machines illegal in his city…that ban remained in effect until 1976.
From the moment they appeared, electronic games were saddled with a bad reputation as a corrupting influence on the youth.
Stand up cabinet arcade games appeared in the mid 70s and again quickly drew the rage of the authorities who were concerned that the lure of electronic games was impacting on school attendance.
The concern about the negative impact of arcade games was so great that when a new games parlour was scheduled to open in Connecticut in 1983 “opponents charged that the store owner would mesmerize their youngsters, rob them of their lunch money, provide them with a centre for illicit drug traffic and cause the downfall of youth baseball, music lessons, and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
In the mid 80s, the video game market took its first steps out of the arcade and into the living room. The introduction of personal computers and the video game consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System brought video games into perceived safety of the family home – away from an atmosphere stereotypically considered to be a haven for smoking, drug use and other anti-social or harmful behaviour.
It was at this point that the debate took on its modern form, shifting away from concerns about physical safety, and gravitating towards claims of psychological harm.
Previously the concern had been that arcade games lured youths away from school and into smoky dens where they could be corrupted by other kids. Once games were in the controlled environment of the home, parents began to worry about the psychological effects of the games themselves.
And that’s essentially where we still are today.
This debate about the need for an R18+ classification all stems from the belief that exposure to video games has the capacity to damage our kids.
The academic literature on this point is inconclusive at best, but to mitigate the possibility, it seems eminently sensible to restrict access to violent or adult themed games, to adults. It’s hardly an outrageous idea is it? After all, we already do it with films and magazines. Why not games?
The opponents to an R18+ classification would argue that video games are an entirely different beast to films, because consumers are active participants, rather than passive observers. Again, the academic research on this point is largely inconclusive.
But moral panics aside, there is little doubt that Australia’s current classification system as it applies to video games, is failing, and failing badly.
Within the current system, the highest legally available classification category for computer games is MA15+. Games which are considered unsuitable for persons under the age of 15 are theoretically Refused Classification.
In practice though, it’s not so cut and dried. A very small number of adult themed games are Refused Classification. The majority are simply released within the MA15+ category. Some of them are edited to earn their lower rating. Most aren’t.
Let’s look at a few examples:
A game called Fallout 3 was initially refused classification by the Classification Board for realistic depictions of drug use. After some minor edits, it is now available to children aged 15 and up. Even with these changes, Fallout 3 is still rated 18+ in Britain, New Zealand and across Europe. In the US it’s rated 17+. In Australia however, it’s legally available to kids as young as 15, simply because we lack the capability to restrict games to adults only.
Grand Theft Auto games are famous for their adult themes. The game’s publisher Rockstar Games, made a few cosmetic edits to the overseas version (primarily regarding sex acts and blood splatter) and the game is now legally available to children aged 15 and up. In other countries, it’s restricted to adults.
House of the Dead: Overkill is a shooting game which combines Tarantino levels of blood and gore with almost constant profanity. Nevertheless it is available to 15 year old kids in Australia whereas overseas it was restricted to adults.
So as you can see, under our current classification system, games that would classified as R18+ in most Western countries are frequently released in Australia as being suitable for 15 year olds. That way lies madness. Not only does the current system fail to allow adults the right to choose, it also falls short on protecting minors from potentially harmful or disturbing content.
Contrary to what some would have you believe, the lack of an R rating, makes it easier for children to access adult content, not harder. It also makes it confusing for parents who are trying to do the right thing. Legislating to allow an R18 category will give consumers clear information, a clearer choice, and more confidence in the games they buy for themselves and for their kids.
Furthermore, Australia is something of a cradle of creativity when it comes to video game development. We’ve got 25 major game development studios which export of $120 million worth of products each and every year.
It’s also worth remembering that video games are not some fringe hobby for children and nerdy teenagers. The industry itself is bigger than Hollywood. 88 per cent of Australian households own some kind of device for playing video games. The average age of Australian gamers is 32. In fact 75% of Australian gamers are 18 or older.
With those figures in mind Mr Speaker it is self evident that certain games are intended for adults. It is only common sense to suggest that they should be restricted to adults.