Friday, March 07, 2008

South Australian Attorney-General vs Game Classification

As you all know, Australia doesn't have a Federal R18+ classification for videogames. Games that exceed the M15+ classification are denied classification, which under state law prohibits them from being imported, advertised or sold. This has two important effects: (1) that many games, roughly one high-profile game a year, are effectively banned in Australia, and (2) that publishers engage to varying degrees in self-censorship to fall within the classification system and therefore do not produce games on certain topics and themes.

The Australian Federal ratings body is the Office of Film and Literature Classification. Their mandate is not to act per se as a censorship body but rather to allow the Australian people to make informed decisions about media content prior to exposing themselves or their children to that content. Note that they can issue an X rating to film media even though X rated material is banned in the majority of Australian states and territories.

The appropriate Federal position should be to allow games to be classified R18+, and then leave individual states to decide what ratings can be sold. (The appropriate State position is to then allow R18+ games to be sold.)

With the recent change in the Australian Federal Government, a change to the classification system may now be in the works, albeit as a depressingly low government priority. However, a major opponent to any change is South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson. In a recent speech in the SA Parliament, he said:
I have consistently opposed an R18+ classification for computer games. I am concerned about the harm of high-impact (particularly violent) computer games to children. [...] I do not want children to be able to get their hands on R18+ games easily. I understand that the lack of an R18+ classification denies some adults the chance to play some games, however, the need to keep potentially harmful material away from children is far more important.
This is an inconsistent position for a number of reasons. Firstly, R18+ games would not be worse than R18+ movies. Yes, they are interactive, but the OFLC already takes interactivity into account when issuing a rating. Identical content is given a higher rating where it is interactive, so a M15+ film could received a R18+ rating in an identical but interactive context. This is despite the fact that there is no clear evidence showing any harmful effects on children from exposure to violent or mature gaming content, or evidence showing that interactivity increases the impact of media.

Secondly, he makes two assumptions: (1) that if R18+ games are in Australia, children will play them, and (2) that if they are not, less children will play them. Yes, children will play them, in the same way that children will watch R18+ movies and get access to porn. That's the magic of the internet. It's also the magic of informed parenting, where parents make their own decisions about how worrying they think these things are, and impose various levels of either enforcement or supervision to control and educate their children's access to content. People will see mature content if they want to see mature content; that's a given. With an appropriate classification system parents can be informed about this content and better understand what their children are being exposed to.

On this topic Mr Atkinson goes on to say:
Proponents for the classification say the latest technology allows gaming platforms and computers to be programmed to allow parental locks. Today’s children are far more technologically savvy than their parents. It’s laughable to suggest that they couldn’t find ways around parental locks if R18+ games were in the home.
Of course dedicated kids could find their way around parental locks on games. But is Mr Atkinson really saying that kids getting access to their parents' R18+ games is a greater worry than them accessing their parents' pharmaceuticals, firearms or fireworks, all of which are legal in Australia, often without a licence?

The law is a blunt instrument. It should not be used to legislate responsible parenting. If Mr Atkinson is worried about the effects of high-impact games on minors then he should be the foremost supporter of a system that provides parents with high-quality information about game content, and encourages parents to share games with children and discuss their content openly and maturely.

Thanks to The Angriest for linking me to Mr Atkinson's speech. The full text of that speech can be found here.


Jey said...

Greg, you must read this book:
Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia
Helen Vnuk.

It doesn't deal with vid games, and you might not learn anything new, but it's 'up your alley'.

Won't somebody *please* think of the children.

Greg Tannahill said...

Ironically, creepy old men thinking about children is one of the other dangers of the internets.

Xantar said...

This Yank has a question:

Just how much violent crime is there in Australia anyhow? And how much of it is attributed — even tenuously — to videogames?

It seems like every month there's another story about someone opening fire on a crowd here in the US whereupon somebody suggests that he was influenced by videogames. It also seems to happen in the UK. But I never hear of a videogame inspired shooting in Australia, and I don't think it's just because you are so remote.

Greg Tannahill said...

I think there may have been some metion of videogaming around the Port Arthur shootings (could be wrong) but the debate on that one ended up on gun ownership and led to tougher gun laws. (Still not dealing with the underlying issue but slightly less brain dead than hitting at video games.)

Other than that it's not such a big issue over here. Gaming as a whole is still pretty much under the media radar.

AIC stats put the current Australian murder rate (as opposed to manslaughter rate) at around 1.5 per 100,000 population per year. That appears to be based on police investigations rather than arrests or convictions. That's 318 murders in a population of about 21 million.

The US rate is closer to 5.7 per 100,000, nearly 400% of the Australian rate. I haven't immediately been able to find rates for gun death but given the much wider gun owernship in the US and that gun related homicides are more likely to be multiple homicides I'd suspect that the US gun homicide rate is an even higher percentage above ours.

So just on percentages alone, the US has a lot MORE murders to talk about, which gives you a statistically higher chance of an idiot blaming a murder on gaming in any given calendar year.