The Morrison government has promised to reform Australia’s video game rating system if re-elected this month, but did not speak with the industry about the announcement and is yet to respond to a 2019 public consultation on the issue.
The changes floated by Communications minister Paul fletcher on Wednesday include new minimum classifications ratings for games featuring “loot boxes” and more appropriate classification and labelling of content that sexualises children, depicts suicide or shows violence against women.
The Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) said it worked closely with the government on a broad 2019 review of Australia’s classification Scheme, which included if the criteria for classifying video games still reflected community standards and what type of content should be classified.
But the gaming industry group and the other 83 submitters to the 2019 consultation are yet to receive a formal response from the government.
A 2018 Senate Committee inquiry into loot boxes specifically warned of gambling related harms stemming from the in-game mechanism, and recommended a comprehensive review. The government did respond to this inquiry but did not endorse the recommendation, saying a formal departmental review of loot boxes was “not warranted”.
But last week, several years after the inquiries wrapped up, Mr Fletcher made an election promise to “strengthen and modernise” Australia’s classification system and promised minimum classifications for games with loot boxes.
He flagged another round of stakeholder consultations but made no mention of the previous inquiries, instead pointing to children’s safety and “clear community concerns”.
“The Government’s priority is keeping Australians safe online, so having clearer advice alerting parents and other consumers to the presence of in-game purchases, such as loot boxes, will help them manage their and their children’s engagement with this content,” Mr Fletcher said in statement.
“This isn’t about banning or censoring content: it’s about ensuring families can make more informed choices.”
The announcement and the signalling out of specific issues caught the IGEA by surprise.
“We weren’t alerted that this policy announcement was going to come and it was entirely unexpected as well,” IGEA director of policy & government affairs Ben Au told InnovationAus.com
“The topics mentioned in that announcement have not been topics that any part of the government has really raised concerns about for a while now.”
Even in the late 2019 review of the classification scheme, loot boxes and protecting viewers and players from disturbing content had not been “the most pressing” issue, Mr Au said.
The final report from the classification scheme review was handed to government in early-to-mid 2020, Mr Au said. It has not been publicly released or received a formal government response.
Mr Au said he was confident the review contained helpful recommendations after a robust consultation process that attracted more than 80 submissions and was led by former senior Australian public servant and policymaker Neville Stevens.
If more consultations on content rating and loot boxes are to come, they should build on the earlier review, according to the IGEA, which is calling for the review or at least a summary of its findings to be published.
“We could tell from the way that the review was tracking that there were there was some really interesting and helpful recommendations that we think that the review team ultimately made to government,” Mr Au said.
“…ultimately, the reality is that the national classification scheme is probably one of the oldest kind of frameworks — certainly within liberal democracies — around the world.”
The framework was deliberately established with a requirement the Commonwealth and states and territories agree to major reforms, in part to stop any particular government from abusing the scheme, Mr Au said.
The system means regardless of the federal government’s promise to change it, the decision won’t be the Coalition’s alone.
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