A New R18+ Computer Games Classification

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the new R18+ computer games classification.

Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012
14 March 2012

It is important to say at the outset of the discussion of this Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012 that there are many terrific uses of computer games. Many Australians enjoy computer games and although I am not a big gamer myself, my two little boys, Sebastian and Theodore, love getting on the iPad any moment they can. Their favourite game is Angry Birds. It is a chance for them to work on their fine motor skills, a little breather for their parents and an opportunity for them to work together as brothers. However, there are many computer games in Australia to which I would not want children exposed and certainly not without their parents' knowledge.

This bill reflects the fact that Australia today is out of step with the international gaming classification systems. As best as I am aware, we are the only country without an R18+ rating for computer games. This bill brings the classification categories for computer games into line with the existing categories that are used to classify films. It makes the Australian classification regime more consistent with international standards. The new R18+ classification will inform consumers, retailers and, most importantly, parents about what games are not suitable for minors.

Bond University has conducted research of over 1,200 Australian households on computer game use and attitudes to those games. Ninety-five per cent of Australian homes with children under the age of 18 had a device for playing games. The average Australian gamer is aged 32 and women make up 47 per cent of computer game players. Gone is the day when the only gamers in Australia were teenage boys. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that the Australian gaming industry is worth just under $2 billion. By 2015 this is forecast to reach $2.5 billion and globally the interactive game market is predicted to reach $90 billion by 2015 with an annual growth rate of eight per cent a year. The gaming industry is enjoying Chinese style growth.

Computer games are a big part of modern life in Australian families. As the member for Blaxland noted in his second reading speech, a lot of Australians are pretty passionate about this reform. There has also been research that has examined gaming and its place in Australian families. As I have noted, nearly all families with children under 18 play computer games. Almost half of parents said they play games as a way of spending time with their children. Over 70 per cent of parents used computer games for educational purposes. Most parents talked about computer games with their children. They had a great awareness of and use of parental controls on gaming devices. Sixty per cent of parents said they are always present when games are bought by their children.

There is an important need for the R18+ classification. In 2009 the Attorney-General's Department released a discussion paper on the introduction of the R18+ classification for computer games. That inquiry received more than 58,000 submissions, with 98 per cent of those supporting introduction of an R18+ classification. The R18+ classification provides a system to protect children from material that might be harmful. All parents understand how quickly children pick things up from their environment. A friend of mine told me about her 11-year-old boy who was watching a TV show and he said one of the characters was snorting coke. His mum asked, 'How do you know that?' He replied, 'I know it from Grand Theft Auto.' As a parent I want to be sure that I know what is and what is not suitable for my children, and I know many other Australian parents do too. The introduction of an R18+ classification helps prevent children and teens from accessing unsuitable material while still ensuring that adults are free to make their own decisions about the computer games they play.

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States has confirmed that a teenager's brain is still different from an adult's brain, still a work in progress. There are great changes going on in the parts of the brain in the frontal lobe responsible for self-control, judgment and emotions. Some of those changes continue appearing in the brain into a person's 20s as the brain develops, laying down foundations for the rest of the young person's life. That is good and bad news. It means we can train the teenage brain but it also means, as Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health has said, 'You are hardwiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hardwire it for sports and doing maths or for lying on the couch in front of TV or a console?'

Perhaps the most positive vision of computer gaming is that set down by Jane McGonigal, a game designer, researcher and author. She argues in a terrific book I read over summer and which I commend to other Australians called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World that games can make us better, that games have the capacity to change the world. I did not agree with everything I read in the book. I have been a bit sceptical of computer games and their impact on social connectedness in Australia. But McGonigal makes the most articulate case for the positive role that gaming can play our society. She proposes a bunch of ways in which games can help us be happier in everyday life, stay better connected with those we care about, feel more rewarded for making our best effort and discover new ways of making a difference in the real world. She gives the example of Lexulous, the online word game on Facebook played between family and friends. It is like Scrabble but online chat. It is a great excuse for many players to talk to their mum every day.

While playing the game there is often chatting taking place. Players might say, 'Your dad says hello.’, ‘The knee still hurts and I'm putting ice on it.’, or ‘Have you started your internship yet?'

McGonigal gives the example of the extraordinary: web and mobile phone applications designed to help people contribute to their community. The motto is: 'Got two minutes? Be extraordinary.' Players can browse a list of micro volunteer missions, each mission helping a real-life, non-profit organisation accomplish one of its goals. One mission is designed for Crystal House, an organisation helping children living in poverty get the education, nutrition, health care and mentorship they so desperately need. It asks players to write a short text message of encouragement or support to students in Mexico, Venezuela, South Africa or India, before they take important tests and exams.

So we should not turn away from the benefits that games and gaming can bring. But, as this bill recognises, at the same time we should not dismiss the risks that unsuitable material can have on children and adolescents. An R18+ classification helps better inform parents of what is not suitable.

Gaming is now a ubiquitous part of modern Australian life. Nine out of 10 Australian households now have a device for playing computer games. I know that many Australian parents share my concerns about making sure their children do not access harmful material.

It is important that the Australian classification system has parity with comparable overseas systems. Games like Call of Duty warn of blood and gore, drug references, intense violence and strong language. In the United States Call of Duty has an M17+ rating but presently only attracts an MA15+ rating in Australia. We need a quick and easy system for classifying the material in computer games. Many parents have told us just that. While the member for Mayo has written about the dead hand of government, the government can also offer a helping hand. It can amend the Classification Act 1995 and align the R18+ computer rating with the R18+film classification rating. It helps inform parents of what games are not suitable for their children as they grow and develop. It ensures that they enjoy the fun and interactive and educational benefits that computer games can and will bring to Australian families.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.