I get the feeling that we’re entering something of a golden era for gaming in Australia. 2 months ago we got in principle support for the R18+ rating from all the attorney generals, signalling the start of a reform process that would see Australia bring itself in line with the rest of the world. Shortly afterwards I discovered G2Play and was able to get the same games at a fraction of the price, skirting around Steam’s price gouging Australian store. You’d think then that things really couldn’t get much better for us gamers as we’ve basically had all of our demands met (even if through unofficial means) but it seems us gamers are in for more good times to come.
Just over a fortnight ago the Australian Law Reform Commission released a discussion paper on the review of the national classification scheme, the first such study done in over 20 years. What’s interesting about the discussion paper (If you’re after the cliff notes, check here) was its surprisingly level headed approach not only to games, but all current and potential future media. Indeed the report is very well aware that the past 2 decades have seen rapid changes that current legislation is just incapable of keeping up with and full reform of the system is required if it is to remain relevant. So surprising was the report that Kotaku writer Mark Serrels tracked down the chairman of the classification review, Terry Flew, and interview him on the paper.
What followed was this glorious piece (which I heartily recommend reading in its entirity):
“One of the things we were aware of from the outset taking on the inquiry,” begins Terry, “was that there was considerable dissatisfaction with the R18 classification issue – that this issue had been on the agenda for over a decade and, as you may well be aware, gamers were a very important group in making submissions to this enquiry. So we’re certainly aware of the importance of the issue.”
According to Terry, R18+ was an issue that really exemplified and exposed the difficulties of using 20 year old legislation to navigate a post-internet age.
My once PR student buddy was familiar with Flew’s work but I’d never heard of him before. Employing some rudimentary Google-fu I found that he’s been highly interested in the games and new media industry for quite some time, publishing several books on them. He was, as far back as 2005, advocating the fact that gamers are no longer the realm of the stereotypical, socially inept youngsters. Flew also asserts that gamers were one of the catalysts in popularizing new media as well due to the communities that they developed. He’s far from a games apologist however and is taking a holistic view of the current classification scheme and where it should be heading.
Flew and the discussion paper are pushing forward with the idea that our classification scheme needs to be as unified as possible, in terms of both the process of classification as well as having a singular national body responsible for media classification. Right now whilst classifications are made at the national level the enforcement is done at a state level and thus states can basically opt out or form their own classification boards (like South Australia does) leading to an inconsistent application of the classification rules. If the recommendations in the paper are followed this system would likely be abolished in favour of a truly national scheme, which I feel is to the betterment of us all. The ratings would also be unified as much as they could across media platforms, meaning that there wouldn’t be as many separate rating systems for specific media types.
One of the more interesting points of the discussion paper is the idea of co-regulation. In essence this would allow the games industry to employ their own classifiers (who I assume would be licensed/verified by the classification board) who could rate games all the way up to MA. Not only would this reduce the load on the classification board it would also demystify some of the classification process, making it more open and accountable. I think it’s a great idea and means that the Australian market won’t be as hostile to those looking to release their games here, especially if the price of classification is driven down by market forces.
With someone like Flew heading up the classification scheme reform I’ve got a really good feeling about its future and the future of the media industry in Australia. Such reform has been a long time coming not just for games but for classification system as a whole. The discussion paper is a great start and hopefully many of its recommendations make it into reality but there’s still a long way to go until we see any of them realised. With Flew at the helm though I have every confidence that these sorely needed changes will eventually be implemented and then I’ll stop blogging incessantly about it.
It’s been almost two years since I posted my very first thoughts on the issue of game censorship and back then it was really only an issue because of the impending Internet filter that was threatening to turn Australia into an Internet back water. Thankfully the Internet filter hasn’t yet come to be (although it seems Conroy is still committed to the idea) and the barriers that once stood between the Australian gamers and titles deemed unfit for people half their age have started to come crumbling down. There’s even the possibility of the classification system getting a complete overhaul to do away with the disjunct between states and territories, something which will be beneficial for all Australians.
Up until now however most of the progress we’ve seen has just been in the form of promises and postulation from politicians with little actual progress to show for it. Last week however saw the first few real steps towards actual reform on this issue, something which I wasn’t expecting to see for another couple of months. The first bit of progress that I came across was a draft proposal from Attorney General Brendan O’Connor that outlined what the new R18+ classification guidelines would look like:
“The Gillard Government wants to provide better guidance for parents and remove unsuitable material from children and teenagers. The introduction of an R18+ classification will help achieve that and will also bring Australia into line with comparable nations,” said O’Connor in a statement. “This issue has been on the table for many years, without the necessary progress to make a change. We’ve recently seen several states publicly express their support for an adult only rating for games and I’m keen to reach a unanimous decision at the July meeting.”
Interestingly the proposed R18+ rating would also include reworking the MA15+ rating a bit, mostly adding in restrictions that things like sex, drugs and nudity can’t be linked to rewards and incentives. It’s a pretty small distinction but it does mean certain types of games like say Leisure Suit Larry or Strip Poker will find themselves firmly in the R18+ category (as they probably should) whilst most games currently rated MA15+ won’t be affected by the rating change. It does have the potential to shove quite a few titles into R18+ if you take a broad interpretation of “must not be related to incentives or rewards” for things like leveling up in Call of Duty or Battlefield, but I think the rewards are far enough away from the action for them to skirt around that idea. We’ll have to see what the Australian Classification Board thinks on that one though.
Additionally it looks like the ACB is going out to the public again to seek what the public’s reaction is to the proposed guidelines and R18+ rating. This time around however they’ve gone for a quick survey with a short comment box at the end of it. If you’re in support of the R18+ rating you should head over there now to have your say in this matter as hopefully we can garner the same sort of reaction we did last time they tried this and wrote off the results as “gamed” by the supporters. Realistically they underestimated just how passionate gamers are about this issue, heck my brother even asked me if I had written a submission for it and he’s not one for politics.
Of course the vocal minority has hit out at the proposed guidelines in the usual fashion. I was going to do a take down of their FUD line by line but honestly I don’t want to give them any more air time than what they’ve already got as there’s no swaying them away from their absurd opinions. Just let it be known that the Australian Christian Lobby fervently opposes the R18+ rating as they do anything that could legitimize the behavior of adults that disagrees with their world view, even if it would benefit them in some way.
We’re now only a few short months away from Australia casting off part of its archaic past and stepping towards the future. It’s been a long time coming with many political battles fought and nearly a dozen articles written on the subject by yours truly but finally the Australian gaming community might just be treated for what they are: mostly adults. There’s still many more steps to go before the R18+ rating becomes a reality but progress is now decidedly forwards instead of in circles and that should make every Australian gamer very happy indeed.
The last two months have seen the R18+ debate flare up to fever pitch levels once again with gamers all around Australia enjoying both the joyous highs and perilous lows. It all started back at the start of March when the Australian Classification Board banned the upcoming release of the latest Mortal Kombat, leaving gamers reeling from the loss of yet another AAA title to the dreaded RC rating. Just over 2 weeks later saw Minister O’Conner give an ultimatum to Australia’s states and territories giving us hope that one day Australian gamers wouldn’t have to put up with being treated as children forever. This was then brought crashing down again when Attorney-General Clark decided to oppose the idea, effectively forcing O’Conner’s hand at a full classification system upheaval and delaying the introduction of a R18+ rating for a good while.
The seeds of dissent have already taken hold however with the vast majority of the Australian public being very supportive of the introduction of a R18+ rating. Whilst it’s not a big enough issue to swing an election one way or the other it still manages to garner a good chunk of media attention whenever it pops up and its opposition face an uphill battle in convincing Australia that it’s a bad idea. It seems that the issue is starting to reach boiling point with the South Australian Attorney-General, Jon Rau, declaring that he’ll go it alone if the national scheme gets stuttered (with the ACT following suit) and wants to abolish the MA15+ rating entirely:
Rau, and the South Australian Labor Government, has said that he will abolish the MA15+ rating in that state, as a way of “more clearly defining” what is (and is not) suitable for children.
His proposed plan would change the system to include G, PG, M and R18+ classifications (while still allowing for games to be Refused Classification or effectively banned), making a “clear difference” between what adults can play and what is available to children.
There has been quite the reaction to this news in the media with many supporting the introduction of the R18+ rating but staying mum on the whole removal of the MA15+ rating. It’s true that the MA15+ rating has been used quite broadly in Australia with many games that got R18+ equivalents in other countries being down rated for Australia, many without modification. Additionally MA15+ rated titles are supposed to be controlled via identity checks (since they’re restricted to people over 15) however there’s no real enforcement of this and I can tell you that as a enterprising youth I was able to acquire many MA15+ titles and I was only ever checked once, when I was 16. I would happily pay the price of the MA15+ to get R18+ but I’m not so sure that it’s in Australia’s best interests to do away with the rating entirely.
You see the idea of a R18+ game brings about a whole set of rules that will need to be followed for the rating to be effective. Since these games are effectively becoming a controlled substance like cigarettes and alcohol there will need to be ID checks for those who look under 25, possible regulation of marketing materials for the games and access to the physical copies of the games restricted. This does place a burden on the retailers and could see some of them refuse to stock R18+ games just so they don’t have to bother with the controls. This already happens in the USA with Walmart refusing to stock any game classified AO or movie classified as NC17+. The MA15+ rating could still prove useful to publishers who are seeking to make their product more accessible, even if that means reworking it slightly.
That doesn’t mean that the MA15+ rating itself couldn’t be reworked a little to match up more closely with its international counterparts. The M rating already covers off material that is considered to be unsuitable for people under the age of 15 and many countries put their mature delineations at 16 or 17 (PEGI and ESRB respectively) along with their R18+ equivalent. In all honesty I believe PEGI gets it most right with their incremental ratings system but there’s even still merit with the ESRB model that allows for some material to be sold unhindered whilst still giving the R18+ option for when its required.
Realistically Australia’s rating system needs an overhaul as whilst I’d love the R18+ rating to be introduced tomorrow doing so in the style of “You can buy it in one place but not the other but ordering it from there is fine” sort of thing we’ve got in the ACT for porn (and soon R18+ games) isn’t doing us any favors. We’ll probably have to deal with the virtual R18+ ghetto for a while whilst the wheels of the government slowly turn which is still a positive result for Australian gamers, even if they’ll have to route all their purchases through Canberra or Adelaide. It’s the first step in a long way to the total reform of the classification system and it really can’t come any sooner.
It was just under a year ago that what seemed to be the last barrier to a R18+ rating in Australia came tumbling down in the form of Senator Atkinson’s retirement. I was elated, not so much by the idea that I’d finally be able to legally purchase excessively violent and sexually explicit games but more that finally Australia would cease looking at games as a children only zone and recognize them as a medium that actually caters mostly to adults. Still here we are a year later and for all the talk about Atkinson being the last hold out on a R18+ rating we’ve had next to no movement on the issue since his replacement took office. It would seem that Australia just isn’t ready to admit that games aren’t just for children anymore.
Of course this rant doesn’t come from no where. In my usual stroll for blog fodder I came across an article that detailed the latest game to be given the deadly Refused Classification rating by the Australian Classification Board. Usually these stories aren’t particularly interesting, especially since I’ve covered it in the past and most of the titles aren’t anything to write home about, but the story today saw a long term franchise running up against the ACB:
Australia’s content classification regulator has banned the highly anticipate remake of the classic Mortal Kombat video game series from being sold in Australia, deeming the game’s violence outside the boundaries of the highest MA15+ rating which video games can fall under.
The full text of the Australian Classification Board’s decision is available in PDF format here. It goes into detail about the decision, stating that the game contains violence which “goes beyond strong in impact” is therefore unsuitable for those under the age of 18 to play — particularly noting Mortal Kombat’s famously gruesome ‘fatality’ finishing moves.
Now whilst I haven’t been waiting anxiously for the next installment of Mortal Kombat like I have been for say, Deus Ex, I’m still a long time fan of the franchise having played nearly every incarnation since the original release on the Super NES. They’ve never been restrained with the amount of gore they include especially when it comes to fatalities so it does come as somewhat of a surprise that the ACB takes offense to their use of explicit violence just for this version and hasn’t batted an eye at any of the previous incarnations. The process of classification is, as it seems to be in many modern countries, quite the black box as there are many games with comparable levels of gore that go through unheeded. At the very least they don’t seem to care if you’re a small or large publisher when it comes to banning games, but that still doesn’t detract from the fact that the lack of a R18+ rating hurts Australia in more ways than just keeping games from being sold on our shores.
Conversely I do know that even though the average age of a gamer in Australia (and most of the world) is well past 18 the R18+ rating can be quite devastating to sales, as has been demonstrated by several titles in the USA. However since the average age of your typical game consumer is increasing the more mature rated games have shown to be the most stable in terms of sales, showing that there really is a demand for adult oriented titles. Sure the R18+ rating may mean a publisher might consider censoring parts of their game in order to get a less restrictive MA15 rating but at least then it would be their choice rather than the decision being made for them.
Australia needs to cast off the shackles of the past and start making decisive steps in the right direction. The idea that games are only for children is an extremely archaic way of viewing the medium and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be subject to the same classification process that we apply to all other forms of media. The restriction of such material only serves to hurt publishers and push people to illegitimate means in order to acquire these games that they have been denied, something which many minors are quite capable of accomplishing. An R18+ rating system would help to raise awareness about such material and give parents the information they need to decide what is appropriate for their children. The time has come for Australia to grow up and recognize games as a mature medium and to stop ignoring the rest of the modern world.
Media classification is one of those subjects that affects everyone but it never really gets discussed apart from when it causes a bit of stir like when a game is refused classification. Unfortunately this has meant that new forms of media have either slipped under the classification radar or have been stuck with a system that wasn’t designed for today’s world. The problem with Australia’s current approach to media classification is that it is unable to deal with new forms of media as they are created and as such either ignores them or attempts to shoe horn them into the models developed for old media. This has most publicly affected Australia’s gaming community with the lack of a R18+ rating which, admittedly is a small issue in the grand scale of things, still remains as an issue today.
However the lack of a R18+ rating for games is symptomatic of a larger problem. Whilst new forms of media aren’t exactly an everyday event the advent of new distribution channels for content have made the single source of truth style of classification almost irrelevant. Take for instance YouTube who, whilst having their own set of guidelines as to what is acceptable, don’t have any relationship with the Australian Classification Board (ACB). Considering you can see something as innocent as a double rainbowto Baraka beheading Johnny Cage in the new Mortal Kombat shortwithout even a hint of classification about it (although YouTube does allow users to flag content as adult, requiring a login) the task of classifying such vast amounts of material seems almost impossible for an organisation like the ACB.
Indeed these services rely on the fact that the material doesn’t have to go through such classification channels. Getting a classification through the ACB incurs a feefrom around $400 all the way up to $5,000 depending on the type of material and intended means of distribution. Such fees would pose a significant barrier to anyone looking to distribute content online should the classification of such media become mandatory and unfortunately it appears that the ACB intends to do just that:
At a conservative estimate, one-third of them are games, suggesting compliance costs would be in the millions.
A spokeswoman for Minister of Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor said he was “concerned about the classification of games playable on mobile telephones and had put the wheels in motion to address this with his state and territory counterparts”.
Definitions of computer games under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 do not exclude games distributable or playable on mobile phones.
This isn’t a new idea either. Back in April Minister O’Connor (the director of the ACB) expressed concerns over the mobile space that bypasses their classification process. Whilst I share some of his concerns it appears that little thought had been given to the impact that his words might have, especially when it comes to developers and content producers looking to Australia as a potential market.
Now I understand that the ACB has the best of intentions when it comes to this but the way they’re going about this only serves to create a hostile environment for those looking to distribute their product on our shores. The app store and other similar product distribution methods have been successful because they have been allowed to self regulate and imposing fees on them will more than likely see all but the biggest players pull out of the Australian market. With most paid iPhone applications selling less than 10,000 units at the average price point of $0.99 (with 30% of that going to Apple) even the cheapest classification severely cuts into any sales they make, even to the point of making it completely unprofitable.
What’s required then is a complete rethink of the current classification system and how it can be applied to the new digital world and its various distribution methods. This comes down to a fundamental shift away from the current system which is highly segmented between different media formats. Unifying all these classification bodies under a single banner with a standard framework for classifying content would eliminate the disparity in classification information and serve as a basis for new forms of media as they are created. It would also ensure that markets such as the iPhone and Android app stores don’t suffer unnecessary financial burdens by being shoe horned into a classification framework that couldn’t fathom their creation. In essence classification in Australia needs a rethink on a national scale and it needs it soon.
The good news is that such an idea is not new and I’m not the only one who supports it. The Australian Sex Party (who are readers of this blog, which I find rather cool :D) also supports a national classification scheme as part of their larger stance on making adult material available across all states and territories, as you can currently only legally buy it in the ACT and NT (but you can also import from these territories too). I support their stance on this issue as it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put these artificial restrictions on such material but it also has the flow on effect of ensuring that new media doesn’t get killed in Australia simply because we refuse to change our ways for the better part of 2 decades.
These issues were something that we simply could not fathom when we first set about creating standards for media classification. It has come time for a fundamental change in the way we do these things in order to keep pace with our ever changing technologically driven world. To not do anything risks Australia being seen as a media blackspot, unable to cope with the world that is changing around it. However there is hope for change as the roots of movement against the status quo are already taking hold and it is only a matter of time before we will see the first steps towards a more sensible future.
Tip of the hat to my old university pal Dave Woodgate for hooking me up with the inspiration for this post.