Smoke And Mirrors: Why Australia Isn’t Getting An Adult Rating On Computer Games

As reported across the internet, and even by our writers overnight, the Australian Government has announced an inquiry into the introduction of a R18+ (Adult) rating for computer games, in conjunction with its launch of an internet censorship regime.

As much as Australia desperately needs to realize it’s in the 21st century and introduce an adult rating on computer games, the announcement is purely smoke and mirrors, an attempt to draw attention away from internet censorship by appearing to concede something that simply won’t happen, at least in the foreseeable future.

You wouldn’t know that from the headlines though; not only have US sites claimed that this might be happening, so have a pile of Australian sites, many of who seem to be more interested in printing the spin of the Australian Government vs actually taking a deep look at what’s on offer and the likelihood of changes taking place.

Legally, and as clearly started in the Discussion Paper (pdf) any change to Australian censorship laws can only be introduced with the support of all the states. From page 5 of the report:

A change to classification categories would require amendments to the Commonwealth Act, the Code and the Guidelines, as well as State and Territory enforcement legislation. Under the Intergovernmental Agreement on Censorship and the Commonwealth Act, the Code and Guidelines can only be amended with the agreement of all Censorship Ministers.

The need for state support is due to censorship and classification law not being vested in the Federal Government in section 51 of the Australian constitution. Until the implementation of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, States in Australia implemented their own censorship and classification regimes, although be it since the 80s based on a broad national framework. Although led by the Federal Government today, the power still rests with the States, and changes Federally can only be implemented with the support of all states.

The implementation of censorship laws at the State level means that even today, Australia doesn’t have uniform censorship laws. X rated material is only available for purchase in the ACT and the Northern Territory, and certain R18+ materials are banned for sale in Queensland.

States could in theory still go it alone on censorship, but likewise none seems interested in going it alone on computer games; that is, the states are committed to the process of a national implementation of censorship laws, complete with the need for all states to agree to changes.

michael atkinsonIf you haven’t heard of him before (and he’s infamous in Australia,) meet Michael Atkinson, the Attorney General for South Australia.

Atkinson isn’t just against the introduction of a R18+ rating for games in Australia, he’s a vocal critic of the proposal. Without his (and by extension the Government of South Australia’s) support, Australia isn’t getting an adult rating on computer games any time soon, no matter what the Federal Government might be suggesting.

At this stage there’s no indication that he might change his mind even if the Federal Government’s report supports the introduction of a R18+ rating for games.

In a letter November 18, 2009 (via Kotaku)

What the present law does is keep the most extreme material off the shelves. It is true that this restricts adult liberty to a small degree, however, I am prepared to accept this infringement in the circumstances.

Atkinson on the Alien vs Predator ban (via ItWire)

Atkinson believes the impact of a lack of R18+ Classification is minimal; “This is a question of a small number of very zealous gamers trying to impose their will on society, and I think, harm society. It’s the public interest versus a small vested interest.” Atkinson said

He even appealed the MA15+ rating on Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2, saying November 24 (via Palgn)

“What I want the Classification Board to do is to apply the guidelines properly. What I don’t want is the extremely violent, sexually depraved, drug use games in Australia at all. At the cinema, we can stop people under 18 going in to see R18+ rated movies. We can’t stop these games that are extremely violent and depraved from getting into the home or getting into the hands of children.”

Does this sound like a guy who might change his mind and come to the party on a R18+ rating?

There is a move to put up a gamer against Atkinson in the 2010 South Australian election, a move that while welcome and should be supported, is a little naive given that some believe removing him from Parliament might mean a change in policy. Atkinson isn’t a one-man band on censorship, his stance against R18+ games is not his alone, but comes with the support of the South Australian Government. If he was running policy that went against the beliefs of the Government, he wouldn’t continue to hold his position of Attorney General.

The chances of a change of Government in South Australia in 2010? Not great; a recent poll found Labor had a primary vote of 41% vs the Liberal Party at 32% (2PP wasn’t noted,) even after a sex scandal involving the State Premier.

But even if the South Australian problem can be overcome (which is unlikely,) Western Australia might oppose the classification as well. WA Attorney General Christian Porter on an R18+ classification for games quoted in February (via Gamespot)

“As you would be aware, all States and Territories would have to agree to allow the introduction of R18+ games into the country. South Australia has quite vocally opposed the introduction of these games. Therefore any further comment would be hypothetical.”

Non committal to be sure, until you look at the other actions of the WA Government, such as banning the possession of RC games; in other states, possession of an RC game (vs its sale) is legal where that game doesn’t breach other laws (such as child porn laws.) The WA State Government also bans the “public display MA 15+ rated games in WA. While it is legal to sell and purchase MA15+ games, retailers or anyone displaying them in public will be liable for a $5000 fine.”

Do they sound like the acts of a Government who might support a R18+ rating for computer games?

Conclusion

Most Australians support the introduction of a R18+ rating for computer games, with some polls suggesting the figure is as high as 91%. But in recognizing that it is right to introduce the rating, you have to look at the real situation: the Federal Government is playing smoke and mirrors on game ratings as a distraction to its internet censorship proposal, knowing too well that it simply doesn’t have the support of all the states to get it up, even if the report recommends it.