R18 games and Australia's classification revolution

Macquarie University dissects the R18 debate

Australia is set to undergo a major change in its classification system that will finally resolve the vexed issue of the absence of an R18 rating for video games if proposals from the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) are adopted.

"One of the issues that we posed is whether the classification scheme can continue to operate as it is with some incremental reforms or does it require fundamental change," Commissioner of the ALRC and chair of the National Classification Scheme Review Professor Terry Flew told the audience of 'The Politics of Play' at Macquarie University last night.

"The very strong indication that we got was the need for fundamental change," Flew said.

The Politics of Play — hosted by the university's Interactive Media Institute (IMI) — debated classification, with a particular focus on the issues surrounding the classification of video games.

Flew was joined by a range of academics and classification experts on the panel, which is part of the IMI's three day game conference and continues through to Saturday.

Flew's comments came almost a month after the ALRC released its discussion paper that proposed a 'fundamental change' to Australia's classification review. The proposals in the discussion paper address whether the classification can in some cases place an onerous burden on media creators, issues of industry self-regulation, and the disparity in the treatment of different forms of entertainment media under the current system.

The ALRC review is the first review of Australia's classification system undertaken in 20 years, Flew told the audience. The last review, also conducted by the ALRC, took place in 1991 and led to the Classification Act of 1995. Although the review is not limited to the classification of video games — “I've learned a lot about pornography doing this inquiry,” Flew noted — the commissioner said that this issue stood out in submissions received by the ALRC.

"The ALRC, prior to the classification review, the largest number of submissions it had received in response to an inquiry was when it undertook an inquiry into privacy law in 2008," he said.

"That received, over 500 submissions what we were not prepared for was the number of submissions we would receive around the classification review."

For the classification inquiry the ALRC has received a record-breaking 2452 submissions.

"And why is games relevant to this? About 10 days out from our deadline for responses to the issues paper we had received about 80 submissions… and then word got out among the games community that gamers were not submitting top the classification review and there were issues in the classification review they should engage with."

The word spread through Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media is if "gamers don't get into this space other people will set the agenda". In the course of a week, the number of submissions the ALRC received went from 80 to more than a thousand. Not all were from people from an interest in the classification of games, but a lot were, Flew said.

The final report of the ALRC on the classification review is expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2012. Even if the recommended changes to the classification scheme are adopted, it still is "probably going to take another couple of years before you're actually going to get an R18 you can apply for like a conventional classification that you have today," said David Emery from the Classification Branch, which is a public body supporting the operations of the Classification Board.

Emery said the "legacy system" of classification that Australia has been saddled with is a product of the R18 issue not being "alive" when the current classification scheme was created: "Games are for kids, kids shouldn't have R material, and that's how it was; we've ended up with a legacy system… the fact of the matter is that it took a long time for a head of steam to get up from the gaming community to call for R18. It's really only been the last 18 months it's come onto the government's radar in a significant form."

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