R18+ games classification

The R18+ Classification symbol
In response to lobbying by gamers and the games industry and extensive public consultation, on 25 May 2011, the Minister for Justice, Brendan O’Connor, announced the release of new draft guidelines for the classification of computer games.

If adopted, these guidelines will for the first time introduce an adults R18+ rating for computer games.

Current classification arrangements
Currently in Australia, computer games are classified according to requirements under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games Act 1995 (the Classification Act) and an agreement between the federal and state and territory governments. Under the Classification Act, publications, films and computer games are classified in accordance with a national classification code and classification guidelines. The classification code sets out principles for classification decisions. Effectively, these are that as much as is possible adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want, while minors should be protected from material that may be likely to harm or disturb them and the community in general should be protected from material people find offensive.

Classification guidelines detail the criteria used to make classification decisions and describe the different classification categories. Under current guidelines, decisions about the classification of films or games must take into account the frequency, intensity and cumulative effect of six elements–themes, violence, sex, language, drug use and nudity—and the context in which these are portrayed. At present, a film can be given an R18+ classification, which indicates that it contains material under one or more of the classification categories which has been deemed suitable only for adults to see. There is no such classification for computer games. Games which exceed an MA15+ classification, that is, those games which contain material unsuitable for children under 15 years old, are automatically refused classification (RC).

It has been argued that Australia is unique among developed nations in not having an R18+ classification for computer games. According to proponents of this classification change, this situation means that mature and responsible adults are prevented from being able to access the same themes, images and stories that they would see in any film or television show, simply because they are delivered through a game. The lack of an R18+ classification has led also to what some may consider a bizarre situation where games that receive adult classification in other countries are altered slightly, or in one commentator’s opinion, simply ‘shoehorned’ before receiving an MA15+ rating. As a result, games such as the House of the Dead Overkill which is banned for children in the United States and Britain, is deemed suitable to be accessed by Australian 15-year-olds.

Proposed changes
The proposed new guidelines for games continue to apply existing classification code principles and to stress the importance of considering the impact of the six classifiable elements in awarding a classification. At the same time, if accepted, the guidelines will represent a substantial change to Australian classification regime. There will be virtually no restriction on themes which can be presented in the R18+ classification of games, realistic simulation of sexual activity will be permitted, as will implied sexual violence if it is assessed as being in context. Drug use will also be accepted and there will be almost no restriction on language that may be used in games. Violence will be permitted with the only proviso being that it should not offend against ‘the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that it should not be classified’.

In deference to the argument that the interactive nature of computer games may increase their impact, the proposed guidelines will, however, require a more comprehensive assessment of interactivity. The idea that taking action or controlling outcomes, rather than passively viewing events has more influence people’s behaviour is integral to an overall claim that exposure to violent computer games makes people, particularly children, more aggressive and less caring regardless of their age, sex or culture. This view is not universally held, however, and an opposing argument is that the relationship between depictions of violence and any subsequent aggression is complex, and needs to be situated within a context which takes into account variables such as family circumstances and parental influence.

Opposing views
It appears that support for the introduction of R18+ ratings is significant, with 98 per cent of over 60 000 submissions to a government consultation paper in favour of its introduction. Despite this support, there are those who continue to oppose any change to the current system. In addition, there may be an additional major stumbling block to the introduction of the category—the need to obtain the unanimous agreement of all classification Ministers, before the rating can be implemented nationally.

Previous attempts to introduce the rating have failed, with the latest undermined in 2009 when the South Australian Attorney-General, Michael Atkinson, opposed the proposal. Minister Atkinson is no longer in the picture, but it seems the Victorian Attorney-General, Robert Clark, holds a similar view—that introducing an R18+ rating will inevitably expose children to more graphically violent and sexually explicit games. This view has been consistently argued by groups such as Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Council on Children and the Media Interestingly, both the Uniting and Catholic churches do not espouse this view. The Uniting Church considers that the introduction of an R18+ rating will make it easier for parents to decide what games are suitable for children. The Catholic Church has publicly tempered its support, stating that its preference would be for a complete ban of R+ material, but as that it not possible, it is in favour of limiting access.

It may be that if the R18+ category is not agreed to at a meeting of Attorneys–General in July, some jurisdictions may decide to introduce it at individual state or territory level. This is possible under the co-operative classification agreement, and in some instances, the states have already opted to introduce specific clauses in legislation to allow them to override Commonwealth classifications. Ironically, given its previous opposition, South Australia would most likely act to introduce its own adult games category if the classification ministers are unable to reach agreement in July. The present State Attorney-General, John Rau, is already on record saying he would be prepared to go it alone if the category is not introduced nationally.

(Image sourced from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OFLC_small_R18%2B.svg)


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