Classifying The Unclassifiable: R18+ And The Bigger Picture

The R18+ issue is a big one – for gamers – but is it symptomatic of a larger classification issue? We speak to Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’ Connor, former Deputy Director of the Classification Board Paul Hunt, and CEO of the iGEA Ron Curry about the upcoming review of the classification system and what it means for an adult rating for video games.

Even the best ideas become bloated and ineffective with time. What was once revolutionary becomes redundant and decrepit; what was shiny and new turns to rust. When the Australian Law Reform Commission first set about creating the outlines for classification we lived in a different time – with a different set of rules. Fast forward to 2011; we exist in a transformed media landscape, a landscape in which converged media is exchanged at speeds beyond the control of parents – beyond the control of governments.

Within this broad media spectrum is the humble video game, and the ever-present spectre of the R18+ rating. To gamers – and the majority of the Australian public – an R18+ rating for video games is a proverbial no-brainer, but underlying this problem is a much grander one: how do we classify the unclassifiable? How does the current system manage the incredible burden brought upon by the constant influx of new content: iPhone Apps, video games, video content, movies, Android apps…

Simple put: it can’t. Times have changed, and the amount of content being consumed in Australia has increased rapidly over the last decade.

“It has become increasingly clear,” claimed Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor, “that the system of classification in Australia needs to be modernised so it is able to accommodate developments in technology now and in the future.”

Said statement was made in reference to an upcoming review of classification by the Australian Law Reform Commission, a review created “in light of changes in technology, media convergence and the global availability of media content”. Major tech issues surrounding the NBN and R18+ appear to have drawn attention to the fact that Australia’s system of classification borders on the archaic and must be changed. With immediate effect.

But what is the solution to this classification conundrum? And if there is a viable solution, will party politics, and all the complications that change brings, allow the system to adapt in a satisfactory manner?

“It’s about bloody time,” laughs former Deputy Director of the Classification Board, Paul Hunt, speaking about prospective changes to the system of classification in Australia. “I just think that the entire system is out of date.”

Paul’s talking, of course, about the system of classification in this country – and the massive burden it must bear in regulating all the content that makes its way into Australia.

“It’s been my personal opinion that the system we currently have relates to stuff you get out of a box and stick in your machine and watch it,” he continues, “and that’s not really relevant. The idea that the Classification Board can look at everything before it goes to market is a little bit old fashioned.”

Ron Curry, CEO of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association agrees. The responsibility placed on the Classification Board is too great.

“There’s no doubt that the current system is broken,” claims Ron, “though this is more reflective of the rapid change in technology and the introduction of new media. The Classification Act was drafted at a time when games were being distributed on 3” disks and cartridges so it’s not surprising that it fails to cope well with digital distribution, mobile games, social gaming and the like.”

So most agree – the classification system is in dire need of a reboot, or at the very least a reshuffle. Surely the only ones that need convincing are the politicians? But speaking to Brendan O’Connor, we got the impression that he was fully aware of the issues – for O’Connor, finding the solution is the real problem.

“This review,” claimed O’Connor, “is a much needed review – that’s the point. We have 10s of thousands of items that are supposed to be classified and we need to ask ourselves, do we need to be doing things differently?”

The classification review, which is due to report back in December of this year, mentions, among other things, “minimising the regulatory burden” placed on the Classification Board. That is one of its major goals. In Europe and the US the load is ‘minimised’ by allowing the games industry itself to classify their own products. Would a similar system here in Australia help ease the burden faced by the classification board?

Yes, claims Paul Hunt – and he should know. As the former Deputy Director of the Classification Board, Paul has seen firsthand the ponderous amount of content that must be reviewed and rated. According to Paul, allowing respective industries the trust to review their own content is the way forward.

“I actually think it’s a waste of time to classify the amount the board are classifying now,” claims Paul. “Attempting to classify mobile games – it’s silly. It’s just silly.

“Having a system where the industry has more regulatory control, with the government overseeing it, is a far more efficient model, in my opinion. And I know that if I was still in charge of the resources I’d just say look – there’s no way we can do every app on the App Store, for example. Even if you cut it down to just the games, you’d still be buggered.

“Physically it’s just impossible to classify everything in a traditional way. And hopefully that’s the catalyst for this review.”

The real challenge, of course, is downloadable content.

“I think it’s naive to believe we can classify everything that comes into the country given that the ‘world’ comes to us online,” says Ron Curry. “While it’s relatively simple to impose a regulatory regime on tangible goods, it’s the complete opposite on content that is delivered virtually, particularly that which emanates from outside of Australia’s borders.”

But the government has, until now, maintained that it would attempt to classify the unclassifiable. We’re talking about a Labor government that wanted to somehow filter the entire internet. Compared to that unassailable task, surely classifying a few extra games on the App Store would be chicken feed?

“It’s a tough question,” began O’Connor, when asked how the government would attempt to classify the massive influx of online video game content. “How do we regulate this stuff in the 21st century? There’s different agencies, different stuff, we have to think about how we can manage it.”

When we put it to Brendan that perhaps the government should pass the burden onto the games industry itself, he was surprisingly receptive.

“You know, I don’t want to jinx the findings of the Australian Law Reform Commission,” he began, cautiously, “but that’s a path we may have to look at.

“I think there’ll probably have to be some sort of balance – there needs to be a complimentary approach where we work together towards some sort of self regulation.”

So O’Connor agrees, cautiously – everyone agrees – that some form of industry regulation for video game classification is a progressive solution of sorts. So what’s the hold up? The Australian Law Reform Commission? Probably not. Most – even those that believe the current classification system is utterly broken – believe that the ALRC do great work, and did a great job of creating the guidelines. In the mid-90s that is.

The problem is that those guidelines are outdated – which is far from the ALRC’s fault. In fact, most believe that come December 2011 the Commission will come back with a sensible set of recommendations, and that said recommendations will include an increased role for industry in Video Game classification.

“I think the ALRC will provide a practical series of recommendations,” claims Paul. “I’ve seen their previous work and it’s good. So I’m assuming they’ll provide some really good recommendations again.”

Any problems that do arise, Paul believes, will be the result of political point scoring.

“Whether or not the Government will take the recommendations into account will, unfortunately, become a political decision. I’m too much of a cynic when it comes to practical outcomes against party politics – but hopefully they’ll do the right thing.

“I think most people would be happy with a system that keeps a close eye on things,” he continues, “but only interferes when there’s problems. Unfortunately there’s political mileage in the whole issue, so you’re gonna get politicians and parties responding to that.”

The political aspects of the classification debate are impossible to ignore, and the shadow of the National Broadband Network looms large. It’s no coincidence that Brendan O’Connor and the Labor government announced this new review in the wake of Senator Conroy’s NBN business plan release. The ALRC review was announced precisely one day after Senator Conroy went public with a near unassailable business plan for the NBN – a plan that almost certainly guarantees the NBN’s existence.

Considering the Liberal government have opposed the National Broadband Network every step of the way – and considering that improved internet in Australia will no doubt result in increased concerns about the online content coming into this country – there is little doubt that the NBN and classification are interlinked issues. The timing of both announcements is very deliberate – almost as if the Labor government is, issue by issue, attempting to clear up any potential opposition towards the National Broadband Network. The danger, for classification at least, is that the Liberals will oppose any recommendations (including a possible recommendation for the games industry to regulate its own content) to suit their own political needs concerning the NBN.

As always, time will tell – but precisely how much time? For R18+ there are now two separate issues, each of which will undoubtedly influence the other. First the gaming guidelines, which are currently being drafted for the next SCAG meeting in March. The other? The ALRC’s review of the entire classification process. During our conversation with Brendan O’Connor he assured us that they “were separate issues,” and that the drafting of new gaming guidelines “were already underway” – but even he couldn’t deny the possibility that the Attorneys-General would simply wait until the overall review was complete in December 2011 to make a final decision on R18+.

Ultimately, what was once a very simple situation has now become infinitely more complicated. Once upon a time the R18+ debate was simply about convincing a group of representatives that an adult rating for video games made sense – now it’s tangled up in a plethora of dilemmas that the Australian Government is attempting to solve in numerous different ways. In a sense, the R18+ rating is simply a single branch of a larger problem that needs uprooting – a casualty of politics.

And who knows, if the ALRC comes back with a whole new set of guidelines and recommendations, including a way for the games industry to regulate and rate its own content, the R18+ debate might ultimately become irrelevant regardless – even the best ideas become bloated and ineffective with time.

Only one thing is certain – changes will be made to the way media is classified in this country.

And where that leaves video games is anyone’s guess.

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