Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The financial benefits of a R18+ rating for games

This is our culture and our economy:

CALL of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has racked up more record sales of $US550 million ($593 million) in its first five days, but the publisher Activision Blizzard is still concerned about weak consumer spending.
The game, a first-person-shooter that lets gamers play as elite soldiers hunting down targets from South America to Afghanistan, beat the record set by last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV in its first week.
Last week it said it sold 4.7 million copies for a total of $US310 million ($333.3 million) on its first day in the US and UK alone.
Activision said five-day sales for Modern Warfare 2 topped the $US394 million ($423.6 million) earned at the box office by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in its first five days.
The video game bested Batman film The Dark Knight, which had held the record for the top opening weekend ever by taking in $US158.4 million ($170.3 million) in July 2008.

There is always a lag between capitalism and culture, though inevitably the dollar wins through. However it takes some time for societies to integrate in and accept certain cultural artifacts, regardless of sales. The rise of evangelical literature/music/films (such as the Left Behind series) is one example, another that suffers is video games. While you will see the occasional article in the papers about them, their coverage pales into comparison compared to films, despite computer games being a bigger industry for films, both in Australia and world wide. Indeed according to the Canberra Times (p6 Monday Nov 23 2009) this morning (no online copy) most Australian’s are gamers:

Computer games are set to be an bigger part of Christmas entertainment than ever this year, with strong growth for an industry now worth $2 billion in Australia….“The average age of the gamer in Australia is 30 and another key figure is that almost half (46%) the gamers in Australia are actually female”… Dr Jeffery Brand, the head of Bond University’s communications and media studies school, said most Australian homes had a game device.
“We have roughly seven out of 10 Australian’s playing computer games at some point in the year” he said. “Most of those, the vast majority of that 70 per cent, are playing daily or every other day”.

All this makes it even stranger then that in Australia, we do not have an R18+ rating for computer games. The Federal Classifications ACT was set in 1995, a lifetime ago in the industries view, with only limited consultation since. The biggest hold up it seems is the gentleman’s agreement that Australia has uniform laws on censorship via COAG. Despite the fact that this isn’t the case in videos (The ACT sells X rated videos, whilst other states have banned them), the convention has given South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson an effective veto power over such a large industry. In the last year some of the biggest computer games released including Fallout 3, GTA IV and Left 4 Dead 2 have all been refused classification (ie banned) or major changes forced on the overseas producers. That means lost sales, as people either dont buy, buy overseas, or simply pirate the game. When such contempt for the laws is commonplace, it is the laws that must change.

Yet these loses pale in comparison to the loss and harm the restrictions place on the development of a local Australian computer games industry, one in which Australia has some key niche advantages. The industry requires highly trained professionals which we produce in droves, it is an industry that depends on quality not quantity (meaning it can’t be outsourced to asian factory workers) and it is green and high paying business, returning nice tax benefits to the country. Yet both the Howard and now Rudd governments have ignored the industry, much as they have almost all high-tech industries. Australian governments it seems consider it a core business of theirs to spend billions of tax payer dollars to protect already dead industries (parts of our manafacturing and agricultural fields for instance) whilst not only ignoring but hampering the rise of new industries that seem well suited to our demographics and skills. The loss could already be measured in the billions (I know of 2 ACT games manufacturers that have closed and gone offshore in the last few years) and with video games set to grow, will be worth tens of billions in years to come.

From my reading of the Classification ACT’s it seems it would only require a change in the Federal law, and the compliance of one state or territory for video games to be classified at a R18+ rating by the OFLC and sold only in those states or territories that changed their law to accommodate it. (If there’s something I’m overlooking in my reading of the act, please email me or post a correction below.) For the loss of uniform laws on the issue, each state and territory could choose to encourage or restrict the industry in their territory. South Australian voters could continue to ban the sale of R18+ games, whilst those in the ACT or Victoria allow it. This would be competitive federalism at its best, something the constitution writers were very keen to encourage.

The potential sales revenue for any state which was the first to move would be immense. They would become the only port of call for the sale of these games, dramatically reducing overseas sales of games, and likely enticing video game production companies to consider moving their business to those cities in order to be able to freely develop their products. That reassurance would be a big boost for an industry that thanks to increasing photo-realistic graphics is having to continually re-account for why its material is classifiable as only MA 15+. What was assured of passing 5 years ago, might not today, without any significantly different levels of gore, just a more natural depiction of it thanks to better technology. Equally potential games producers (which need be only a professional working from a home office developing a game for phones as much as the multi-million dollar blockbusters like Bioshock 2 (produced in Australia) could be enticed to start their own businesses once the laws are expanded and clarified.

Despite massive tax payer funded handouts, Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry and some of its agricultural as well But in high tech and value adding areas, such as the original idea’s, design and marketing, Australian workers and companies are almost impossible to beat. I don’t know who coined the phrase (I suspect Paul Keating), but the claim Australia needs to become the brain to Asia’s brawn has always struck me as very good economic sense. By not having a R18+ rating we are not only continuing with laws that do not reflect community sentiment, but are actively denying Australia billions in lost revenue in both production and sales in what is is fast becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world. We simply can’t afford not to make the necessary changes and get Australia’s computer games industry into action.

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  1. chris

     /  November 23, 2009

    Agreed, and its not just the gaming industry that’s suffering. We led the world for 50 years in Solar energy research before losing funding, the lack of vision in this country can be disturbing.

  2. This issue is also about censorship of an electronic art form. Non-gamers may scoff, though more and more exquisite creativity is being incorporated into these games that have to be chopped and changed to scrape in under the M15+ rating.

    So then, instead of bloody zombies getting decimated – non-bloody zombies are – what difference this makes, I have no idea. On top of that, 15 year olds can play what otherwise should be a R18+ game.

    Mr Atkinson’s arguments are full of concerning personal bias that acknowledges – then blatantly ignores the independent research on this issue. I read his 6 page letter (http://www.growupaustralia.com/a-letter-from-michael-atkinson-193/) on the subject slack jawed and in disturbed as to his audacity to completely ignore the views of his constituents and so strongly put forward his personal agenda as law.

    He talks about how we should push aside the strong parental locks available on gaming consoles and now Windows 7, because kids are technologically adept. I think he’s gotten this confused with the ‘net nanny’ excuse the government released. Regardless, there aren’t any ways to lock out R rated films from being played or porn magazines from being read (however, in Mr Atkinson’s perfect world, I imagine these wouldn’t exist either)

    Phew. Sorry, I’m going to make a blog entry about this instead. I could go on forever.

  3. You’re right Peta, but unfortunately the cultural lobby is yet to accept games as a legitimate area (or are very slow, and tend to note only the big hollywood style blockbuster games rather than the full range available).

    So politicians arn’t being lobbied as they should by those who normally help protect the arts/entertainment, whilst the wowsers , having lost efforts to censor books, radio, and TV are now making their stand on the net and games.

    They will lose out of course, but it’s going to take time. What’s really needed is to pull in the business lobbies to help combat their arguments, in a way that otherwise distracted politicians will see. Unfortunately in this country the argument “it improves personal freedom” just doesn’t carry much weight rhetorically.

  4. Andrew R

     /  November 25, 2009

    To further illustrate your point, I just saw that Melbourne games development company, Firemint, took out the arts and entertainment category of the 47th annual Australian Export Awards a couple of days ago.

  5. chris

     /  November 25, 2009

    http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2009/11/nit_20091120_1830.mp3

    interview with Atkinson & David Doe on radio national

  6. Cheers chris

  7. Hine

     /  March 16, 2010

    ehh. all the government wants is his money for R18 video games
    i reakon that games should be legalize and the government should get nothing and see if he will approve them after that.
    Its all about money these days