The Australian video gaming public looks set to realise its long-standing dream of an R18+ classification rank after a Federal Parliamentary Committee Inquiry strongly endorsed the bill to amend the 1995 Classification Act late last month.
The bill, which was referred to the committee after being introduced on February 15, is set to become legislation effective at the beginning of next year. Proponents of the new Classification Amendment Bill have criticised the current system as being flawed, unfair and ineffective.
At present, MA15+ is the highest rating a video game can be given in Australia, meaning games that are only available to adults in the rest of the developed world are either modified to conform to the MA15+ category here, or are completely banned by the Classification Board.
Although it does not look likely that the proposed amendments will mean an influx of XXX games into the Australian market, the move brings video game classification in line with the likes of Film, Music and Broadcast classification.
The new R18+ legislation did not reached its approval without debate. As a unanimous decision was required by the state and territory Attorney-Generals, years of deadlock lead to the Commonwealth taking the matter upon themselves.
Ron Curry, CEO of Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA), told journalists recently that there is every indication the bill will pass through both houses successfully. He added that all states and territories have now agreed, in-principle, to introduce R18+ into their classification systems, and have been given till next year to reflect the legislation within their respective districts.
“The Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory allow X-rated films whereas the states do not,” he said. “How the states and territories treat video games legislatively will be no different to how they treat film and video now.”
Opponents of the bill claim that the heightened level of interactivity and engagement required in video game play means that the impact on the gamer is greater than that of a moviegoer watching a film. While the Federal Government has cited research that found no conclusive evidence that violent games actually impact players more than other more traditional forms of media, Dr. Rowan Tulloch, a lecturer at Macquarie University on Multimedia and Interactivity, told Tharunka he thinks it is something to consider seriously.
“I think it’s something a lot of people who are pro-video games don’t think through enough, partly because the arguments that get churned up are so over the top and sensationalist, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t subtle ways in which games influence us,” he said.
It has been this question of influence that has driven the debate about minors accessing games with adult themes under the new R18+ classification system. Like many other commentators, Dr Tulloch declared that no matter what system is used it would be inevitable that minors access mature content. However, he said the R18+ classification system allows for better management of video games.
“I think one of the big problems at the minute is that because not many games are actually being refused classification a lot of games that would be rated as R18+ are being squeezed in as MA15+ and so this doesn’t give parents an accurate understanding of the game,” he said.
“But I think as we’re seeing a generation of parents who are much more familiar with video games coming through… and then, a classification system that actually reflects the kind of content that’s in the games, [it] should mean that games get into the hands of people it’s appropriate for.”
After reviewing some statistics released over the last few years, it does seem that the panic and ‘think of the children’ rhetoric is being exaggerated in public debate yet again.
A Bond University study from last year found that the average age of gamers in Australia is 32, with women making up 47 per cent of the gaming populous. It also appears parents do play a central role in deciding what their children play – a 2010 Entertainment Software Association study found that 93% of parents are present at the time of purchase or rental when the player is a minor.
Another problematic function of the current system – the ability for adults to exercise freedom of choice in a supposed country of the ‘free world’ – has some surprising by-products that look set to be addressed under the proposed amendments.
Activists argue that the effective censorship enforced under the current classification system also encourages what it’s attempting to keep out – once a game is banned it attains a certain stigma from it’s taboo status – and then like moths to a light, gamers queue to play the illigallised game.
Dr Tulloch explained to Tharunka that “[games] get this cult status if they get banned and everyone goes ‘oh, what am I missing out on’. Often when you play the games you find them kind of crap.”
Games like the Japanese rape simulator ‘rapelay’, would continue to be banned in Australia under this bill as its content vastly exceeds what an R18+ category consists of. While Dr. Tulloch accepts that many games can seem overtly violent or sexual, what he is most optimistic about from this change is the chance for the industry to shift its focus.
“Now that the industry doesn’t feel… quite so marginalised by having this unfair ratings system, hopefully they’ll be able to spend a bit more time going ‘right ok let’s start making sure our marketing campaigns are appropriate for the audiences we’re trying to reach and those sort of things’,” he said.
“I think its not so much a question of thinking about the bad, but the good and thinking about the potential for it to be a really sophisticated medium and it’s a challenge for video game designers now to live up to. I think we’re starting to see in the indie scene some games that explore some… issues in interesting ways. So it’ll be interesting to see whether they can start thinking in more complex terms about the potential of gaming.”
That potential, which is being supported by the industry’s annual growth rate of around 10% and the fact that 9 out of 10 Australian households have a gaming console, will go unrealised if the regressive, heavy-handed attitude of the Classification Act continues continues. Only through passing the proposed amendments will it make way for an open discourse that can achieve it’s own potential through regulation and education, not prohibition.