Reforms for the Australian video game industry

Article  by  Arnaud MIQUEL  •  Published 22.11.2011  •  Updated 23.11.2011
[NEWS] Following the closing of several development studios, Australian video game professionals have called the government to give greater recognition to the specificities of their industry. A national study has helped to dig deeper into the issue by providing information about user profiles and practices.
Times are hard for the Australian video game industry. In response to a change in editorial line by parent company THQ - owner of the studio since 2004 - Blue Tongue (Starship Troopers, Polar Express, De Blob) was forced to close in August 2011, making over a hundred designers, developers and programmers redundant. A month later, Visceral Games (Dead Space) suffered the same fate after EA Interactive withdrew. The promising studio Team Bondi, (L.A. Noire) which had gone into receivership shortly before, may also encounter difficulties in the future.
The advantages afforded by the Australian dollar are clearly encouraging foreign investment into the country, but it has to be said that Australia is not a favourable host for video games. A real lack of financial support and restrictive laws has meant that the main players in this sector are looking elsewhere. For example, Morgan Lean from the Epiphany Games studio said that the only money put forward was by Screen Australia consisting of between $3 and $5 million to be shared between all kinds of multimedia production.


Yet video game culture appears to have penetrated the Australian market rather well, winning over families, as is shown in the report Digital Australia, published early October 2011. The national study carried out by Bond University in Queensland for the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association, or iGEA, endeavoured to define, based on a sample of over 1,200 Australian homes, consumer patterns with regard to video games and the use of IT and digital media. The benefits of an association that conducts this kind of research, bringing together professionals from the video game sector, are clear. Its aim is to define profiles and consumer usage patterns, bringing to the attention of those who are influential in the industry how video games are really being used and to what degree they are undervalued.

With the national market reaching $1.7 billion in 2010, some interesting information brought to light is that the gaming population is getting older at the same time as video game usage is spreading to all parts of society. The average age of a video game player was 30 in 2008; now, the typical Australian player is a 32-year-old male who plays approximately one hour each day, and who has 12 years of experience in this type of digital activity. The most widespread types of gaming hardware are home consoles (63 %) followed closely by PCs (62 %), mobile telephones, (43 %) and tablets and portable consoles, both on equal footing (13 %). The study reveals that, in the run-up to 2012, almost all homes in the country (99 %) are now equipped with a computer.

Although the responses given in the study reveal that 75 % of Australian video game players are aged 18 and older, several pages of the report nonetheless look at parents’ attitudes to their children’s video games. It seems that many parents play video games with their children (88 % in the case of parents who already play) and that 90 % of them use these shared experiences as an educational tool and a springboard for discussions. Parents who play have also been shown to pay more attention to the classification systems of the games their children play than non-players. However, greater awareness of these mechanisms may appear insufficient in light of the fact that only one in two parents even knows how to set up parental controls.
Bearing in mind the ongoing debate between the video game industry and the government on issues regarding game classification rules, it could be worthwhile to make use of the new data and information obtained directly from consumers in order to find a solution to the problem. Games are classified in Australia based on the outdated notion that they constitute a form of entertainment limited to an adolescent public. The classification system stops at MA15+, which means that games in this category have content for an informed public, aged 15 years or older. By making it impossible to place games in a higher category, the government constrains companies to under-class their own games in terms of their level of violence; otherwise, they will be banned from the country. This incoherence in the rating system is regularly denounced by Australian video game professionals who, as a result of this, are demanding that a new classification system be created, namely the R18+ ratingfor content intended for adults only.
The Justice Minister Robert McClelland, following up these complaints, asked for an in-depth study on this matter which was published by the ALRC (Australian Law Reform Commission) at the end of September 2011. The report, entitled National Classification Scheme Review Discussion Paper, entailed a full analysis of the Australian classification system and, by way of a conclusion, issued 43 reform proposals, mainly regarding the introduction of a new mechanism to cover all current multimedia platforms. The commission came down in favour of a classification system for video games to be implemented voluntarily by editors for three certifications: G (general), PG (parental guidance) and M (moderate content). If a game is to be placed in a category above this, government approval will have to be obtained.
The Australian government reacted swiftly to these proposals, taking into account new forms of distribution for digital creations: on 11 October, 2011, the Minister of Home Affairs, Brendan O'Connor proposed an amendment to the classification system before Parliament, which would enable the release of online and mobile video games without a classification for a period of two years. The minister fully recognised that a mechanism for this technology was long overdue, and stated during a press conference that “the current classification system had not foreseen the power of smartphone technology and even less such rapid growth of online games or applications for mobile telephones.”
In spite of everything, the Minister for Home Affairs does not appear very confident about the chances of the text getting through this year, particularly because of outdated ideas that persist about the media in the upper echelons of power. Professionals in the sector do however continue to believe in it, and still hope they will be able to count on the $2.5 billion of business in 2015, as stated in the latest forecasts in the Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2011-2015 quoted by PwC.
If on 15 and 16 October 2011, professionals in this sector did not appear to react strongly to these proposals, we can be sure that the gathering at the largest video game trade fair in Australia, the EB Games Expo 2011, will have been an opportunity to discuss these new market opportunities, which are currently being defined. Moreover, while seizing upon these subjects to give material for discussion at its GAME Conference between 27 and 29 October 2011, the University of Macquarie paid special attention to the issues raised by the creation of a certificate R18+ for the country, and to the ways in which video games are treated compared with other forms of media encountered in society.

Translation by Peter Moss
Photo Credit:  screenshot EB Expo 2011
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