The Road To R18+: Classifying The Unclassifiable

This Thursday and Friday the Attorneys-General along with the Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor will meet to discuss, among other things, the introduction of an R18+ rating for Australia. We feel as though we've said everything that needs to be said, but in the lead up to the decision, we thought we'd take a look back at some of our R18+ features, as we move towards what could be the final decision on the issue. Given the news that the NSW AG wants to wait until the ALRC reports back before making decision, we thought we'd take a look back to our response to the Classification Review when it was first announced.

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 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, etc, etc.

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, in a statement released last month, “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?

A TIME AND A PLACE “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 is 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?”

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.”

GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY GOTTA REGULATE 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.”

POLITICS AS USUAL 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.


Comments

    I was really pleased when O'Connor came out and basically slammed the A-Gs for being a bunch of timewasters yesterday.

    It kind of gave me hope that it might push them to actually make a decision even though Smith is saying he doesn't plan to.

    Then again, I'd just be building myself up for a letdown if I believe that. But really, I'm glad there's someone in government who sees it like we do.

    Ten+ years guys, come on now.

    Brendans doing everything he can to bring about change to the ratings system and I applaud him for it. I think he's so far, been honest and enthusiastic with his approach. That being said, when it comes to crunch time, if the AG's decide to say no, I hope he follows through and forces the govt. to take it over their heads and rule.

      I bet he facepalms just as hard as we do whenever there's "news" on the issue too :\

    Hey Mark, is there any way we could get a post later today with a rundown of how everything is looking pre the SCAG meeting, and where all the AG's are sitting on the issue?

    I'd like to know who I have to fire email's off to today.

      Might be a good idea - really VIC and NSW AGs are the issue. Everyone else is onboard.

        *sigh* Remember the good ole' days when all we had to worry about was Michael Atkinson... *sigh*

        NEVER thought I'd say that...

    Thanks for all the great work mark.

    Until such time as a political party takes up the cause and isn't afraid of the almighty Australian Christian Lobby, the reclassification is going no-where.

    It doesn't matter whether it's a rational idea to help protect children by ensuring parents understand what they are buying for them. What matters for politicians is the fact that the ACL can afford politican donations and can offer vague promises that if they get want they want, they'll give political party X their vote.

    If the various State AGs listened to the voice of the people, we'd see change, but unfortunately, Australian politicans are more interested in what lobby groups have to say than the Australian people.

      There is no 'cause' here. Admittedly, it's a frustrating issue, but it is far and away from the most important thing on anyone's minds right now.

    Serrals,

    I don't think safe to say that WA is on board. We don't know exactly what amendments they want.

      Well I'm not in government, but I am in WA I'd like to the R18+ rating

    so many christians, so few lions

      I wouldn't lump them all together. There are good and bad sides to any group of people in society. Unfortunately, in this case, those on the side against us are currently the loudest.

        You know, Junglist is a proud christian right? He doesn't flaunt it. Neither do I. Don't see the point. I believe what I believe and why push it on others. It's the same as atheists, congratulations on what you believe, now don't push your **** on me and I won't do the same.

          +1 on all counts, including my personal belief/views in your post.

    I think it would be great to have a self-regulated system. Television regulates itself but still uses the OFLC markings so at least things appear standard.

    As for the misgiving of individual states - there's nothing stopping them from imposing their own laws regarding classification. ie: Allowing the R18+ rating, but restricting it on a state by state basis much the same as the X rating is restricted in all states (but not the territories)

    Senator Conroy's spokesman said the government was still committed to introducing its heavily criticised mandatory ISP filtering scheme, which would see all “refused classification” (RC) material blocked by ISPs on a mandatory basis.

    But the spokesman said the legal obligation to implement the mandatory scheme would not commence until the government was able to conduct a review of the RC category.

    The review, which is being conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission, was announced following claims RC was too broad to be the basis of a mandatory censorship scheme.

    “The Government remains committed to introducing legislation to require all ISPs to block the RC content list,” Senator Conroy's spokesman said.

    Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/internet-censorship-machine-quietly-revs-up-20110720-1ho0y.html#ixzz1ScSSg0bH

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