Fridge magnets for media emergencies

Katharine Neil

42 films and games were banned in Australia over the last year. What better way to round the year off than with an inaugural International Ratings Conference?

In late September, Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) held a conference in Sydney attended by international media classifiers. The theme was “Classification in a Convergent World”, a reflection of the view that the rapidly evolving way that media is produced, distributed and consumed has resulted in media ‘convergence.’ In Australia this prompted legislators in March this year to combine the way computer games and films are classified into one set of guidelines.

Not all classifiers agree with the notion that we are living in a “convergent world.” In fact New Zealand Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, used his presentation to argue that we were in fact seeing media divergence, and reminded us that to a great extent the medium really is the message.

I have to wonder how much the vogue for talking about ‘convergence’ is the result of euphoric cross-marketing spin. To what extent, beyond superficial production values, have the fundamentals of video games and films actually become similar media? Sure, Lord Of the Rings game may look almost as good as the movie but does that mean we’re witnessing a revolution in gameplay that draws on key structural characteristics of the film medium?

A panel of speakers convened by Margaret Pomeranz and including the NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus, had its own interpretation of the “convergent world” theme. Panellists pointed to the ridiculous attempt to police media consumption within national borders when, for example, any Australian with a high speed internet connection can view the banned film Ken Park. Pomeranz proposed an international, purely informational system for media classification, which sounded extremely sensible, but unfortunately we live in a world where the most rational ideas tend to be dismissed as naïve idealism.

One high profile and controversial guest at the conference was American academic Dr Craig Anderson, famous for his strong public statements against video game violence. He naturally became very popular with the mainstream Australian press while here. Anderson presented a confusing (and suspiciously tersely labeled) array of bar graphs with which he attempted to convince us that there is more evidence of a link between media violence and real world violence than between smoking and lung cancer.

By contrast the other academic delegates characterised the results of international media effects research as too conflicting to draw useful conclusions. Australian academic Dr Jeff Brand had the last word in this debate with a commonsense observation: if there was a link between video game violence and real world violence we’d be witnessing a social epidemic and we simply aren’t.

In 2001 Brand was commissioned by the OFLC to write a report based on community submissions as part of a review of their film and game classification guidelines. The most important recommendation in a practical sense was the addition of an R18+ rating for games. This would go some way to halt the internationally notorious Australian practice of cutting and banning popular computer games. Australian gamers were outraged when the adult rating was undemocratically stymied by a veto vote from the Federal and South Australian Attorneys-General. Neither Darryl Williams nor the OFLC attempted to defend this decision during the conference beyond saying the guidelines with respect to games enjoyed “community support”, which they quite clearly don’t given Dr Brand’s findings. So whose are the community voices that the politicians are listening to?

The most visible lobby group from the “will somebody please think of the children” camp is Young Media Australia. From their name you might guess they’re a youth rights advocacy group run by young people but in fact they are censorship advocates and notorious television complaint filers who are visibly in their autumn years. I was struck by the inclusion of Young Media Australia fridge magnets in our conference satchels. The magnet advertises a “helpline” staffed by a real person 24 hours, 7 days a week (it’s true—I checked). Presumably we are supposed to stick it up next to the federal government’s terrorist hotline fridge magnet. That number, in case of media effects emergency, is 1800 700 357.

The classifiers state their primary aim is to safeguard the welfare of young people, and so I found it interesting that there was no youth or consumer representation visible at the conference. The debates centred around how to achieve a balance between protecting children from harm and giving adults the right to see and hear what they want, and arguing over whose duty it is to regulate young people’s media consumption—parents or the state. However, the notion of the right of young people to make choices about their own media consumption was given little attention.

Dr Michael Flood from The Australia Institute pointed out the inconsistency of having the age at which graphic sex is viewable set at 18 while the age of consent is 16. This could be applied to the assumptions about games inherent in the OFLC’s guidelines: that the impact of content is strengthened by interactivity (but as even Craig Anderson admits, this is mere theoretical speculation). Surely actual sex is the ultimate in interactive pornography?

Another telling observation came from Doug Lowenstein from the Entertainment Software Association in the US, who gave a somewhat reluctant response when asked to explain the exact cultural differences between Australia and the US that justified such different sets of regulation for videogames. He pointed out that the notion of protecting free speech is more culturally ingrained in the US than it is here. In fact a recent move by one US state to legislate point of sale restrictions of games to minors was overturned in court on the basis that it infringed the constitutional rights of young people.

I found the conference on the whole quite informative and interesting, and yet the benign and civilised atmosphere belied the true nature of what is at stake. I still remember David Marr’s words on the late night news broadcast a few months ago when the police broke up that screening of Ken Park in Sydney. From the midst of the scuffle he shouted, “This is what censorship means”: simple and blunt physical enforcement by the repressive arm of the state so that some people may not see what certain others don’t want them to.

Surely there’s another option: investment in good quality media. Anyone who truly cares about what kind of entertainment young people consume courtesy of “exploitative sex and violence sells” corporate media empires should be championing more state funding for public broadcasting and funding for videogames as cultural, not just commercial investment. And perhaps one day young people, indeed all people, will be able to make real choices about the media they consume.

“Classification in a Convergent World”, Office of Film and Literature Classification Conference, Crown Plaza, Darling Harbour, Sydney, Sept 21-24

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 16

© Katherine Neil; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003