November 16, 2012  |  Second reading speech

Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) (Enforcement) Amendment Bill 2012

It is  my pleasure to rise to  make a contribution on the  Classification  (Publications,  Films  and  Computer  Games)  (Enforcement) Amendment Bill 2012. As previous speakers have mentioned,  the bill contains two parts.  It amends the Classification (Publications, Films  and  Computer  Games) (Enforcement) Act  1995  to  allow  the  sale,  hire  and  distribution of R 18+ computer games to adults, and it establishes  penalties for non-compliance.  The bill also enables  law  enforcement  agencies to securely transmit objectionable material, such as child pornography to national intelligence databases.

The bill makes  the  classification of computer games consistent with the way we treat  other  forms  of  media.  Ron  Curry,  from  the  Interactive  Games  and Entertainment  Association,  which represents games makers, says new rules bring games into line with books, movies and television.

There  has been more  than  a  decade of  debate  and  more than 60  000  public submissions and three  rounds of consultation on these changes. The overwhelming majority of people who  responded  —  98  per  cent  —  supported the proposed reforms. Currently computer  games are treated  differently from films  for  the purpose of classification  and  they cannot be classified at a higher level than MA 15+.

The  lack of a classification  specifically for adults means  that anything with adult content  is refused classification. The  industry and gamers say that some material made for an  adult audience  winds up  with an  MA 15+  rating instead, making it more  likely  that  children  will  be  exposed  to  violent or sexual material. Some games previously classified as MA 15+ will be reclassified  as  R 18+, which is a positive step.

The  video  game  industry  has widely supported the introduction of a new adult classification system. It says the average Australian gamer is  approximately 32 to 33 years old, male and  university  educated.  Seventy-five  per  cent of all Australian gamers  are  aged 18 years and over. In  fact  in  the 20 to 25 years since  people  started  to  play  computer  games  the  industry  has  undergone exponential growth. I recall selling games when I worked in the sound and vision department at Kmart in Airport West. At Christmas time the games outsold the CDs and everything else in the store.

The games went out like hotcakes. Often I would sell a particular computer game, and I knew it had  a  lot of violent content.  I  was very much aware  that  the person purchasing the game probably should not watch  it.  These  reforms  are a step in the right direction.

Today Australia has two leading mobile developers, Firemint and Halfbrick, which develop Spy Mouse  and Fruit Ninja. The mobile phone games market is expected to take in almost half a billion dollars in the forecasted year. By 2014-15 it will take  in  some $2.5 billion. As has been mentioned previously, both the industry and gamers say that some games meant for an adult audience wind up with a MA 15+ rating instead, making  it more likely that children will be exposed to violence or to sexual material. Some games that were previously classified with an MA 15+ rating will be reclassified with an R 18+ rating.

A good case study to refer to is Grand Theft Auto  IV, which was one of the most highly anticipated titles in  2008 and  was subject to one of the most intensive and expensive marketing campaigns of any video game to date. Before its release, Rockstar Games announced it would censor the  game  voluntarily  to make sure it met  an MA 15+ rating. It is one of the most available video games in Australia. Although  it  was  not officially  announced  what  changes had  been  made,  an investigation  by  the  games  industry  and   the  community  found  three  key differences in the edited Australian version of the game. Firstly, the player is unable to view the simulated sex scenes in the game; rather the camera is locked behind  a vehicle  during  the  relevant encounter,  showing  a rocking  vehicle animation and  accompanying soundtrack. Secondly, players are no longer  able to see blood in pools  under  killed  characters,  and  neither  can a player leave bloody footprints  by walking through  blood spots. However,  blood continues to splatter as normal.

Thirdly, the visual impacts of injuries to players or other characters have been made lower impact  by  replacing more violent  graphic  bullet wounds and  blood patches   with   slight   discolouration.  According   to   current   Australian Classification Board  standards  these changes were  enough to warrant  the game receiving the highest possible rating of MA 15+.

Grand Theft  Auto IV remains a high-impact game focused on free roaming within a city,  in  which a player is  free  to pursue his goals  by any means necessary, including murder,  blackmail, extortion and bribery. In an open  and unregulated environment with  minimal  regulation, players are  exposed to a high  number of high-impact  adult  themes  such  as  gambling,  prostitution,  drugs  and  gang violence.

Worthy of note is  that  in  December  2008  the  classification  board rated an uncensored personal computer version of Grand Theft Auto IV, which had  a rating of  MA  15+,  without any of the previously mentioned changes. This version  was identical to the international  version  and  included all objectionable content that Rockstar Games had removed from the  console  version, yet this version was also rated MA 15+. Although the censored version was made voluntarily and not at the behest of the classification board, the  uncensored version was identical to a game that every other country in the world considers to be suitable for adults aged 18 and over. It was rated MA 15+ in Australia.

Members should consider this: if Grand Theft Auto IV were a movie, it would have been rated R 18+ and kept out of the hands of children.

In other countries,  including New Zealand,  United Kingdom and countries across Europe,  it is  impossible for  children to purchase a game such as  Grand Theft Auto IV.  Nevertheless  today under Australian  law there is nothing  to prevent children aged 15 and over, or younger children with their parents’ consent, from purchasing this game and playing it  simply  because  our rating system does not have the capability to keep high-impact games  like this  out of their hands. It is important for parents to be informed about the high-impact content  of  games such  as Grand Theft Auto IV that players are exposed  to. Currently  our rating system has no way of protecting children from  being exposed to games like this, and that needs to change. I repeat that  this legislation is a step in the right direction.

Classification  guidelines need to  be  appropriate to  mediums  they apply  to. Interactivity is an important consideration that  the  classification board must take into account when classifying computer games.

Members would agree  that there are  differences between what different sections of the community condone  in relation to passive viewing. Due to the interactive nature  of  computer  games  and  the  active   and  repetitive  involvement  of participants, as a general  rule  computer  games  may have a higher impact than similarly themed  depictions of the classified elements in film, therefore there is a greater potential for harm or detriment to people, particularly to minors.

The gaming industry in Victoria grew exponentially under the previous Bracks and Brumby governments, and it is continuing to grow under  the Baillieu government. However, Victorian games developers have been dealt a huge blow with the removal of funding for some of Film Victoria’s games investment program.  In the 2012-13 budget the Victorian government did not  renew funding to continue digital media programs that have  supported local games development for the past  decade. This is  despite the government  recently  describing games development  as a growing local industry with high commercial potential. I agree.

We must  consider that the games industry  worth more than $1 billion  a year in Australia. It is experiencing fierce growth amidst a period of economic downturn while other industries are hurting. While video game sales decreased in 2010 for the first time in the  past two years — sales  decreased by 16 per cent  — the industry still amassed $1.7 billion in hardware and boxed software sales.

Despite  the  reduction  video  game  sales  were still able to eclipse DVD  and Blu-ray sales.  According to Randolph Ramsay, editor of Game  Spot in Australia, the  games industry  has  been  outranking  the  film  industry for  some  time. According to forecasts, predicted sales are expected to reach a staggering $2.5  billion in 2014-15. The video games global market is  expected to  reach a value  of $90.1 billion by 2015. The Australian industry  is  expected  to  grow faster than the global market  over the  coming years.  By 2015  it is predicted that the Australian industry will have  a  9.5  per  cent compound annual growth while the global market will sit at 8.2 per cent. We must also remember that the advertising industry is now getting in on the act. Now  the advertising industry is getting more involved in the games industry. Those who viewed  Barack Obama’s to presidential election campaigns will know  that his campaigns targeted voters aged  between  18  and  34  years  of  age.  In 2008 Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was the first to embed Democratic Party advertisements in games.

Our  very  own  Transport  Accident  Commission   has  embedded  advertising  in fast-paced racing games such as Need for  Speed.  While  the opposition does not oppose the introduction of  R-rated games, it has some concerns. Nevertheless we believe this is a step in the right direction.

This legislation will put in place a system that  is suitable for other forms of multimedia and content. It is step in the right  direction, and I wish it a good passage through the house.