At the start of this year, the Australian Classification Board hailed in a reform of the system that was supposed to allow a fairer approach to video game ratings.
Six months later, it’s business as usual. Video games are still being banned despite the allowance for an adult rating.
The much sought-after “R” rating for video games was brought in on January 1, 2013 and instantly allowed adult-orientated games to be classified in Australia. Prior to that date, any game considered unsuitable for a 15-year old to play was refused classification and banned from importing into the country. Had a gamer been caught trying to buy the banned game from an international store, the game would be seized by customs and the “criminal” charged up to AU$100,000 for his attempt.
Nothing has changed.
Sure there’s an R18+ rating now, but that doesn’t automatically mean that adult gamers — those who go to work, pay taxes, and ultimately run the country — are granted the right to be entertained in anyway they see fit. The Australian government want to make sure that you, a 20-something year old grownup, are kept in line. That your free time is carefully controlled, lest you get any ideas on how to conduct yourself in public from an evil video game.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect isn’t just that games designed for consenting adults are being banned by a group of government-appointed “representatives”, it’s that in spite of legislation reform games are being banned as frequently today as they were prior to those changes.
In 2012, two games were given the ban from the Classification Board. Syndicate, a tactical shooter by EA was banned because it “contains the ability to inflict repeated and realistic post mortem damage which exceeds strong in playing impact”. In other words, the Australian government is happy for you to shoot a live person within a video game, you’re just not allowed to kick the corpse.
The other was The Witcher 2, a highly acclaimed RPG that contained a side-quest that allowed players the ability to choose “sex as a reward”. This one instance of maybe being able to allow a digital avatar the ability to have consenting, intimate relations with an equally digital companion was enough to force the developers to censor the game for a local release.
The list of banned video games is an ever-growing one and on average about two games are banned in Australia every year. Giving consenting adults the false hope that they might actually get to choose to spend their money on products they want to buy hasn’t changed a thing.
The latest game to be given the ban is Saints Row IV, an open-world adventure game from Volition, the developers of Red Faction. The reason comes down to an item that players can collect within the game that resembles an “illicit or proscribed drug”, and “interactive, visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context”.
The kicker is that if all the banned video games in history were tomorrow released on iPhone, they wouldn’t be illegal to buy because the Australian Classification Board has no intention of applying their standards to software on the Apple or Android platforms.
No one is saying sexual violence should be glorified. No one is saying that illicit drugs are a subject to be taken lightly. One just needs to question why it’s totally okay for someone to go out, have a few drinks, go into a cinema and watch a movie like Kill Bill, only to retire to a late-night marathon of Game of Thrones (season one) and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but booting up a game with cartoony characters running around a fake city that might contain some red splashes of something we’re supposed to believe looks like blood is a perverted act of terror unworthy for human consumption.
The problem is the government-run system of classifying video games. Video games are given more scrutiny than movies — which include a special classification for pornography — and free-to-air television shows. The latter isn’t even regulated by the government. Instead, television stations are allowed to set their own classification on TV shows. This is why one episode of The Big Bang Theory could be rated G, another could be rated M. In fact, Channel Nine could give an episode of Two and a Half Men the rating of “Purple Banana 17.2+” and the classification board could do squat about it.
Which is, in all honesty, what we need for video games in Australia: an industry regulated system. In other words, the people who make the games should be telling their customers what content is in those games. This isn’t a new concept. As mentioned earlier, this system is being employed by every television station in the country. In America, the Electronic Software Ratings Board is a consortium of video game industry professionals who rate games based on their content. ESRB’s ratings appear on game packaging, and the United States government works with this private firm to enforce the rules when requires, such as advising certain retailers not to sell restricted games to minors.
This isn’t just an all-inclusive system, it’s a far more accurate one. In Australia, game makers prepare a PDF document that outlines the “worst” content in their video game and hands it in to the Classification Board to be rated. The Classification Board reads this document and passes their judgement within three weeks. In fact, the Australian Classification Board prides itself for their fast turn around and rightly so, since the fee to get these games classified runs into the thousands.
You might be wondering “how can the Classification Board members fairly rate hundreds of games, movies and TV shows within three weeks?”. The answer is that they can’t. And don’t. Video games in particular are a mess: there are games that are rated MA15+, only to be banned later because the ACB has magically discovered some content it overlooked in the first place. There are cases where games that were once rated PG are re-rated R18+ simply because the latter rating exists. It’s an absolute mess that needs to be sorted out.
The Australian Classification Board does not understand video games. They seem to believe that it’s okay to show a 16 year-old a two-hour X-Files movie about a pedofile priest, but showing cartoony, pointy, polygonal breasts in a video game to a 47 year-old isn’t kosher. This doesn’t — and shouldn’t — instill confidence in this system to the people who need it most: customers.
Classifications are designed to inform, not to restrict. They are supposed to tell us what the game contains in terms of content, so that a grandmother doesn’t buy Manhunt for their 8 year old granddaughter. They’re not supposed to make that grandmother a criminal.
It’s clear that the Australian Classification Board will never understand what gaming is about, what its limits are, and how impactful the content actually is on those who play video games.
We’ve given this system the best part of 40 years of our patience and understanding, but enough is enough. We need to go back to the drawing board and put classification into the hands of the content creators and emulate the current, working system that television networks employ today.
The power is ultimately in your hands. Demand a fairer system by contacting the Classification Board and the Attorney-General’s Department. Discuss the benefits of an industry-regulated system. Contact your favorite game distributors in Australia and convince them to do something about this broken system.