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Using Science for Video Classification, instead of Guesswork

By Elizabeth Handsley - 18th October 2013

There is strong evidence that consumption of violent media risks influencing people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. The evidence cannot ever be conclusive but in our society we take some pretty drastic measures based on less than ironclad proof.

We make people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages based on the balance of probabilities - that is, if they are more likely than not to be at fault for harm to someone else. We lock people up for life based on the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. We should not be nervous about limiting legal access to films and games based on the strong consensus among psychologists and neuroscientists described at last Friday’s Fourth Annual Conference on Children and the Media.

This is all the more so considering that the healthy development of children is at stake. In such matters, we should abide by Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ensuring that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration. Even without the Convention, we have a strong tradition in our legal system of using the precautionary principle where children are concerned: we don’t ask whether a harmful force is 100% proven when it comes to parental access, so why should we require it when it comes to video game distributors’ access?

Let’s forget about this pointless search for certainty, and stop listening to the ‘merchants of doubt’ who plague this area much in the same way that denialists derail discussion about how to address climate change. Let’s accept that the evidence is good enough to justify action.

Regulatory action to respond to the science on violent media would not simply be a matter of tightening up access on all fronts. A root and branch review of the classification categories and criteria is needed to shift the focus away from what is offensive to what is harmful based on the evidence. The results of such a process might be quite surprising: for example a game can currently be moved into a lower classification category if the consequences of the violence are made less visible. But the science tells us that violence depicted without consequences is more likely to desensitise the viewer. So in a system based on the science, a game with fewer visible consequences might in fact be classified higher.

The guidelines for classifying games were recently revised in the process of introducing an R18+ classification, supposedly to respond to the fact that people thought games rated higher than for 15 year olds overseas should be rated higher than MA15+ here. The revision was done without a proper drafting process, or any systematic reference to the research on the ways that violent media risk influencing thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. The results are now showing that many games still meeting the criteria for MA15+ are rated higher in Europe and/or the US. The SA Attorney-General, John Rau, recently called for a review in light of this fact and he was correct to do so.

Obviously a classification system can only do so much, especially in a time when quantities of unregulated material can be accessed via the internet. But parents still need the support that comes from classification statements when deciding what their children should be able to see, and when explaining their decisions to their children.

And if you don’t think that parents need the support of society at large via our classification system in raising happy, healthy children, remember that the people whose empathy is being eroded just might end up looking after you in your old age.

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