"One of the issues that we posed is whether the classification scheme can continue to operate as it is with some incremental reforms or does it require fundamental change," Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission and chair of the National Classification Scheme Review Professor Terry Flew told the audience of 'The Politics of Play' at Macquarie University last night. "The very strong indication that we got was the need for fundamental change."
The Politics of Play -- hosted by the university's Interactive Media Institute (IMI) -- debated classification, with a particular focus on the issues surrounding the classification of video games.
Flew was joined by a range of academics and classification experts on the panel, which is part of the IMI's three day game conference, which continues today and Saturday.
Flew's comments came almost a month after the ALRC released its discussion paper that proposed just such a 'fundamental change' to Australia's classification review. The proposals in the discussion paper address whether the classification can in some cases place an onerous burden on media creators, issues of industry self-regulation and the disparity with which different entertainment mediums are treated under the current system.
The ALRC review is the first review of Australia's classification system undertaken in 20 years, Flew told the audience. The last review, also conducted by the ALRC, took place in 1991 and led to the Classification Act of 1995. Although the review is not limited to the classification of video games -- "I've learned a lot about pornography doing this inquiry," Flew noted -- the commissioner said that this issue stood out in submissions received by the ALRC.
"The ALRC prior to the classification review the largest number of submissions it had received in response to an inquiry was when it undertook an inquiry into privacy law in 2008," he said. "That received over 500 submissions what we were not prepared for was the number of submissions we would receive around the classification review."
For the classification inquiry the ALRC has received a record-breaking 2452 submissions.
"And why is games relevant to this? About 10 days out from our deadline for responses to the issues paper we had received about 80 submissions... and then word got out among the games community that gamers were not submitting top the classification review and there were issues in the classification review they should engage with."
The word spread through Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media that if "gamers don't get into this space other people will set the agenda". In the course of a week, the number of submissions the ALRC received went from 80 to more than a thousand. Not all were from people from an interest in the classification of games, but a lot were, Flew said.
The final report of the ALRC on the classification review is expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2012. Even if the recommended changes to the classification scheme are adopted, it will still "probably going to take another couple of years before you're actually going to get an R18 you can apply for like a conventional classification that you have today," said David Emery from the Classification Branch, which is a public body supporting the operations of the Classification Board.
Emery said that the "legacy system" of classification that Australia has been saddled with is a product of the R18 issue not being "alive" when the current classification scheme was created: "Games are for kids, kids shouldn't have R material, and that's how it was; we've ended up with a legacy system... the fact of the matter is that it took a long time for a head of steam to get up from the gaming community to call for R18. It's really only been the last 18 months it's come onto the government's radar in a significant form."
However, Jeffery Brand, Associate Professor of Communication and Media at Bond University and another participant in the discussion, noted that in 2001 when he reviewed submissions for the classifications guidelines review for the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC; now the Classification Board), "there was some recognition in those submissions that adults play games and there was a need for accommodating adults... and there was also a need to protect children from that content." The submissions at the time "favoured an R18+ classification, although -- and this is the interesting point -- there was a lot of sentiment there and yet that wasn't the question under review".
Although there were different opinions on what form a classification scheme should take, there was general agreement that, particularly in regards to computer games, the current system is fatally flawed. "It seems very odd to me to see games being refused classification alongside the other material refused classification," Flew said. "Believe me it looks very different."
One of the key aims of the ALRC's proposals is to eliminate the disparity between the treatment of different platforms, such as films and games; a "technological neutral position", as Dr Peter Chen from the University of Sydney put it.
Chen raised concerns over increased reliance on the industry conducting its own classifications, particularly with companies, such as Apple, having their own private classification systems that can be at odds with and less transparent than public schemes. Apple "has been subject to considerable criticism for the way they classify their content online. And they base their classification decisions on a strange mixture of corporate randomness, the rather socially conservative morals of the United States that we don't share in Australia and the business acumen of Steve Jobs.
"And because of that they've censored material that has been political in nature... they've treated homosexual and straight sexual material of a similar type differently..."
Questions of whether interactivity heightens impact -- undertaking violent acts in a computer games as opposed to watching a violent movie -- were also raised, as well as issues surrounding the 'reasonable person' basis for classification.
There seemed little disagreement with a comment by the IMI's Dr Rowan Tulloch, one of the debate's organisers, who said: "I think one of the really unfortunates things about the whole R18 debate is it's distracted from a whole lot of questions that the games industry should be asking itself about what sort of content we want.
"And we're having a debate around this kind of somewhat trivial issue... so we can get past it. But this kind of trivial issue around classifications instead of exploring some of the really problematic sides of gaming. So some of the horribly misogyny, thinking through issues around violence, propaganda, all that kind of stuff. We're getting stuck in this cycle in talking about it purely form a policy perspective... rather than thinking at a kind of societal level of what we want from this medium and what kind of social consequences this medium will have."
Other participants included Zahid Gameldien from the Classification Board; Paul Hunt, former deputy director of the Classification Board and deputy CEO of the OFLC; and Dr John Martino from Victoria University.