The Federal Government last week introduced legislation to create an R18+ classification for computer games from the beginning of 2013.
Until now violent or sexually explicit games have had to be either banned or put into the MA15+ classification that is accessible to minors. The legislation represents a breakthrough in that it will allow adults to play a wider range of games, while teenagers will be protected.
This protection has prompted the Catholic Bishops to offer cautious support for the new classification. Father Richard Leonard of the Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting said the old system is flawed because many games that should have received a restricted rating ended up attracting the highest possible MA15+ rating that includes content ostensibly suitable for older teenagers.
'Some parents have assumed that on seeing this classification on the cover of a computer game that these games were deemed to have less adult content. But they do not.'
The changes represent a step forward for both child protection and adult civil liberties. However they do beg the question of whether shifting the boundaries to legalise more sexually explicit and more violent content really serves a social purpose.
Barbara Biggins of the Australian Council on Children and the Media does just that. She has been outspoken in expressing her conviction that the R18+ classification will lead to desensitisation, loss of empathy and an increase in risk taking activities.
Unfortunately Biggins' style is polemical. She appears to see only propaganda in the arguments of R18+ supporters, and this lowers the quality of the debate. She makes possibly important, but undeveloped, points, for example that video game violence is more sinister than violence in the cinema because 'you are rewarded for being the best at violence'.
Such assertions are not backed up by scholarly research, according to Christopher Ferguson, a US psychologist and video game violence researcher from the A&M International University in Texas. He regards Biggins' presentation of the facts about the link between video violence and actual violence as 'not accurate'.
He wrote on the ABC's The Drum website last April that in recent research he conducted he found that youth exposed to violent video games actually engaged in more pro-social behaviours. The scholarly community, he says, is becoming quite skeptical about claims such as those of Biggins.
'In fact increasing numbers of scholars have criticised this conclusion, pointing out serious methodological flaws in much of the research as well as the irresponsible repetition of debunked "urban legends".'
Significantly Ferguson's research has found mental health issues to be a more reliable predictor of negative outcomes, not violent video games or television. This points to the need to stop demonising video games and instead to provide proper funding for youth mental health services.