Recent public debate over extending the R18+ classification to videogames has missed the detail. The debate has been prompted by a public consultation process and release of a discussion paper by the Commonwealth Attorney-General. Unfortunately, the opportunity to deal with broader social issues in gaming such as, racism or gambling in gaming is passing us by.
The broad debate surrounding the classification has centred on the general theme of censorship, with protagonists from both sides arguing their case.
Adults, it is argued should not be prevented from gaming due to the lack of a sophisticated rating system. In contrast, advocates against inclusion of an R18+ rating are focusing on the interactive nature of gaming and its negative social effects on children.
However, the polarity of this debate has prevented either side from viewing the bigger picture and that is a National Classification Scheme (NCS) that informs and enhances individual decision making.
Certainly in a democratic society, censorship should be opposed while at the same time the socially responsible protection of children should prevail. What is obvious in this debate is both the lack of sophistication of the current classification scheme and its inherent inability to deal with the subtle differences between gaming and other media such as film.
For example, the current Australian system is limited in its classification to four levels compared to the North American Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system which has seven and the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system of five. Both of these systems allow for a more logical and graduated distinction in maturity or age levels. For example, the Australian MA15+ classification requires a child to be accompanied by an adult: but which parent sits through 30+ hours of game-time with a teenager playing a game such as Gears of War which was rated for 18+ gamers under PEGI. In comparison, an adult must remain with a person under 18 if they are watching an MA15+ film in a cinema.
A further distinction to the NCS is the use of content descriptors that provide the basis for decision making. For example, the PEGI descriptors include violence, profanity, fear, sex, drugs, online, discrimination and gambling with each descriptor having associated icons.
In this context, the PG classification has an ambiguity that does not lend itself to informed decision making. In fact the contrary is true, since unless the material is viewed prior to sharing in the experience with your children you have no “moral compass” to make a decision on issues of racial discrimination against violence or swearing, the very issues you are presumably providing guidance on with various “degrees of value or morality”.
Games also, increasingly, have an online aspect to the play, which is why the PEGI system identifies “online” as a consideration in classification. Clearly, an eight-year-old requires more detailed guidance in an online interaction than the current G or PG ratings would allow.
Currently classification is not required on internet gaming sites and, despite the the massive growth online classifying gaming sites is being hamstrung by the “logistical and management nightmare” argument. This is despite the fact that credit cards, B-pay, and Australian financial transactions are used in the commercial transactions between consumers and publishers.
The limited advice the Classification Board provides in this respect is “Gaming experience may change online”, a descriptor most gamers appropriately think refers to the different game play and not the broader social context of child predators, racist vilification or bravado of “slagging” abuse often encountered online.
Equally important, games aimed at children that mimic or simulate gambling should be labelled appropriately. In an age when informing consumers and labelling products is seen as a government given, it does seem a serious shortfall that the billion dollar gaming industry still has no appropriate labelling guidelines.
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