Reviewing the Classification of Games in Australia
Last year at PAX I was fortunate enough to attend a panel titled ‘Games and Moral Panic: Why Are We Here Again?” thanks to this piece by Alex Walker from Kotaku. One of the speakers was Margaret Anderson, current director of the Australian Classification Board, and she was able to explain why, while living in a time when the majority of gamers are over eighteen years of age, we still have games that are refused classification.
As many people know all TV, films and video games are given a classification in Australia through the Classification Review Board. These classifications are designed to guide people in what is appropriate for their kids. Once guidelines for the ratings are set they tend to stay that way for a significant amount of time. The last significant change to video game classification was in 2013, where we finally saw the introduction of the R18+ classification in video games. Up until that point, Australia had seen games either shoe-horned under the MA15+ rating. Numerous games were modified and changed by their developers to achieve that rating, others were not released in Australia at all. It took ten years of lobbying by industry groups to finally gain the R18+ rating, and while it was a step in the right direction, there are still flaws in the rating system that lead to games being refused classification in Australia without the developers making modifications.
The first thing Margaret pointed out was section 1)a) of the code of classification. It says that “adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want.” The big problem is that the current classification system does not support this notion. Under the current guidelines, drug use in games is allowed however there cannot be any drug use related to rewards and incentives. Any game that involves drug use as an incentive or a reward is automatically given an RC rating and cannot be sold or distributed in Australia.
There is no discretion allowed for the board to look at the usage in the context of narrative or the game world. Nope, refused classification. That’s it. End of discussion. It doesn’t matter if the use of drugs is completely implausible, such as the use of alien narcotics to give you superhuman powers while inhabiting a matrix-like simulation in Saints Row IV. The wording of the guidelines is proscriptive, so the Classification Board has no discretion. Alien narcotic granting superpowers = drug use gives reward = automatic RC rating.
During the panel, Margaret provided a great example of the differences in the classification between films/TV and video games. The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie that glorifies drugs and sex, incentives and rewards. Yet if there was ever a video game version of the Wolf of Wall Street, that video game would be refused classification in Australia for the very same content. How is it that, as adults, we can watch The Wolf of Wall Street as many times as we want, and yet as adults, we could not play out the game if we wanted. We are not allowed to make that choice for ourselves. Adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want. Except for any simulated drug use, it seems.
The classification guidelines as they currently stand are relics of a time where video game usage was not as ubiquitous as it is today. They were also created at a time where video games were alternatively viewed as either for children or as the next big evil. Video games were going to be the harbinger of death and destruction through the corruption of society. Won’t someone think of the children? Just like rock music, VCR’s and any other big change to the status quo, video games have not reduced our society to dystopian factions fighting for scraps, the countries current climate policies will see to that.
All this preamble brings us to the media release from Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, calling for submissions into a review of the current classification system and their guidelines. Once again those of us who enjoy spending our time in the worlds of our favourite games have the opportunity to make our voices heard. We have the chance to say to the Australian Government that we, as adults, want to be able to play video games that deal with these situations if we so choose. There exist different levels of ratings to protect children from these things. Why are we made to miss out on adult themes?
Don’t get me wrong there will always be some games that will fall foul of the classification board banhammer. Hotline Miami 2 and South Park: The Stick of Truth were both refused classification because of implied sexual violence. Without American style protection of speech, I cannot see those sorts of games ever being approved to be released in Australia unmodified. I am OK with that. Other people may want to play those games as the developers originally intended. Whichever way you lean I recommend you familiarise yourself with the current guidelines and look at the terms of the review of the Australian classification system before you decide to make a submission. The more people we have speaking up, saying that as an adult I want to be able to make decisions about what video games I want to play, the greater the chance of recognition that video games have become more than something for children.
This metaphorical call to arms comes with a few caveats though. First, and most importantly, if we want to be taken seriously we need to be serious when we make these submissions. Entering a submission saying “I wanna use drugs in games you fucknuts” will only have the effect of reinforcing the stereotypes that games are for antisocial loners who don’t function in civil society or children who should not be exposed to these themes anyway. Make your thoughts on the issues known but make sure you provide your name and contact details as well, otherwise, the submission is invalid. If for whatever reason you do not want your information published with the submission there are avenues that you can undertake for anonymity, but without that information your submission is worthless.
Don’t submit petitions. They have no weight and will be discarded. Make sure your submission counts.
One of the biggest impediments to changing anything in the classification system is the need for total agreement between the Federal minister and each of the State and Territory ministers. If they are not all in agreement then any proposed changes will be scrapped and the system will be left as it is. The more people that submit their thoughts on the issue, the greater the chance of change being affected. That is why we need to make sure that every submission counts.
If you would like to submit the review you can do that here. The consultation period is open until 5 pm February 19th, with the report due to be handed to the Minister by April this year.