Early in 2013, the Australian government finally recognized the fact that the average gamer is nearly 30 years old and can probably handle twice the objectionable content a 15-year-old can and passed a law creating an R18+ classification (roughly equivalent to the ESRB's "M" rating). This gave Australian gamers the chance to play something more age-appropriate, something that usually wasn't possible with the previous top-end classification of MA15+. Whatever wasn't banned outright was often gutted to meet censors' requirements.
Now, part of Australia is considering rolling that new decision back.
The Australian State of Western Australia (WA) is reviving the country's vexed games classification debate, with a new report suggesting the state government should consider banning games currently carrying an R18+ classification.
The average gamer may be nearer to a mid-life crisis than mid-teen surliness, but WA's governing bodies are still thinking about "the children."
The suggestion is contained in a report from the Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People, in the latest in a series of reports on the Sexualisation of Children.
Among various recommendations aimed at preventing the sexualization of children (including a suggestion to put government resources to work regulating child beauty pageants) is the following:
Proposal 5: Amendments to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Enforcement Act 1996 (WA)
Further consideration be given to possible amendments to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Enforcement Act 1996 (WA)
• To prohibit the sale, supply, demonstration, possession or advertisement of a R18+ computer game in Western Australia; or
• To provide that it is an offence for any person to supply a R18+ computer game to a minor; and/or
• To provide that it is an offence for any person to supply a R18+ film to a minor; and/or
• To provide that it is an offence for any person to supply a Category 1 Restricted publication to a minor.
The first suggestion is obviously a regression to Australia's pre-2013 days, the golden era of "computer gaming", when everyone agreed video games weren't to be played by adults. The other suggestions are slightly less odious, but still point towards the government further entrenching itself in the content-regulation business. Like similar awful legislation
mooted by US lawmakers, this points towards criminal charges being levied against anyone who supplies certain content to minors. It's a bad idea, and one that infantilizes not only the "children," but adults as well, threatening to take away their choice in content as well as their own personal decisions as to what's appropriate for their
But the report's bad ideas aren't strictly limited to video games and other entertainment media. The report also suggests the government might be interested in regulating other areas as well.
Consideration be given to referring to the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia a review of Western Australia's laws and regulations that may impact on the regulation of the content and display of billboard and outdoor advertising to determine if there is any scope for Western Australia to regulate the nature and positioning of outdoor advertisements to ensure that children and young people are protected from exposure to sexualised images.
Government regulation of advertising is nothing new, but rather than clear-cut bans on tobacco products or alcoholic beverages, this new directive would ask the government to determine whether or not any image is too "sexualized" to be allowed to be seen by the public. Advertisers will be forced to deal with a regulating body's highly subjective views. Erring on the side of caution will be the most common option -- for both involved parties. The end result will be ad campaigns that attempt to sell products to adults by approaching them as if they were five
The committee also thinks the government might be able to do something about sexting.
The findings of the Victorian Parliamentary Law Reform Committee inquiry into sexting be examined to determine if there are any strategies or options to reduce the negative impact of sexting on children and young people in Western Australia both generally and in relation to the sexualisation of children and young people.
The only way the government can intercede in private communications is by criminalizing certain content
. The outcome of this has already been seen in the US, where sexting between minors has ended with participants being accused
of sex offenses -- charges that lump them together with actual child predators and saddle them with years of government-induced ostracism.
Elsewhere, the report is very even-handed in depicting the realities of regulating content and advertising, noting that parental supervision will have far more impact than any laws that may result from its findings.
It is necessary to recognise that if sexualised media and advertising content is available to adults it is inevitable that some of this content will be accessed (either deliberately or inadvertently) or viewed by children and young people. With the convergence of media and the multitude of platforms by which children and young people can access material from the internet (for example laptops, smart phones, smart TVs, iPad, iPods and other gaming devices) laws and regulations cannot alone protect children and young people from the potential harmful effects of being exposed to premature or inappropriate sexualised content.
It also notes that this committee's desire to head off the sexualization of children may veer into damaging witch hunts if not tempered, especially if the "sexualization" itself is given too broad of a definition.
There is a risk that if a broad definition is adopted, the extent of sexualisation of children may be overestimated or that the more serious examples of inappropriate sexualisation will be overlooked. Incidentally, it has been observed that one commentator (Catharine Lumby) is concerned that 'by having this conversation [about sexualisation] all the time we'll end up looking for sexual images of children where there aren't [any]'.
The problem is that, no matter how well-written and even-handed the report is (and much of it is), it's being handed over to government bodies which tend to prefer broad brushwork to subtlety. What's completely intolerable to most legislators is admitting there's very little they can do to address convoluted issues like these, at least not without making things much worse. All it takes is a few bits of anecdotal evidence to fuel the lawmaking fire and Australians could see their government (or at least the Western State side) slip back into censor mode.
Taking away adults' choices because children might
avail themselves of the content isn't the answer but this report presents it as being just that, a potential "fix" for a societal issue. Video games have long been low-hanging fruit for legislators whose reach never exceeds their limited grasp and "for the children" may be all the excuse they need to roll back the recently-granted adulthood of its gaming population.
There's plenty in the report that warns against such legislative band-aids, but the most troubling suggestions are right up front, easily skimmable and bullet-pointed. Which part of this report is likely to see more politician eyeballs? The first 15 pages, with all the "remedies" and "do somethings?" Or the last 100+ pages, where the subtleties, nuances and limitations of legislative action are thoroughly discussed?