Regulating Technology For Grown-Ups


In the hullaballoo surrounding the latest developments on internet filtering, you could have been forgiven for missing the release of another discussion paper on the same day. This one was from the Attorney-General, and it was canvassing the possibility of an R 18+ classification for computer games. Public comment is currently being invited on the proposal.

Australian gamers know — even if the rest of the population doesn’t — that there is currently no "adults only" category for computer games in this country. What this means is that any game containing material that is "unsuitable for minors" is refused classification under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, and thus effectively banned.

The Attorney-General’s discussion paper suggests that Federal and State governments are finally coming around to the idea that the majority of Australia’s gamers are adults. When the regulation was framed back in the 1990s, there was no such recognition. Indeed, the way that governments dealt with games then — in what was Australia’s first attempt to regulate a digital medium — offers us some lessons about the way internet regulation is being approached by the Federal Government now.

From the late 1980s onward, federal governments sought to standardise media regulation nationwide, and to get the states to agree to let federal agencies classify media on their behalf. This was of a piece with a range of centralising moves in media policy at the time, including changes in regional television aggregation.

In 1990 then attorney-general Michael Duffy asked the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to consider whether media that fell outside broadcasting and film should be considered for classification under the new national scheme. (Along with games, the ALRC considered recorded music and clothing with rude slogans.) The ALRC treated this as an administrative and technical question.

Effectively they took one look at the complexity of games as an interactive medium and decided that the resources needed to regulate in the same way as they did, say, films, could not be justified by the small amount of problematic material. Their report suggested that games should be regulated with a relatively light touch, and dealt with in the same way that publications are: a general category for most games, a restricted category for the stuff that kids shouldn’t play, with the onus on importers and distributors to alert authorities about potential problems. This administrative pragmatism evaporated in later stages of the process, and it’s notably absent from internet regulation today.

Perhaps that’s because the move to regulate games occurred at an odd point. At the time, 16 Bit consoles like the SNES and the Sega Megadrive were entering Australian living rooms, and they became a focus of significant public anxiety. Parents and the media fretted about a new technology whose graphical sophistication represented a significant advance on previous domestic gaming systems, and there was a return of the perennial concern around a technology that youngsters seemed to understand better than their elders.

At the epicentre of panic in Australia in the early to mid 1990s were games like the forgettable Night Trap — which schlockily mixed violence and scantily clad sorority girls — and the more enduring Mortal Kombat, which featured a range of brutal finishing moves. These were depicted as paradigm-cases for a medium which was seen as exposing children to technologised brutality. Then as now, child protection was the justification for bringing a new media technology within the fold of media regulation and classification.

The key institutional moment that delivered the strictest gaming regulation in the world to Australia was the October 1993 Report of the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies on Video and Computer Games and Classification Issues, which turned the ALRC’s minimal approach on its head. The report is widely available in public libraries, and I’d encourage readers to browse a copy in order to understand how badly wrong regulatory processes can go.

Reacting to the public anxiety around games, the Senate Committee wanted to have its say before the scheduled meeting of attorneys-general to standardise regulation in 1994. Basically, they converted a very partial and negative view of games into a set of recommendations that were entirely taken up in framing the Act. Rather than bringing games regulation into line with other elements of the classification regime, games wound up being regulated more strictly than any other medium.

The presence of a moral entrepreneur like Brian Harradine, and the chair Margaret Reynolds‘s background in education activism, probably made the Committee more receptive to censorious perspectives on games. To be fair to them, almost all submissions to the inquiry urged the Committee to bring games under stricter control, and representatives for the games industry more or less acquiesced to the idea of regulation — although they may have got more than they bargained for. Not for the first or the last time, censorious and conservative voices were better organised than more liberal groups.

Because of the very narrow range of information it sought and received, the Committee was able to define games as children’s media, and to identify children with gamers and vice versa. A bunch of students from Calwell High School were arbitrarily wheeled in to represent "the gamer’s perspective" — and their anecdotal accounts of the violent and sexually explicit nature of games were taken as read. In part, the students’ testimony helped to convince a Committee of non-gamers that games were essentially violent.

Children were seen by the Committee as both vulnerable and clever enough to evade the attempts of technologically inept parents to supervise them. Most importantly, defining gamers as children allowed the Committee ‘s recommendation to feed directly into a form of "paedocentric" regulation, where the principle of child protection was allowed to outweigh adults rights to see (or play) what they wanted. For the Committee, there was simply no adult audience to consider.

The other justification the Committee developed for regulating games was that interactivity somehow magnifies the effects of media violence on vulnerable minds. The Committee conceded that no solid research was available — but considered that the risk posed by the "extra sensory intensity" of games was too great to allow them to be permissive to the same extent that regulators were with films and other media. While broadcast media is often attacked with clichés about its passivity, here interactivity was mobilised as an indictment.

Perhaps the oddest thing in the whole process was the Committee’s effective concession that nascent network technologies meant that its scheme was likely to be ineffective. A passage is worth quoting:

"The real ‘villain of the piece’ … is the personal computer bulletin board accessible through modems and telephone links, which [a witness]stated were impossible to regulate and police… The Committee was told that a child gaining access to unregulated material from overseas could down-load onto a home computer from which copies could easily be made… It is clear to the Committee that the situation presents the most challenging regulatory problem."

This is a "regulatory problem" that Australian governments have yet to solve — though the unregulability of digitised, globally networked communication technologies only seems to spur successive governments on to ever more frantic and futile attempts. Apart from the alibi of child protection, the strong link between the development of games regulation and the Internet filter is the way both show the state attempting more and more frantically to regulate
media which have eluded its grasp.

The concept of "symbolic policy" comes to us from political science, where it’s used to describe prescriptions that are more about states wanting to be seen to do something, even where it’s believed that that something will have negligible impact. We could look on the current scheme around computer games, and proposals for a filter in this light, if not for the apparent sincerity of their proponents — successive governments and ministers have certainly appeared to believe that attempts to censor media like games and the internet will work.

The message for those campaigning against the filter that comes out of the history of games regulation is this: keep at it.

For now the filter looks like a done deal, and it’s been suggested that implementing it will have a negligible political impact on the ALP at the next election. But games regulation has been brought to the table following persistent critique, lobbying and research by industry advocates, academics and ordinary gamers. An R18+ category for games hasn’t yet been achieved, and those concerned with the issue should be encouraged to make a submission. But as the average age of gamers has crept up towards 30, the idea that gamers are children has come to appear more and more absurd.

There’s every hope to think that, with persistent lobbying, the idea of an effective filter for the dynamic multiplicity of the internet will suffer the same fate.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.