Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Think of the children

I held this post off while I waited to see if I could get it published on the Screen Play blog on theage.com.au. Mission successful. Incidentally, I've been getting some excellent comments, including a couple from Barbara Biggins herself. It's been a lot of fun and makes me realise how great it would be to write a blog that people actually engage with. Oh well.

First published in theage.com.au, April 12, 2011.

Think of the children

The debate over an R18+ rating for computer games in Australia reminds me of the republican debate (and not just that the letter R is prominent in both). It is inevitable that we will become a republic, and it is just as inevitable that we will get an R18+ rating for games, yet there will always be a vocal and powerful group of "concerned citizens" hell bent on going to their graves opposing it. Given the age of most anti-R advocates (both kinds), this is a distinct possibility.

Barbara Biggins, CEO of the Australian Council of Children and the Media this week published an opinion piece on the ABC website complaining that proponents of an adult rating are cynically manipulating public opinion by claiming that the introduction of an R18+ rating would, in fact, protect children because many games that, under the present system, would get rated MA15+ would instead get rated R18+. These would then be off-limits to children (hurrah!). Her main gripe is that the supporters of an R18+ rating have co-opted the opposer's (her) main argument ("Won't somebody please think of the children?"). She is not happy.

She also makes some misleading claims about the psychological effects of video game violence, such as"desensitisation, loss of empathy, a lack of appreciation of the real life consequences of violence, increases in risk taking activities" etc. These particular claims are dealt with nicely in a follow up piece by psychologist Christopher Ferguson, and I won't repeat that here. I'm more interested in her argument that the MA15+ rating system is bad, but an R18+ classification would not fix this.

Biggins claims
Many of the 80 per cent of Australians who agreed that there should be an R18+ classification for computer games (Galaxy 2010) did so because they believed that this would provide better protection for children from inappropriate violent content.
She provides no evidence for this. The survey results are, however, publicly available, and quite illuminating. There were seven questions asked. For brevity, I will only state the percentage who agree with each statement.
  1. Adults would know that a game classified R18+ is clearly unsuitable for children - 91%
  2. Adults in Australia should be able to access the same computer games as adults in other countries - 66%
  3. Playing violent games results in real life violence - 63%
  4. Adults should not be prevented from playing games with adult content, including those that may have sexually explicit content, simply because they are unsuitable for children - 62%
  5. If there was an R18+ classification for games it would be difficult for parents to stop children from accessing those games - 70%
  6. Computer games should be classified differently, because you play them, not just watch them - 59%
  7. Should there be an R18+ classification category for computer games in Australia? 80%
My interpretation of these results is that most Australians think that we should have an R18+ rating for games, even though they should not be played by children (Q1), and even though children will probably play them anyway (Q5), and even though playing violent games results in real life violence (Q3). This is the opposite of what Biggins is claiming. If the pro-gaming lobby is trying to manipulate the argument to a "protect the kids" rather than an "adult choice" line, then based on this survey they have failed.

The minister for Home Affairs and Justice, Brendon O'Connor, last year released a list of 47 games that were rated MA15+ in Australia. All except one (Uncharted 2) were rated R18+ in Europe and M17+ in the U.S., and around half were rated for adults only in the U.K. and New Zealand. Biggins argues:
There was no proposal or question on the table about changing the classification criteria for games at the MA15+ or any lower levels. If the R18+ proposal were accepted, it would simply mean that higher level games would be legalised.
Except that Brendan O'Connor says:
If the new category is introduced, it could result in computer games that are currently classified MA15+ being reclassified R18+, providing a new level of protection for children.
And he would know.

The irony of this debate is that the current rating system makes us the most liberal country in the world for access to high impact content for children, but the least liberal when it comes to access to high impact content for adults.

The scary thing is that not only is Biggins against an R18+ rating, but she also believes that we should return to the games classification system of 1999, where an MA15+ rating only allowed “depictions of realistic violence of medium intensity”, unlike the current system which allows violence of strong impact, if in context. If we returned to this old system, it is likely that 46 of the most popular games of the last few years would be refused classification. Youch!

On the upside, I'd still have Uncharted 2.

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