R18+ rating added for videogames … but are children protected?


This article is by Elizabeth Handsley, Professor of Law at Flinders University. It was first published on The Conversation and is re-published here with permission.

analysis New guidelines for the classification of videogames have been released by Federal Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and, despite being a step in the right direction, the revisions are largely disappointing and a missed opportunity.

The Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games – which were revised to account for the introduction of an R18+ classification – are an important step towards the enhanced protection of minors which has been held out as a result of the reform.

Under the existing system, the highest legal classification a game can be given is MA15+. This year the Parliament has amended the law to allow an R18+ classification, in response to community concerns that the strong, contextually justified violence available in MA15+ was not suitable for anybody under 18. However it was necessary to change the guidelines to ensure that level of violence would no longer be available at MA15+.

While the revised guidelines show an obvious intent to meet community expectations about enhanced protection for minors – by tightening up the level of violence permissible at MA15+ – there was a disappointing lack of public consultation during their creation.

Instead the draft guidelines were simply placed on a website, with no proper call for public comment. As the guidelines are more important to the policy aim than the introduction of the new classification, consultation on them should have been at least as widely publicised. Nor does there appear to have been any proper legislative drafting process; rather the guidelines were passed around for individual ministers to make their own changes and additions.

The result is a patch-up job with minimal substantive changes. Worse, some of the wording is awkward and unclear. The test for sexual violence at the R18+ level, for instance, stretches logic by distinguishing between “implied sexual violence” which is “visually depicted”, and that which is not visually depicted.

The guidelines go on to state that the classification does not permit implied sexual violence that is visually depicted if it is “interactive, not justified by context or related to incentives or rewards”. I doubt any self-respecting legislative drafter would have mixed up positives and negatives in this way.

The new guidelines also contain a restriction on depictions of “actual” sexual activity, thereby failing to recognise that nothing in a game is “actual”. The word, I imagine, was chosen to make a distinction from depictions of “implied” sexual activity, but if this was the case, a drafter would have known that the appropriate word would have been “explicit”.

Perhaps more importantly, the new guidelines contain more changes on sexual activity, nudity and drug use than they do on violence. It was violence driving the push for an R18+ classification in the first place and violence should have been central to the changes.

Rather, the violence-related changes come across as an afterthought; for example, all classification levels contain changes relating to sex, drugs and nudity but the criteria for non-sexual violence change only at G and MA15+. The dominance of the sex-related changes, in my view, further entrenches the classification system as one based on moralistic concerns rather than the clear evidence about what can influence children’s development in detrimental ways.

I have been disappointed (but not surprised) to see a renewal of claims by the gaming industry of an absence of evidence violent interactive games (by demanding active engagement) can have a stronger influence on users than film (which demands only passive engagement).

Interactive games may not have been around long enough for there to be conclusive evidence about enhanced impact through interactivity, but as this UNICEF Multigrade Teacher’s Handbook reminds us, we do have plenty of evidence that children learn better by doing than by watching, especially through repetition and rewards. The analogy to interactive and passive media experiences is powerful enough to justify a different approach to the classification of games.

Of course the comments sections of articles and online forums are still full of pundits protesting about an alleged lack of evidence that violent media of any kind can have an influence on its users. These claims sound strange coming at the end of a lengthy campaign for an R18+ classification that was driven by hand-wringing about all the inappropriate material currently available to minors at MA15+.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees some games are inappropriate for minors – the problem is that some people are happy to reach that conclusion based on a moralistic assessment of the material, or on gut-feeling and guesswork, or on the intent of the developer, rather than on the weight of the scientific evidence that exists as to how violent media can influence people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviour.

People who weigh in to the debate over the appropriate role of this evidence in policy formation nearly always presume that the main, or only, question is whether violent media begets violent behaviour. In doing so they overlook the more subtle but potentially widespread influences on thoughts and especially attitudes.

Desensitisation to violence is at least as big a concern for the future of our society as increased tendencies to aggressive behaviour. Possibly more so because, while parents and carers have some opportunity to notice and address behavioural changes, attitudinal ones might go unnoticed and unchecked until it is too late.

The revised guidelines for videogames are another lost opportunity for a root-and-branch, considered review to base the classification system on the science, rather than on guesswork and moral judgment.

If we are going to have a classification system based on the wide recognition that media content can be harmful to minors, it’s imperative that we take seriously the evidence about what is harmful, and build the criteria around that.

Further reading:

In addition to her role as Professor of Law at Flinders University, Elizabeth Handsley is the President of the Australian Council on Children and the Media. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. Image credit: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment Australia

The Conversation


  1. but are children protected?

    That, as always is up to the parents. (and retailers with a concious *snerk*).

  2. *sigh*

    It would be nice if the “scientific evidence” linked was more than just the last 7 pages of a 330 page study but i digress…

    You know what I would sincerely like to agree w/ the article at hand (ie. the guidelines really are aneamic at this point) but the article falls in the same pitfall of “won’t someone think of the children/violence is bad” routine

    And honestly I think every gamer has had enough of this. If you want an even discussion on the guidelines then its fine but these folks have to realise that these guidelines are also for *ADULTS* and most of the stuff they’ve poked on about was for the *drum roll* R18+ classification. In fact if you check the guidelines it’s actually implied that video games should be set at a higher standard of scrutiny due to interactivity.

    Compare it w/ film and other ratings and its practically the same word for word except games have an interactivity caveat.

  3. This article is let down by its hypocritical tone. It makes great points about waiting for the science, and then wades into the debate without waiting for the science.

    It is like saying: “No one knows if cigarettes kill you, and there’s no evidence for it yet so we should all stop and argue on the evidence, but since we are here, I’d like to point out that people have been going camping for years, and this report from the UN shows that people that know how to light a camp fire live longer”.

    Additionally, there’s this thing many non-gamer commenters always get wrong on this topic. Violent video games don’t teach you to be violent, or ignore violence. What they teach you, is to recognise violent actors (identify the bad guy), to protect yourself from harm (don’t get killed by the bad guy), and yes, by the application of the most efficient amount of violence, kill the bad guy (kill the bad guy, but don’t waste ammo, or time, or do so with the most efficient move or perhaps do so without being noticed).

    But hey, I’ve only been playing violent first-person games for 20 years, and since that time I can count the number of fights I’ve been in on one hand. (all of which occurred 15+ years ago) I don’t even need hands to count the number of fights I have ever *wanted* to be in or started. But I guess anecdotal evidence isn’t real evidence.

  4. Subheadings on the standard movie and game classifications provide information about specific ‘danger points’ – things like ‘contains harsh language’ or ‘violence’ or ‘nudity’.

    Ever wondered why there isn’t a warning like ‘Contains high levels of interactivity’?

    The concept that interactivity is dangerous to children leaves me shaking my head. To my mind, watching a violent scene on TV is actually _more_ desensitizing than playing one in a first-person-shooter, because in a FPS the player is required to take responsibility for their actions (to a varying degree, based on the game of course).

  5. Renai, I’m really surprised you’ve published this. It clearly fails the “evidence-based” reasoning that is common with what I expect from Delimiter.

    I’m really not sure where to begin, but I think the first thing that we need to do is recognize the purpose of the classification system. From page one of the National Classification Code:

    “Classification decisions are to give effect, as far as possible, to the following principles:
    (a) adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want;”

    The addition of the R18+ classification should be seen as allowing for the fact that the majority of gamers today are adults and that children are actually a minority. The average age of gamers in Australia is 32, and is quickly approaching the average age of the population as a whole.

    Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be protecting children, but that’s where the majority of this article falls apart.

    Firstly, a link to a Unicef handbook that tells us “learn better by doing than by watching” is complete bollocks. Firstly, what it actually says is “Children learn by doing, using their senses, exploring their environment of people, things, places and events.” Any rational person can see that pressing a button on a controller is not “doing”. Why don’t we all use driving simulators to teach driving, if that were the case? It’d be much safer overall if we can take learners off the streets.

    Secondly, a “study” by the notorious Craig Anderson is not evidence of anything. Craig Anderson is trotted out by “think of the children” types all the time, but he is widely discredited for overstating his results and failing to adequately acknowledge alternate views or limitations of the data he has.

    From the opinion of the court in Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association:

    California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.”

    In fact, despite what the author claims, there actually is no evidence that there is a link between violent video games and violent behaviour. It may surprise the author that there are in fact studies which show that access violent video games actually correlate to lower crime rates: “Overall, violent video games lead to decreases in violent crime.”

    Again, I’m really disappointed to see something of this caliber on Delimiter.

    • I published it precisely to stimulate comments like this. I won’t always publish articles which most of the readers support on Delimiter — sometimes I’ll publish articles which represent a minority view, to see what people think of it.

      Delimiter is not a “yes-man” publication :)

      • Hmm, fair enough I suppose. I guess I’m just tired of a certain lobby seemingly getting all of the ears in parliament to the exclusion of any actual evidence-based rational discussion of the issue.

        The fact that it took over ten years to even establish an R18+ rating for video games is testament to the backwards nature of censorship in Australia. Clearly “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want” is not actually given the priority it’s position as the number one principle in the National Classification Code would imply.

  6. I don’t believe there is any evidence for “interactive fake violence” being worse/better than “passive fake violence”, in fact I’ve seen studies that show that “normal” people know the difference between fake and real violence and react very differently to “real” vs “fake”.

    The biggest problem with the classification system is that it is trying to balance:

    A. The rights of adults to watch/play things.
    B. Is to “protect” people from what they/general society might find offensive.
    C. is to protect children from material that may cause them harm.

    A and B. are always the biggest problem here. Group A lobbies (especially the hard right christian ones) push for more restrictions, while group B (games, action film fans, etc) push to have these restrictions balanced, or eased.

    At the end of the day, C should be one of the easier things to deal with really, if anything (movie or game) shows breasts, drugs or blood , 18+ it, the kiddies are saved and we can all go on with our lives the way we want.

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