Growing Pains: Australia’s struggle with new media

Thursday, 7 July 2011 07:32 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Australia is closer than ever to embracing the 21st Century and introducing an adult ratings category for gaming.

Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled against a proposed Californian law restricting the sale of violent games to minors, filing them under free speech.

In Australia, we’re waiting for the same rights to be extended to adults.

That’s a slight exaggeration of the situation. Australia doesn’t have a constitutional right to free speech, and does have legislation in place blocking minors from purchasing certain games. But it is also has laws which keep adults from purchasing these same titles, which Californian children are free to do.

The Basics

Fallout 3: RC for drug references

Australia’s ratings system has six primary categories – G, PG, M, MA 15+, R18+ and X18+.

Of these six, only the top three are legally enforceable at retail. There’s no age gate on M (“the content is moderate in impact”) and below. If an eight year-old kid walks into a shop with a fistful of dollars and demands a copy of an M rated game or film, staff have no reason not to hand it over. Examples include InFamous 2 (“violence and mature themes”) and Dungeon Siege III (“fantasy violence; gaming experience may change online”).

Games like Alice: Madness Returns, Shadows of the Damned and Duke Nukem Forever, on the other hand, fall into the MA15+ category (“the content is strong”). Retailers are legally required to police sales of media in this category and higher, although this is rarely monitored and enforced, and anecdotal retail evidence suggest parents show a distressing tendency to ignore ratings.

Although you’ll note that two categories remain, neither of these apply to games. Alone among all the content rated by the Australian Classification Board, video games cannot be rated higher than MA15+.

No biggie, right? Wrong. Because anything that falls outside the boundaries of this category – anything containing R18+’s “strong content” – is automatically refused classification.

Media without a classification can not be sold within Australia, and retailers can face fines for doing so.

Ban Hammer

To date, only 79 titles have been refused classification in Australia since the system’s introduction in 2001, and the list contains some repeats of failed attempts.

Prominent examples include The Witcher 2: Asssassins of Kings, Grand Theft Auto III, F.E.A.R. 2, Fallout 3, and Left 4 Dead 2 – all of which were later modified to meet MA15+ requirements.

Other titles, whose developers were unwilling or unable to provide censored versions, have remained banned in Australia, including Deep Silver RPG Risen and, notoriously, Mortal Kombat.

The MA15+ category is groaning at the seams, on the other hand. Although Australia’s most popular genre for consoles is family games, the vast majority of blockbuster games outside sports and racing earn an MA 15+ ratings.

The Witcher 2: RC for sex as a quest reward

The range of content in this category is astounding. One one end, we have games like Halo: Reach, which are full of shooting but little else to concern. At the other end, we have Saw, a game based on a deliberately shockingly violent film franchise.

When the ESRB, or PEGI, labels a game as suitable only for sale to adults, and Australia puts it in the MA 15+ category, it is essentially declaring that the content therein is suitable for teenagers aged 16 and up, despite prevailing international opinion that it is not.

And yet one of the most frequent arguments against the introduction of an R18+ ratings category is that disallowing it will keep strong content out of minors’ hands.

Media ratings worldwide are facing greater scrutiny as the increasing ease of comparing classifications makes inconsistencies and time-driven value changes – “ratings creep” – more and more obvious.

In this context, Australia’s refusal to date to condone an R18+ category for games does more than alienate a few adult gamers keen on playing the latest bit of ultra-violence – it becomes hypocritical.

What now?

Currently, Australia is closer to introducing an R18+ ratings category than ever before. For many years, proceedings were blocked by a single, vocal opponent, the South Australian attorney general Michael Atkinson, whose consensus was required to introduce the kind of national legislation necessary to alter the classifications system.

Since his replacement in 2010, the nations attorney-generals have proven themselves to be more willing to listen to the democratic process than uphold a personal opinion, and despite some hesitancy, have unanimously declared themselves ready to investigate.

Minister for home affairs Brendan O’Connor, whose portfolio includes overseeing the Classification Board, has become a champion of the new ratings system, backing a public consultation which showed overwhelming support for the new ratings system.

It was suspected that the consultation’s findings were skewed by the natural tendency of gamers to rally behind it while the general public remained unaware of it, but the Office of Home Affairs held an investigation into the matter and concluded in favour of a ratings overhaul.

The attorney generals meet in July, and after six months of put-offs, have been given an ultimatum: decide now. If a unanimous decision can be reached, Australia will indeed see the introduction of an R18+ ratings category.

Mortal Kombat: RC for … being Mortal Kombat

If it happens, it won’t be the end of our problems. The definitions which guide games classification are indubitably in need of a brush up, moving more extreme content into higher categories. Consistent standards must be applied, in order to avoid the media circuses which drive content up and down ratings categories with no eye to contemporary material. Parents need to be made aware of what content can be found in various ratings categories, and retail enforcement of ratings must be increased.

If you’d like to have you say in Australia’s classifications future, the Australian Legal Reform Commission is accepting submissions on classification reform. The scope of the classifications review is more than just video games, touching on Australia’s controversial Internet filter schemes, and it was revealed yesterday that just over 70 submissions had been made – by a population of 22 million.

Take the time to make a submission if you can, and cross your fingers for July. Australia’s growing up.