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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 3158

Mrs MOYLAN (Pearce) (10:31): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation on the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012, which seeks to introduce an R18+ category for computer games, aligning the existing classifications levels for films and other publications.

Computer games, films and publications advertised or sold in Australia are currently regulated by the classification act, which sets out a sliding scale of age limits and a corresponding allowable impact of violence and sexual themes on the material covered. The scheme is designed to be user-friendly, allowing purchasers and particularly parents to easily decide whether the material they are buying or viewing, or that their children have access to, is suitable for the maturity of the individual. The procedures and thresholds for classification falls under federal jurisdiction to ensure national consistency. However, the states and territories independently legislate as to the level of material that can be advertised and sold within their borders.

Classifications are decided with reference to the impact test as well as the overall cumulative effect. At the more restricted end, movies and publications with a strong impact are deemed MA15+, high impact is R18+ and very high is refused classification, which prevents the material from being sold or advertised in Australia. However, computer games have been an anomaly. At the restricted end, they are classified as either MA15+ or, if the themes depicted exceed the strong impact threshold, they are refused classification.

The reason for omitting the R18+ classification category appears to stem from a recommendation made in 1993 by the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technology. I am sure that in this place we would agree that 1993 was a long time ago. I do not think any of us could have at all foreseen the kind of video games that would be available on the market today. That committee made recommendations in their submission to the Attorney-General's Department at that time. Electronic Frontiers Australia and AusGamers noted that three assumptions underpinned the select committee's recommendation which resulted in the exclusion of the R18+ category. Those were that (1) computer games are only for children; (2) the level of technology involved with the use of computer games means that many parents do not necessarily have the competency to ensure adequate parental guidance; and (3) having regard to the extrasensory intensity involved in the playing of interactive games and the implications of long-term effects on users, games should be subject to stricter criteria for classification than those applying to film or video. We certainly know that computer games have gone far beyond children's toys and playthings. Certainly, it has been a bit of a minefield for many parents who are not technology savvy. There are still plenty of people in the community, who, although they can do the basics, find it difficult to understand the complexities of new technologies.

The first point that computer games are only for children may, as I say, have been correct at that time, but we have now gone well beyond that. The classification code's first principle that adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want was viewed at the time as not relevant and, instead, focus was ascribed to the second principle that minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them. It therefore seemed incongruous to allow for games with high-impact themes, when children were the focus of the industry. But that is no longer the case. Gaming technology and capability has exponentially increased, allowing for storylines, graphics and themes which have attracted increasingly older audiences. Research by Bond University, which was published last year, entitled Digital Australia, notes that the average age of video game players in Australia today is continually increasing. In 2005, the average gamer was 25 years old and today they are 32 years old.

More tellingly, 75 per cent of all video game players in Australia are aged 18 years or older. The ability of parents to ensure adequate control and guidance has also markedly increased, with computer literacy becoming a significant aspect of everyday life. We are having to grapple with this technology because so much is now done via a computer. But a clear-cut classification system would further assist parents when making choices about what games are suitable for their children to play, with an R18+ rating providing certainty that the game is unsuitable for children.

Public support for an R18+ category appears to be very strong. In 2009, the Attorney-General's Department received 54,437 submissions to its discussion paper on the topic, of which a compelling 98 per cent were in favour of an R18+ category. Following more recent discussion papers on the topic, however, there has been strong opposition from a minority of submissions to the Attorney-General's Department that reinforce the Senate's original cautious approach regarding the interactive nature of gaming. A key concern was whether R18+ games have an acceptable place in society, regardless of age. Particular emphasis was placed on the fact that, in all other forms of media, the consumer is passive, by viewing, listening or hearing the relevant material. However, with computer games the consumer is actively directing events. Some of the games are extremely violent and extremely graphic.

Understandably, there is a worry that what happens in the virtual world has an impact on a person's real world. We would agree that this is probably so for children in particular and that allowing more violent and graphic games could lead to adverse social consequences.

Research into this area has been mixed. It really depends on whom you listen to. Sometimes you have to wonder who is funding the research. For adults who have violent tendencies and who play video games, it is hard to distinguish whether gaming inflamed the violent behaviour or whether that person already had a violent disposition and was drawn to violent video games. For children, though, there is a greater likelihood that exposure to violent media will have a detrimental effect. It is sometimes very difficult to pick your way through this matter, because there are many and varied views on the subject. But I think that most parents would agree that we need to address the issue of classification and give parents some guidelines as to what might or might not be suitable for their young people.

The Australian Council on Children and the Media pointed to research undertaken by a long-term video game researcher Craig Anderson, whose 2007 journal article entitled 'The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence' concluded:

It is not surprising that when the game involves rehearsing aggressive and violent thoughts and actions, such deep game involvement results in antisocial effects on the player …

That is but one of the many views.

The council went on to argue that adopting an R18+ rating system would lead to a greater proliferation of violent games and, with that, children would be more likely to be exposed to violent media through adult family members playing the game in their presence or the children receiving the game or a copy from an adult. However, there is also a strong argument that a clear rating system, which shows that the game is for adults only, helps informed choices and gives adults confidence to tell children that the game is not suitable for them.

Regardless of which view is subscribed to, ratings systems are only part of the solution to this problem. With the proliferation of visual media, and the internet playing a part in every aspect of children's lives, it is incumbent upon all of us as adults and as parents to help children understand the distinction between reality and fantasy where computers are involved. I think we see this on Facebook too. I had one young person tell me recently: 'No, this is his other personality on Facebook. There's this one and there's another one over here. Which is the real one?' So I think we have a lot of work to do to help young people distinguish between the play, the fantasy and the reality.

I certainly appreciate the concern that many have about the impact of violent media and agree that ceiling standards developed in consultation with the community are necessary. To this end it is worth noting than an R18+ category is not a generic free-for-all category without limit. Games with a very high impact in terms of language, sexual references or violence would be refused classification in any event. Creating a specific adult category also helps ensure that minors are not exposed to unsuitable material. A number of games that are classified as R18+ in the United States and other countries are legally available in Australia at the moment and classified as MA15+. To meet the current Australian classification framework, developers sometimes make relatively minor adjustments to tone down the violence within their games, but the overall impact is still similar. Under the proposed changes, rather than having slightly altered adult games available to children, only adults would have access to them legally.

Ensuring classification consistency across all types of media is also important in helping empower consumers where we are now seeing convergence across all types of media. The distinction between interactive and non-interactive entertainment is increasingly blurred. That is another issue that modern society has to grapple with. Movies inspired by books are being easily transformed into video games with highly interactive internet advertising strategies. To increase the experience of customers, entertainment titles are sold as packages, often with a DVD, computer game and links to special internet content all contained in one packet. Censors are then placed in the unique and difficult position of having to determine whether to treat the items as a game or as a film, or potentially have different, dual ratings for the title's movie and game.

The gaming experiences are also becoming more cinematic, with seamless interaction between scripted plot segments and user-controlled action. The growth in popularity of role-playing games and their increasing plot sophistication make many of them seem like a 'choose your own' adventure movie rather than a traditional game. Also, the prolific computer graphic imagery in movies can be simply copied across to a game release, meaning there is nearly no difference in visual depiction between the game and the movie itself.

The trend towards convergence is only increasing and makes the traditional argument of a difference between interactive and non-interactive media irrelevant. Without a consistent classification framework confusion can arise, ultimately eroding the whole intention of the system, which is to empower consumers and, I suppose, to look after the interests of children.

The 2009 report by Bond University entitled Interactive Australia makes the point that the absence of an R18+ rating for computer games has potentially misled parents and consumers. By not acknowledging the full spectrum of game suitability an artificial view has been created that violence and themes portrayed in games are not as bad as what can be seen in the movie or on TV because they do not extend to R18+ ratings. Research in Interactive Australia found that four out of five parents are influenced by the Classification Board's ratings, but nearly two-thirds are unaware of them and there is currently no R18+ classification for video games. Respondents are worried with a common reply, 'If I knew that, I would not think MA15+ was for my 15-year-old.' Having an R18+ classification is a sensible response to the changing attitudes and demographics of gamers. It also strengthens the classification framework ensuring that unsuitable games are less likely to end up in the hands of children and empowers parents and consumers through increased awareness and increased knowledge. I think much work has been done to try to find a way through what is clearly a very difficult subject matter and one that causes great divisions within the community, like so many of these modern conundrums. But I think we probably have the best possible outcome and I commend the bill to the House.