On a warm Sunday morning in Melbourne, I found myself sitting and waiting in a dark panel room at the Melbourne convention centre. I sat, with hundreds of other intrigued listeners, eagerly awaiting the start of the discussion about a topic which has seen its fair share of controversies. Gathered here were developers, writers, designers and fans, all enthusiastic to learn more about an issue which has plagued an industry for many years, but one which has recently seen positive change after almost a decade of work. The discussion was about video game classification in Australia.
*Forewarning, this article was written in 2015 and a lot has changed since then!*
Fans and professionals were gathered at the panel as part of PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) Australia, the largest video game convention in Australia by a long shot. We were there to celebrate video game culture, become absorbed in the plethora of games being shown off by publishers and developers; and engage in discussions such as these.
Heading up the panel, was Kathryn Reidy, director of operations at the Australian Classifications Board, and Ron Curry, CEO of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association. These are two individuals, who have worked tirelessly for many years, in the effort to represent video games in Australia and change the industry for the better. They were there to discuss the history of how games came to be rated, the process of classifying games; and what lies in the future for the classification of games in Australia. The amount of people filling the room showed what a prevalent; and important topic it is.
Classification of video games in Australia has been a controversial and debated topic for a long time. It has drawn great interest worldwide, mainly from the strictness of the guidelines, which has led to games being refused classification. The strict guidelines remain today from the Classifications Act of 1995, which brought the first laws into practice for classifying video games in Australia.
The area of particular debate and controversy was the lack of an R18+ rating. For a long time, Australia used a rating system for games which only contained four ratings – G, PG, M and MA15+. If a game featured content stronger than allowed in MA15+, then it would be refused classification, leading to publishers either editing the content to meet MA15+ standards, or simply not publishing the game down under.
This system was broken and did not work towards the classification guidelines goal of ‘allowing adults to be able to view any content they want, and for minors to be protected from explicit or harmful content’. As Dr Daniel Johnson, a researcher from Queensland’s University of Technology said to the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2010, not having an R18+ rating was causing the opposite effect and games were not being classified correctly.
The lack of an R rating can often have an effect which is opposite to what is desired,” Dr Johnson said. “In the absence of an R rating, some games are ‘shoehorned’ into the MA15+ category. As a result, people are not given full information.
There were numerous complaints and criticism similar to Dr Johnson’s from academics, journalists, the general public and the video game industry as a whole; over the lack of an R18+ rating, which is present for every other entertainment medium in Australia, but was not for video games.
When it comes to classifying video games in Australia, there are some key differences in how they are rated compared to other entertainment mediums. Specifically, the interactive nature of computer games is seen to have a higher impact, than movies or literature. Another key difference though, is the need for the public to be ‘protected from exposure to unsolicited material which they find offensive’, and the need to take into account community concerns about,
‘Depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and’
‘the portrayal of a person in a demeaning manner’.
Therefore the idea of community standards is important when classifying content, but this is not the main issue which is brought up in the debate. Games will also be refused classification if they contain:
Illicit or proscribed drug use related to incentives or rewards;
interactive drug use which is detailed and realistic.
The depictions of sexual violence and the use of drugs in relation to incentives or rewards, are the main reasons for video games to be banned in Australia. This strictness over these specific elements and themes within video games specifically, has been demonstrated previously before the implementation of the R18+ rating. Games such as Fallout 3, which at first was refused classification because of in-game items, which were named after real life drugs, gave players incentives and rewards for using them. It was only after the names were changed to fictional ones, was the game deemed MA15+. Although it was a positive result for gamers, it brings up questionable practices and ideas about how the classifications board rates games; and decides what is acceptable. This trend would continue after the integration and addition of an R18+ rating.
After many years of lobbying by Australian video game bodies, industry professionals, the media and adult gamers; a R18+ rating was implemented for video games. A process which required much debate and discussion was finally successful; and gave Australia a classification more in line with other entertainment medium classifying guidelines and with international standards. But why did it take so long to implement an R18+ rating which was so sought after and obviously needed?
There were various elements which held back making legislative changes. One of the main issues in making modifications was every government, state and territory, needed to agree with any variations to the legislation. This is known as the National Classification Scheme, a co-operative arrangement between the Commonwealth, State and Territories; and means each government body has an equal contribution and role to the discussion and decision making.
It’s a national scheme, there in lies one of the challenges of the scheme, as all the state and territories have an equal role and an equal say about the policy changes which occur in this space”, said Reidy during the panel.
“That’s why it took such a long time to get a R18+ classification rating in Australia for games, because the consultation had to occur between every state and territory minister with responsibilities in (regards to) classifications”.
“For any change it must be a unanimous decision between all the states and territories, and only needs one person to not agree with it”, said Curry.
This unfortunately was the case, with certain individuals and states, particularly South Australia, holding back change against the R18+ rating. Other ministers had their own demands such as implementing R18+, but revoking the MA15+ rating as part of the edits, an idea which no other state or government was in support for. The process of implementing the R18+ rating into the system was hard and onerous, but in 2012, the federal minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, introduced an R18+ bill to parliament, which was eventually passed.
This reform has been a long time coming. Agreement to introduce an R18+ category has been reached after ten years of negotiations with the states and territories.” said Clare at the time.
Now almost three years on since the R18+ rating was implemented into law for video games in Australia, the legislative changes have been seen as overly positive. Mature games which under the old system would have most likely have been banned or rated incorrectly, have been given the R18+ rating. Including games such as ‘The Last of Us’, ‘Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and ‘Dying Light’, all games which feature extremely mature content; and quite often copious amounts of uncensored and realistic violence.
We are much closer to reflecting the intended goals of allowing adults to view any content they want, and keeping minors safe from explicit or harmful content through restricted and advised ratings. The introduction of R18+ has seen a positive influence on the Australian video game industry, as the standards are closer to those overseas, with publishers and developers less weary of their games being banned. However, there are still issues with the ratings and guidelines which have been brought up, as some games have still been banned under controversial circumstances. Mainly relating to content featuring sexual violence or drug incentive and rewarding gameplay.
This includes Saints Row IV (which was later rated R18+ after changes to the content) and Hotline Miami 2. Curry addressed this issue at the panel, saying the strict nature of the guidelines for video games were unnecessary, but was a trade-off for getting the R18+ rating approved.
When the states and territories agreed to have an R18+ rating, each state and territory is allowed to contribute to the guidelines which say what is permitted. Unfortunately, some states were very adamant that they did not want a R18+ rating. So they tried to narrow the guidelines as much as they could”.
“That’s why we have some crazy stuff, which saw some games get Refused Classification. It was a trade-off, and despite this narrower guideline, the R18+ is much closer to the R18+ guidelines used for rating movies.
These guidelines are continuing to restrict adults from viewing content, which is a contradiction of the guidelines’ goals, reinvigorating the debate for further change to the legislation. However, introducing an adult’s only rating is a step in the right direction, and has leveled out the ratings systems across all entertainment mediums in Australia. But there are other pressing concerns for the Classifications board which was of great interest at the panel. Specifically attempting to rate the hundreds of thousands of digital only games found on the App or Google Play stores, and what the solution is?
The video game industry has seen a recent shift in how content is distributed and consumed, with a strong movement towards digital only games and smaller, more diverse titles being released across multiple platforms. Being able to classify games as quickly as they are released is a near impossible task for the classification board in Australia. Therefore to combat this issue, countries around the world including Australia, are trialing IARC, or the International Age Rating Classifications tool. The online questionnaire/test is being used in an attempt to regulate the enormous amounts of games being released online.
The tool is in a twelve month pilot in Australia and will end on the 1st of July next year, after which recommendations will be made for improvements and whether the tool should be implemented permanently. As of July this year, the tool has refused classification for up to 220 games, including such classics as ‘Douchebag Beach Club’, ‘Drunk Driver’ and ‘Hobo Simulator’. Although it is still early days for the new classification model, it has already seen success in rating games accurately, and has many positives such as reduced costs for publishers and developers and is a far quicker process.
After many years of debate, frustration and negotiations, Australia finally has a R18+ rating and more balanced classifications; closer to international standards. Whether it solved a number of the original problems and complaints is a new contentious issue, as many have spoken out saying the ratings system is still too strict in Australia. However, the R18+ rating has led to Australia being taken more seriously by developers and publishers. Although there are games which are still banned, they are small in number and are for the most part, for good reasons of community standards and general decency.
If anything, there are now more pressing issues for the classifications board, in particular the enormous volume of games being released online. But it is encouraging to see plans in place to deal with the issue already with the IARC trial. Although it has been a bumpy ride, the future is bright for video games classification in Australia, and seeing so many passionate people at the panel at PAX proved it. As long as there are passionate citizens and professionals continuing to ask questions and keep discussing the issue, there will continue to be improvements and evolution to the system.
What do you think about the video game classification system in Australia? Has it gotten better or worse? Let me know in the comments!
BTW – If you are interested here is a link to my full list of sources I used when writing this article!