Just recently the Classification Review presented its first proposals for discussion - proposals that completely surprised us. Allowing for industry co-regulation, admitting the failures of the Classification Act - why was everyone making sense all of a sudden? We decided to talk to Terry Flew, chair of the Classification Review, for more insight. Meet the man who wants to revolutionise video game classification in Australia.
We all know the feeling. It's so easy to get defensive, to feel misunderstood. As gamers it often feels like a default position - particularly when discussing video game classification in Australia.
For so long it felt as though the message was lost in translation - the end result of some insurmountable generation gap. When speaking to people about classification we prepare for some level of ignorance, prepare to navigate it. Our default position is defence.
But then, miraculously, there are those precious few moments when that position is completely subverted.
Enter Professor Terry Flew. Terry is a Professor of Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology but, more importantly, Terry is chairing the National Classification Review - a review which could very well transform Australia's classification scheme at the root - dragging it kicking and screaming from a pre-internet era to a hyper post modern reality, where content is fluid, where video games are treated equally and media platforms dissolved.
If Terry Flew has his way, he could revolutionise the way video games are classified in Australia.
When it comes to the games industry, Terry is reassuringly well informed.
"You know, it’s very important for a body like the ALRC to understand the the industry it's analysing," says Terry. "It is important for us to be informed about the industries around which we’re supposed to be making recommendations. We have to aware, for example, of any economic cost benefit that may arise from recommendations that we make, and to recognise the importance of the industry whose products are classified."
In a sense it's Terry's job to be aware of the community's issues with regards to classification - the report he sends back to the government in early 2012 will be heavily informed by submissions from those engaged with the issue - but there is the sense that he's really gone above and beyond. The R18+ issue mobilised Australian gamers in a way that was almost unheard of previously, and Terry is well aware of the stakes.
"One of the things we were aware of from the outset taking on the inquiry," begins Terry, "was that there was considerable dissatisfaction with the R18 classification issue - that this issue had been on the agenda for over a decade and, as you may well be aware, gamers were a very important group in making submissions to this enquiry. So we’re certainly aware of the importance of the issue."
According to Terry, R18+ was an issue that really exemplified and exposed the difficulties of using 20 year old legislation to navigate a post-internet age.
"The issue around R18 computer games was an important one, not just in terms of the gaming sector itself but in terms of ratings and wider concerns over what might be termed the platform specific nature of classificaion that we have," he continues, "like the assumption we should treat games differently to other forms of media.
"Issues like the over classification of some media, and the absence of classification in other types of media are also pertinent. The most obvious one being that console based games are classified by the classification board, but mobile games are largely unclassified. We want to work from the assumption that classification doesn’t work on the basis that one platform gets classified more than the other."
Terry himself envisages a classification scheme that takes a far less static approach to platforms and content.
"It really doesn’t make sense to be drawing upon the platform based distinctions that the system currently has. So with the discussion paper currently released we have identified potential future guiding principles that say, where possible, classification should be as platform neutral as possible."
In other words, if Terry has his way, we won't have to worry about games being treated differently when compared to other types of media.
The Moral Panic
We mention to Terry that much of the frustration felt by gamers was spurred by the overwhelming feeling that gaming, as a hobby and a culture, was being discriminated against, compared to more traditional forms of media, like movies or television.
Again, Terry understands - which is encouraging considering the power he has to change how games classification will function. He blames our current situation on what was a fundamental misunderstanding back when the Classification Scheme was first drafted.
"Games have an interesting status in terms of the Classification Scheme in two respects," claims Terry. "Firstly, the assumption that computer games were considered to be more akin to films and broadcasting proved to be historically significant – you have to remember that decisions were being made in what was largely a pre-internet era.
"Secondly there was a range of what some sociologists and others call ‘moral panics’, particularly with regards to the interactive nature of games. There was the idea that games impacted on individual behaviour," he continues.
"This was all, in a sense, amateur psychology - before anyone was playing the kind of games with which we would eventually become familiar. But there was a sort pre-emptive set of assumptions made about the impact of interactivity that continued to resonate through the decisions being made about video game classification."
But it's difficult to blame the ALRC, whose initial recommendations became the framework of the Classification Act in 1995. It's difficult to future proof legislation in general, but that's the challenge that Terry and the Classification Review faces - creating the groundwork for a new Classification Scheme that will remain relevant for the next 20 years.
"In terms of future proofing – it’s a very obvious challenge. It can be quite foolhardy to try and predict what’s going to come in the media space over the next two to three years – let alone 15-20 years. I think an important point we endeavour to make in the discussion paper is the value of guiding principles – recognising the balances that a classification scheme deals with, while thinking in terms of cost effectiveness. We need legislation that can be adapted, minimising the way legislation is tied to particular platforms – trying to avoid broken concepts."
According to Terry, the main focus of any new classification scheme should be clarity and focus - making the best use of limited resources is another priority.
"I think we need a certain clarity of view in regulatory purpose," says Terry. "Given the proliferation of media content, and given the fluid nature of the relationships between media content providers and users , resources need to be focused on areas of the greatest public concern."
One Step At A Time
Allowing the games industry to co-regulate is one way of managing those resources - allowing the Classification Board space and time to focus on borderline titles that require extra attention.
"We're recommending that games classified MA15+ and above should continue to be classified by the board," claims Terry, "but games below that? Well, we believe that classification responsibilities should be devolved to industry itself."
That simple distinction could increase the efficiency of the Classification Board by a huge margin.
"In terms of resource implications, we estimate that distinction would reduce the work of the Classification Board by about 80%," says Terry. "In a lot of these instances classification is going to be quite self evident - I don’t think we need a large amount of activity around how we classify Nintendogs!
"Of course games like Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat, for example, there is sufficient public interest in being sure there are third parties involved in that process, so we are recommending that be the focus of the Classification Board."
If we want sensible, pragmatic solutions to the problems caused by video game classification in Australia, then convincing Terry Flew is a solid first step. Now it's simply a matter of convincing Government that such proposals make sense - which may be more difficult considering the vocal opposition of certain constituencies and lobby groups.
"In terms of the larger uptake of the proposals, we certainly consult with the relevant government agencies in an ongoing way throughout the course of the enquiry," states Terry. "There’s always value to presenting findings that come from an evidential base instead of just suppositions and what not.
"But I think it’s important to be aware that the enquiry process and the policy making process work to completely different rhythms - so the question of government uptake is something that will occur subsequent to the release of the report. Our role is to bring out the evidence base and community views. We bring our legal expertise to questions of what a suitable legislative base for classification could look like.
"But quite rightly, final decisions of what form that takes are determined through the political process," he says finally. "And that can take some time."