[intro]The use of virtual reality and augmented reality particularly in the games and entertainment space is rising rapidly in South Africa. The Film and Publication Board, mandated to regulate media content for purposes of protecting children from premature exposure to potentially harmful content in South Africa, is watching these developments with interest, and some trepidation.[/intro]

A mere decade ago the world of virtual reality would have seemed to the average South African like a scene from Star Trek where Captain Kirk hangs out on the Holodeck on the USS Enterprise to escape the stress of the real world. Yet the uptake of the virtual reality (VR) format of entertainment saw a rapid growth of 168% in 2017 – the first year of the platform’s availability in the country. So popular has VR gaming been in South Africa that it garnered R48 million in its first year in the local market. It is predicted to grow to R314 million by 2022. VR video revenue, on the other hand garnered R23 million in 2017, and is expected to rise to R351 million by 2022.

The popularity of VR follows a high uptake of formats such as 3D, 4XD, D-Box and IMAX. Collectively, these accounted for 65% of the overall gross of entertainment and media revenue in 2017. VR video and gaming current and projected revenues strongly suggest an appetite for immersive cinema and gaming experiences. This has implications for the regulatory bodies in South Africa and across the continent, when it comes to classifying content with elements such as violence and ‘graphicness’ (this is not an existing formal consideration currently); and ‘competitive intensity’.

These are some of the reflections drawn from a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)’s Media and Entertainment Outlook, which looks at South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania.

The study points to relatively slower uptake rates of fixed broadband in South Africa, as consumers are weary of data costs and also due to infrastructure challenges. Mobile Internet on the other hand is on the up and up.  Mobile Internet devices are the devices of choice among young people and their online activity is driven mainly by social networks accessed conveniently through smartphones. The appeal of this mode of Internet access spreads beyond the youth market, as more people avoid high data costs associated with traditional entertainment and media platforms, and seek to circumvent broadband limitations. This is exemplified by the consumption of Internet-based gaming, which is predicted to grow by 35.7% in South Africa; a growth surpassing that of videos (35.1%). A similar pattern is predicted for Nigeria and Kenya.

The Film and Publication Board, mandated to regulate media content for purposes of protecting children from premature exposure to potentially harmful content in South Africa, is watching these developments with interest, and some trepidation.

For example, what controls do parents have over which games their children are playing? As it is, studies have shown that children choose games with minimal (if any) involvement of a parent. And children are fond of games with high levels of violence. Game developers, for example, are watching these developments, and will be keen to churn out more of the good stuff (read more graphic content) in order to attract traffic. And violence is not the only concern.

Researchers and regulators are also concerned about addiction and possible impact on brain development, especially among children and adolescents. Of course the FPB also acknowledges the educational benefits or potential of video gaming. Also, it is important to point out that, while some studies have recorded a positive correlation between games containing violence and levels of aggression, a causal link has not been found. What should concern everyone though is the repeated exposure to violent content, which tends to desensitise people to violence, and to normalise violence.

This growth in mobile traffic means there are more chances of inappropriate content that individuals, particularly children, could be exposed to.

The challenge for regulators in South Africa and Africa broadly is to consider carefully the implications of these developments on the continent’s respective markets. Coming up to speed with the rapid changes in technology and content creation and consumption patterns is a challenge that requires innovation and resources. Importantly, however, the need for a strong regulatory regime is critical, as is the cooperation of important stakeholders, from content producers to Internet Service Providers and distributors. Every player in the entertainment and media space should see themselves as a part of, and not a hindrance, to the imperative of protecting our children from harmful media experiences.