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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3403

Mr BUCHHOLZ (Wright) (16:24): I rise to speak on the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012. I would like to concur with the previous words of my colleague the member for Hinkler in the overview of the content of his speech, about the protection of the innocence of our youth, the protection of women and the protection of those who are vulnerable in our society. We are shifting to an animated society. The quality of animation that is not only portrayed today in video games but is starting to evolve in movies is becoming so life-like that an inherent social disconnect may potentially occur in an innocent mind in detecting what is good and what is evil, what is acceptable and what is not, and what is socially unpalatable. There are few topics capable of provoking such irritation, fear and wrong-headed moral panic as video games. It is a remarkable thing, really, when you consider that electronic games are nothing new.

The first pinball machine was invented in 1937 and it was not long before slot machine manufacturers saw their potential and began developing pinball machines that gave payouts based out on the player's score. At the time the authorities viewed these machines as a dangerous combination of youth recreation and gambling and were quick to crack down on them. In 1939, the new mayor of New York successfully passed bans to make pinball machines illegal in his city, and the ban remained effective until 1976. From the moment they appeared, electronic games sadly had a bad reputation as a corrupting influence on the youth.

Stand-up cabinet arcade games appeared in the mid 1970s and quickly drew the rage of authorities, who were concerned that the lure of electronic games was impacting on school attendance. In the early eighties I went to a boarding school, so we had access to neither pinball machines nor other electronic games. The concern about the negative impact of arcade games was so great that opponents of the new games parlour scheduled to open in Connecticut in 1983 charged that the store owner would mesmerise their youngsters, rob them of their lunch money, provide them with a centre for illicit drug trafficking and cause a downfall in youth baseball, music lessons and scholastic aptitude tests.

In the mid-1980s the video games market took its first steps out of the arcade and into our family living rooms. The introduction of personal computers and video game consoles like the Nintendo entertainment system brought video games into the perceived safety of the family home, away from any atmosphere stereotypically considered to be a haven for smoking, drug use and any other antisocial 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, concern had been that the arcade games lured youth away from school and into smoky dens where they could be corrupted by other kids. Once games were in the home environment, parents began to worry about the psychological effects of the games themselves, and that is essentially where we still are today.

This debate is about the need for an R18+ classification to stem the belief that the exposure to video games has the capacity to damage our kids—a perception that I support. The academic literature on this point, however, 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 is hardly an outrageous idea. After all, we already do it with films and magazines; why not have censorship at that level for these games? Opponents of the R18+ classification would agree that video games are an entirely different beast to film because consumers are actively participating rather than being passive observers. Again, the academic research on this point is largely inconclusive.

But, moral panic 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 legal available classification category for computer games is MA15+. Games which are considered unsuitable for persons aged under 15 are theoretically refused classification. In practice, though, it is not so cut and dried. A very small number of adult theme games are refused classification. The majority are simply released within the MA15+ category. Some of them are edited to earn their lower rating—most are not. Let us look at some examples. The prior evidence I have put down has been given to me by one of my staff, because I have absolutely no idea—I have never seen these games. But when I questioned him as to the imagery—here is a man who is married—he was quite explicit that it is not something you would want your small children to see. He did give an overview. One game he mentioned was Fallout 3, which 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 is rated 17+. In Australia, however, it is legally available to kids as young as 15 simply because we lack the capability to restrict adult games to adults only.

Australia can do better when it comes to classifications. When we are not meeting the benchmarks of other nations; we need to step up as legislators and protect the innocence of our children. My staff member then went on to give me another example with Grand Theft Auto IV—an example that was given by a prior speaker from the coalition. Grand Theft Auto games are famous for their adult themes. The game's publisher, Rockstar, made a few cosmetic edits to the overseas version, primarily regarding sex acts and blood splatter. The game is now legally available to children aged 15 and up. In other countries it is restricted to adults. Another game called TheHouse of the Dead: Overkill is a shooting game, which combines Tarantino levels of blood and gore with almost constant profanities. Nevertheless, it is available to 15-year-old kids in Australia, whereas overseas it is restricted to adults.

With the realistic animation that exists in these video games, I reiterate the point of the disconnect with the social responsibility of protecting the innocence of our youth. This is a real concern. You can see that under our current classification system games that would be classified as R18 in most Western countries are frequently released in Australia as being suitable for our 15-year-olds. That is where the madness lies. Not only does the current system failed to allow adults to choose, it also falls short of protecting minors from potentially harmful or disturbing content. Contrary to what some would have you believe, the lack of our R rating makes it easier for children to access adult content—not harder. It makes it confusing for parents who are trying to do the right thing. Legislating to allow R18+ categories will give consumers information, a clear choice and more confidence in the games they buy for themselves and their kids.

Furthermore, Australia is something of a cradle of creativity when it comes to video game development. We have got 25 major development studios with exports of over $120 million worth of products sold each and every year. It is worth remembering that video games are not some type of fringe hobby for children and nerdy teenagers, they are in themselves bigger than Hollywood. Of Australian households, 88 per cent own some kind of device for playing video games. The average age of the Australian gamer is 32, and 75 per cent of Australian gamers are 18 or older. I do not have anyone in my house with an average age of 32. What I have in my house is me, my wife and my daughter, who is in grade 11 and attends boarding school. We do not have a gaming machine. As I alluded to earlier, I have never seen these games before. I am lucky enough, coming from a rural precinct, that the form of entertainment we as a family choose to give our daughter is horses and the benefit of having pets—a cat and a couple of dogs. She owns a Wii machine so she can play baseball and golf and whatever. But those types of tools very rarely get picked up in our household. I understand that coming from a rural precinct this is not the template for the average Australian, but it does go to building social and behavioural patterns. I am also cognisant of the current benefits of gaming machines in acting as potential babysitters. With social and financial pressures on households, the gaming machine can often be used as a babysitter or as a form of entertainment. I encourage those families who pursue that line of entertainment for their children to be mindful of what their children are watching. With those figures in mind, it is evident that certain games are intended for adults and it is only common sense to suggest that they should be restricted to adults.

In conclusion, I support measures that protect the innocence of our children, particularly the children of Wright. I speak in support of this bill as I have spoken in support of a number of bills. In fact, last year when the parliament rose, I asked the Parliamentary Library to give me figures on how many bills we had actually supported as a coalition. I was quite surprised to learn that the coalition have supported 78 per cent of all bills that have come before the House. When you classify the cognate bills with the main bills, you see that only around 13 per cent of the bills before the House did not have our support. I support this bill and reject the claim by the government that all we ever do is get up and say no, no, no. The facts speak for themselves. In supporting this bill I hope to protect our youth.