PAX Australia 2019 was filled with so many great panels, but there was one panel we recommended above all others. Games and Moral Panic: Why Are We Here Again? was a panel that strove to answer questions many of us had about the Australian games industry, and why classification is such an important and enduring issue.
This story first appeared in October 2019 and has been republished following the opening of public submissions into the review of Australia's classification system.
The review of Australia's classification guidelines has formally begun and the Department of Communications and the Arts - and the Classification Board - would like you to have your say.
The panel featured icons and speakers from across the gaming industry, including IGEA CEO Ron Curry, Jeff Brand, an experienced professor at Bond University, Ella Lowgren, who specialises in communications, writing and games development, Dave McCarthy, VP of operations at Xbox, and Margaret Anderson, the director of the Classification Board.
Anderson was an incredible voice to have on the panel because her position as director places her in such a position of power over the games industry, but also reveals how tight and restrictive those powers are. One of the core themes that arose many times in the panel is the nature of government and governing processes.
Simply put, the Australian classification system is so restrictive because classification changes are a "gentleman's agreement", as Anderson puts it. To enact change, at least nine state and territory leaders have to agree to make the change possible, and with the rise of moral panic around video games and an overall lack of understanding about how video games operate and impact people in society, these changes are nigh-on impossible.
As it stands, the classification guidelines for video games haven't been revisited since 2012, a time when video games were far less ambitious and technically sound, or as involving as they are now. But despite an acknowledgement by Anderson that adults should be able to see and play what they like at their own discretion, it will take a push to see any actual change happen.
Part of the reason that change is so delayed is that while there is a push for overall change, there's also an incredible push against it. As Jeff Brand explained, a lot of this has to do with the rise of moral panic.
Brand highlighted a quote from professor Janet Murray, "new media in any age is always distrusted media", to explain why this push exists in the first place. Video games are still relatively new media, and there's always going to be a fear of new and unfamiliar things, and a fear of change in society.
This comes about via a four step process, according to Brand:
- There arises a threat to social norms or community interest
- The threat is depicted as a recognisable symbol by the media
- The portrayal of this symbol in the media raises concerns from the public and what follows is a response from authorities
- Moral panic ensues, based on this (often false) depiction
This process creates fear, and the ensuing moral panic often means the core change becomes a threat, even if its depiction is false in modern media. Video games are considered scary, because they're so often tied to more serious issues like mental illness, addiction and gun violence. This depiction of video games is what has been proliferated and spread to modern society, therefore, moral panic consumes the 'image' of what video games really are.
"It's new and bad for you," Brand explains. Change is scary, and it's this fear of change and newness that drives people to reject new media like video games. If it wasn't video games today, it was drinking and 'fornicating' in the 1600s. It happened to comic books in the 90s, and it's happening now — as Brand puts it, it's a cyclical process.
Ultimately, the Classification Board is tied to the eventuation of moral panic. When asked if the guidelines cause moral panic in the first place, by establishing a stark dichotomy of 'right and wrong' in entertainment, Anderson suggests the guidelines are "reinforcing the concept of moral panic that was around at the time the guidelines were written." Moral panic shapes the guidelines, because they represents the views of the majority — they also exist at the mercy of a generation that didn't grow up with video games. This unfamiliarity eventually leads to fear, and it's clear that the guidelines are extremely one-sided in this way.
Anderson discusses this idea in depth throughout the panel, particularly focusing on the content of video games and how its impact on players can be understood. She particularly calls out the strange double standards in the classification of video games — that scenes like 'simulated sexual activity' are permitted, but those depicting 'realistic' sex are not. She also calls out that drug use is permitted in games, but only if it doesn't pertain to a 'reward'. As far as discretion goes, Anderson states the board's hands are tied.
Games don't get banned all that often, and every time it happens there's a surge of interest in Australia's archaic classification system. That's generally followed by a torrent of abuse against the Classification Board, occasionally Australia itself, and more recently, a bit of public vitriol directly against the members of the board. But as was the case when Fallout 3 and Mortal Kombat were completely banned from sale, the same situation applies with DayZ. Rather than directing ire towards the people whose sole job is to enforce the letter of the law, people need to go all the way back to 1995.
The current guidelines are outdated. This is something that everyone involved with video games knows. They were created in a time that was rife with moral panic, and arguably, the moral panic around video games has only gotten stronger since then. But that doesn't mean that any of us can't enact change.
Before the end of the year, the Classification Board will release a discussion paper on the state of video games classification. After publication, the Board will open the paper up to discussion, and the public will be able to put in submissions for a limited period of time. (Update 9/1: That discussion paper is now available for viewing here. The public can have their say via a form on the Classification Board's website.)
Anderson encouraged everyone at the panel, and at home to sit down and read the guidelines, and to keep an eye on the Classification Board's website. She did not give a specific time frame for submissions. Once the paper is released, there will be a limited time for submissions, but your voices need to be heard.
As Anderson states, the Board doesn't randomly decide a game should be refused classification. They operate within the restrictive guidelines that govern their actions, but these guidelines aren't set in stone.
If we want video games in Australia to thrive, and if we want to be given the same discretion and choice that other countries around the world get, it's time that we sit up and pay attention. I would encourage all of you to keep an eye on the Classification Board's website, and when the time comes, to make your voices heard.