"Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime." -- Potter Stewart (American Judge and associate justice of the US Supreme Court (1958-81))
How much does the right to choose what content you view mean to you, the consumer? Over the coming weeks, GameSpot AU will explore the thorny issue of videogame classification and censorship in Australia. We'll attempt to clarify some of the common misconceptions about game ratings, demystify the process behind classification, as well as examine in detail all of the reasons why Australia has no R18+ rating for games and what you -- the Aussie gamer -- can do to try and spur some change.
Part One of our feature looks at how the current system works, and the history of games classification in Australia (including self-regulation).
Part Two looks at the consistency of cross-media classification, provide a comparison of worldwide standards to see how Australia's censorship laws stack up, and explain why games here lack an R18+ rating in the first place.
Part Three will take a look behind the scenes, evaluating the impact of banned goods on retailers, developers, and you -- the players. We'll also gaze into the CNET.com.au crystal ball, and attempt to pick some of the controversial titles of 2008, and predict how they'll fare when they run the game classification gauntlet.
"I find censorship today in Australia a mass of confusing and conflicting laws..." -- Bill Hayden, Former Governor-General of Australia
Meet Dark Sector, the most recent game to be banned in Australia. (Click to enlarge)
All of the above games are banned for sale in Australia, casualties of our country's strict games classification system. While other forms of media (such as films and DVDs) have ratings that allow for the distribution of content deemed suitable for adults only, games do not. The highest classification available for a video game down under is MA15+, a rating which states that anyone under the age of 15 must be accompanied by an adult while playing. Films and DVDs, on the other hand, have an R18+ rating for content deemed suitable only for people aged 18 years and over. With MA15+ the highest rating available for games, any content deemed suitable only for adults 18 years old and over is refused classification by our country's peak ratings body, rendering that content illegal for sale in Australia.
Graffiti cost Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure its rating down under.
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Industry groups such as Electronic Frontier Australia (EFA) and the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia (IEAA) believe a lack of an R18+ rating for games does a disservice to Australian consumers and adults by creating division between the film and video game mediums, which further muddies the waters when determining suitability of content. They also contend that that the growing disparity between ratings for film and computer games shows an ignorance of the changing nature of media consumption in Australia. The other effect of these restricted classification guidelines is that producers of mature-themed content must self-censor their work to fit the highest available MA15+ rating or risk being refused classification.
The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) is the government body responsible for classification, and as such has been the target for many an Australian gamers' ire. While the organisation factors heavily in the game classification process, all of the OFLC's decisions are bound within the confines of a legislative framework determined by state and national law. To better understand how this works, let's take a look at how of video games are classified down under, and how legislation governs the type of content which can be made available to consumers.
"I'm all in favour of free expression, provided it's kept rigidly under control." (Alan Bennett, Forty Years On, 1969)
Before any video game is made legally available for sale in Australia, the OFLC must assign a classification rating to that specific title. Depending on the nature of its content, a game in Australia can either receive a rating of G, PG, M, or MA15+. To decide what rating a game receives, the OFLC looks at the game's stated content and compares it to content guidelines as set out in a piece of legislation called the National Classification Scheme, which is based on the Commonwealth Classification Act 1995 (the National Classification Code is actually part of the Act).
The Classification Code itself opens with the noble sentiment that "adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want." Below this are listed goals of protecting minors and all other consumers of media from exposure to offensive or disturbing material. Section (d) of the code specifically deals with "community concerns about depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner."
There are six classifiable elements when analysing media such as a video game to determine what rating it should carry: violence, sex, language, drug use, themes, and nudity. Each is uniquely identified and evaluated to assess their impact and contextual use in the title's broader picture. Intensity and frequency also play a role and are used to measure an element against the acceptability of the MA15+ rating. Prolonging, repeating, drawing attention to, or encouraging interactivity in a game's scene may be perceived as increasing its impact to the player. This includes, but is not limited to, level of detail, close-ups, slow motion, lighting effects, perspective, and realism.
Duke Nukem 3D eventually made it to Aussie shelves after some content modifications.
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While the federal government makes decisions on the direction and specifications of these guidelines, it is the state and territory governments' role to ensure they are enforced. The National Classification Scheme took effect on January 1, 1996, as a result of recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission in 1991 with the goal of creating a nationwide approach to censorship.
The process of game classification is carried out by the OFLC using the National Classification Scheme and Classification Act as a framework on which to base its decisions. The Classification Review Board is a separate body responsible for the evaluation of decisions made by the OFLC including mediation of appeals by content submitters. Under section 5B of the Classification Act 1995, business, accounting, professional, scientific, and educational electronic titles are exempt from classification -- everything else (which is essentially just games) must go through classification.
In Australia, a process of self-regulation is in place, which means game publishers can effectively assign a classification rating to their own titles, with the OFLC rubber-stamping their decisions. There is a catch, however, as self-assessment can be carried out only on games which will receive G or PG ratings. Any game which could conceivably receive an M or MA15+ has to jump through more submission hoops.
Submission is broken into two separate strands: submissions by Authorised Assessors and nonauthorised Assessors. Authorised Assessors are usually game distributor employees who complete a one-day training course outlining the requirements of games submitted to be classified. The Authorised Assessors pass their judgment on a title's impact to the director of the OFLC board where it's taken into account during rating. Games submitted by nonauthorised assessors -- those who have not completed the training -- carry a price premium on their submission. A text-only summary of a game for an unrestricted M game attracts a AU$2,040 fee. Adding a video of typical gameplay footage alongside your text will see the fee almost halved to AU$1,150. In comparison, Authorised Assessors are looking at either an AU$810 or AU$630 fee for their rating depending on whether they supply text or a text-and-video synopsis of their MA15+ game. Providing more material to help the board make a decision lowers the payable cost of submission. Lower-impact unrestricted M game submissions are cheaper still, and cost AU$430.
Demonstration of a game can be requested at any time by the OFLC at the submitter's expense. Live demonstrations cost AU$1,070, and although an OFLC representative could not confirm an exact figure on the number of demonstration requests made for games, they did tell us they were "infrequent" and reserved for game submissions at the top end of the MA15+ rating scale.