O'Connor: Banned games "unlikely" to make R18+ cut

Federal Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor tells GameSpot it's unlikely that currently banned games will be reclassified even if an R18+ classification is introduced; remains hopeful that state and territories can reach a unanimous vote in support of R18+ at July's SCAG meeting.

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Last month, Federal Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor told GameSpot AU he has high hopes for resolving the R18+ issue by July this year, relying on a unanimous vote in favour of introducing the adult classification for video games at the upcoming Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) meeting in Adelaide.

However, the question of what will happen to games currently rated MA15+ and Refused Classification (RC) has to date remained unanswered. Now, in an interview with GameSpot AU, O'Connor has shed more light on the soon-to-be-finalised R18+ draft guidelines, saying that it would be unlikely that games that have been refused classification (that is, banned) by the Classification Board of Australia would be reclassified into the R18+ category should the new rating be introduced. What is far more likely to happen, according to O'Connor, is the reclassification of MA15+ titles as R18+ (with a view to removing the modifications of current MA15+ titles that have had to undergo changes in order to pass within the current guidelines).

O'Connor also told GameSpot AU he will "seek advice" on other options if state and territory attorneys-general fail to reach a unanimous vote on the issue in July.

Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor.
Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor.

GameSpot AU: You keep mentioning that you will be considering "other options" should R18+ not get passed by consensus in July. What do you mean by this?

Brendan O'Connor: My wish is that all jurisdictions reach agreement [on R18+ for games]. However, there are different arrangements in different jurisdictions, so even when there is consent over an issue, each jurisdiction will approach it differently. My preference is that we should reach agreement because I think getting a consensus means the new reforms will work more effectively. What I’ve outlined to the attorneys-general at the SCAG meeting in New Zealand is that the Commonwealth believes these reforms are long overdue--they've been on the agenda for more than a decade. It's time to resolve the matter through discussion and agreement. However, I said I would take advice about what else we can do if this does not happen.

The reason I won't outline or foreshadow in detail what these other options are is because I want the focus to be on reaching agreement. I wrote to all jurisdictions yesterday and asked them to comment upon the draft guidelines that we put forward, and I'm asking them to get back to us by mid-April so we can work through any existing differences.

GS AU: Does the Commonwealth have the power to simply override SCAG if it wants to? Or are there other decision-making processes that must be done before this can happen?

BO: The Commonwealth will have to go through other decision-making processes before that can happen. But look, the issue here is public support: the public are overwhelmingly in support of introducing a classification that will allow adults to play adult games and protect children from harmful material. We've seen this support countless times: whether in the reviews or surveys or polls that we've conducted, the fact is that between 80 and 98 percent of people support R18+ for games in one way or another. I believe it's encumbered upon those who are resisting to explain their reasons. Yes, there may be some legitimate concerns about the guidelines, and because of this, I want to give the jurisdictions a chance to debate their differences. I'm still optimistic that they [the attorneys-general] will all come to the view that we need change.

GS AU: What's in the proposed guidelines? What do they say about a possible R18+ category and the current MA15+ category?

BO: The guidelines reflect the following propositions: one, that we need to allow for a set of classifications in games similar to those that we have in film; two, that we need to look at redefining the MA15+ category for games to make sure that games that are played by adults in other countries are not played by children in Australia; three, that we need to look at what a new R18+ classification for games would mean; and finally, that we need to maintain the current Refused Classification (RC) classification. I have significant concerns about games that depict gratuitous violence or sexual acts, and I want to make sure that the introduction of an R18+ classification would not allow such material into this country, or indeed any material that would offend a reasonable person.

GS AU: You've mentioned before that an R18+ for games could mean the reclassification of current MA15+ titles into the new category. What about current RC titles that are banned by law in Australia? Could they see a reclassification into R18+, should it be introduced?

BO: We don't refuse many games in Australia. But those games that are currently RC would most likely stay that way. The advice I have received is that it's far less likely that any game that has been RC would get into R18+ if the classification was introduced; it's far more likely that MA15+ games will be reclassified and fit more suitably into R18+. Having said that, it may be that some games that did not make it into MA15+ may find themselves in a position to get into R18+, but as always, these matters are entirely for the Classification Board. The reclassifying of MA15+ games would also mean that some of the modifications in current MA15+ games would no longer be necessary. My problem with these modifications and changes in MA15+ games is that it does not matter if the game has been modified to fit within the current MA15+ guidelines: the content itself is still adult and should not be allowed to be accessed by minors. At the moment, parents see the MA15+ sticker and think that it’s some sort of signal that the game in question is suitable for anyone under the age of 18, which means 12- and 13-year-olds are playing these games. This has to stop. It's time for our classification system to grow up.

GS AU: Last month, the Classification Board effectively banned Warner Bros.' fighting game Mortal Kombat, slapping an RC rating on the title. The appeal by Warner Bros. to the Classification Review Board was also unsuccessful, meaning that the game is currently banned for sale in Australia. What are your thoughts on this decision? Was it a fair one, given games currently rated MA15+ feature similar violent content?

BO: I'm seeking a brief on that decision because there has been public disquiet on the issue. However, I have to point out that this is a Classification Board issue. The government's role is to determine the rules, not to apply them. What I want to do is make sure the rules are effective. As for the Mortal Kombat decision, it has no bearing on my interest in reforming this area. My concerns are broader: I want to fix the rules, not look at one matter over another.

GS AU: If an R18+ rating for games is passed, do you think there needs to be stricter control at a retail level where R18+ games will be sold?

BO: I definitely think it should be something we talk about, yes. However, I think the introduction of R18+ will act as a much better guide for parents than anything that happens at the point of sale. This is because parents will realise that these games are not suitable for children. They will suddenly become more involved in the decision process if R18+ for games is passed. Is it fail-safe? No. But hey, just because people speed doesn't mean we can't have laws that govern how fast cars should be allowed to go. Laws send a message about what's acceptable behaviour in the community.

GS AU: It's great to see the federal government finally fighting for this issue alongside the gaming community. But why did it take you so long to form your position on this matter?

BO: The first thing I did as Minister of Home Affairs was seek to get information on the current classification system in Australia. We had academics review the causal links between social behaviour and games; we had reviews done, surveys conducted, etc. I didn't state my position before because I did not want to prejudice the process until we had those results. I also prefer to do these things in-house with the government. But once we had all the evidence, I knew it was time to make our position public, especially given the overwhelming community support for R18+. And I think doing so, we have freed up the debate in the public forum.

As Minster for Home Affairs, I have brought this issue to the state and territory attorneys-general three times. We have to make a decision now, because we cannot continue to go round in circles.

GS AU: Thanks for your time, minister.

BO: Thank you.

Stay tuned to GameSpot AU as we bring you more R18+ news. For more on the issue, visit GameSpot AU's previous coverage.

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