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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12630


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (16:09): In 1971 Messrs Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney launched the first commercial computer game onto the market, a game called Computer Space, shortly followed in 1972 by Pong on the Atari machine. They launched both a home and an arcade version of this game—a slot coin machine. They quickly became very, very popular and clones were thereafter introduced. From that was launched an industry which has found its way into every corner of the globe and, dare I say, into most Australian households.

From those very large cathode-ray tube based machines that looked like a large television set in the corner of a games arcade, or in a corner of a lucky person's bedroom, we have come a long way. New platforms have emerged from personal computers: laptops; mobile phones, as the member for Moreton has just described; tablets, such as iPad and the like; and new systems for delivering these games onto those devices. It is not only the platforms, the form of the games and the medium which is transforming but so too is the demographics of the gamers themselves. No longer is the stereotype of a computer gamer just a Coke-sipping, pizza-munching teenage boy holed up in his bedroom; the gaming population is very quickly being feminised. In fact, a recent study by Bond University by Dr Jeff Brand showed that 41 per cent of gamers are now females, It also showed that over 79 per cent of households have a platform for the delivery of a computer game and that, increasingly, Australians are taking to this form of entertainment like they take to many other forms of new technology.

So it is necessary for the government to look for a new and a balanced approach. The member for Moreton quite succinctly said that we need to balance the need to protect the interests of consumers, particularly minors and the unsuspecting, from offensive and inappropriate content while at the same time we need to have in place appropriate mechanisms which encourage a burgeoning industry. And it is indeed a burgeoning industry here in Australia, and in my own electorate in Throsby, where the University of Wollongong has quite a number of resources within its ICT faculties where people are graduating with expertise in the production of computer games and very quickly moving into commercialising their skills, talents and applications.

The bill before the House today attempts to take the first step in more sensibly regulating how we deal with online computer games and computer games delivered onto mobile platforms. At the moment they are currently regulated through Australia's National Classification Scheme. This is a cooperative scheme between the Commonwealth, states and territories. Procedures for the classification of publications, films and computer games are set out in national legislation; and provisions dealing with the consequences of not having material classified and the enforcement of the classification are decisions contained in complementary state and territory laws.

State and territory enforcement legislation contains a range of offences against the sale and the use of computer games and establishes a number of conditions on the possession, demonstration and advertising of computer games. At present the significant majority of computer games are not classified prior to being made available to consumers. That is certainly in breach of those state and territory provisions. It is not because the state and territory law enforcement authorities are falling asleep at the wheel; it is quite simply the fact that the way that online games are now entering the market and the way that they are now being marketed to consumers does not easily lend itself to regulation in the traditional way. This iPad I have here can quite quickly and quite easily download applications and games from anywhere on the globe within minutes. Quite literally, there are hundreds and hundreds of new applications and new games coming onto the market every day. It would be impossible for a state or territory regulator to appropriately classify each of these ahead of them being presented to the market for consumption.

This legislation proposes to put a new arrangement in place which would enable a new category of game to come onto the market without classification and without being prohibited by the existing regime. I have spoken about the importance of putting in place a scheme which encourages the development of computer games and creates some certainty for the industry—because the need to withdraw is seen by the industry as a significant threat. The Minister for Justice, who is now with us in the chamber, gave an example in his second reading speech of how Apple quite reasonably shut down the games category of its iTunes store in South Korea after new national laws were introduced there which established a games rating board to classify all mobile phone and online games on a mandatory basis. Clearly the introduction of this legislation was seen by iTunes as so much of a risk that they withdrew their games from that market.

The current situation presents a significant compliance issue for the National Classification Scheme. Industry has expressed concern about this regulatory uncertainty and has called on the government to clarify the present requirements. The reform will involve a simple amendment to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act to provide a two-year exemption from classification for mobile phone and online computer games. It is important to note that this exemption will not apply to computer games likely to be refused classification. Existing offences contained in Commonwealth, state and territory legislation will continue to apply to those games.

It is necessary to address this issue in the short term to respond to industry concerns about compliance and to provide clarity about regulatory requirements for mobile phone and online games. A number of safeguards, however, will remain in place to regulate these computer games. For example, individuals will continue to be able to submit, if they wish, any unclassified computer games to the Classification Board for classification. That is to say, somebody who has a concern or is offended by the material contained within one of these new categories of games is able to contact the Classification Board and ask that they appropriately classify that game. If the game is seen to be inappropriate and fails the classification test, withdrawal from the market will be required.

The ACMA will also retain the power to investigate potentially prohibited online content. This includes computer games likely to be classified as MA15+ which are not behind a restricted access system. The director of the Classification Board will also retain the power to call in games for classification if they contain contentious material likely to cause the game to be classified as M or higher. Finally, law enforcement agencies will continue to be able to apply for classification for any unclassified computer games.

It is expected that a longer term solution to this matter will be considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission as part of the broad review of national classification standards which is currently underway. I am advised that the ALRC is due to report at the end of January next year and it is almost certain that we will be revisiting this matter. But, in the interim period and until the ALRC is able to present the minister and this House with a more thoroughgoing set of recommendations, this bill provides some certainty to industry balanced with provisions which protect vulnerable consumers, unsuspecting consumers and minors from offensive content. On those grounds, I commend the bill to the House.