Games aren’t just for kids. That’s something the Australian government doesn’t get – but the New Zealand one does. Consider this: the global industry organisation for video games, the Entertainment Software Association or ESA reports that the average gamer is 37 years old, and 41-year-olds are the most frequent purchasers of games.
Despite that, Australian gamers are denied some of the newer titles aimed at more mature audiences. The reason for that is Australia’s arcane rating system that stops at “Mature Audiences 15+” with no R18+ available as in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world.
Take Electronic Arts’ new game, Syndicate for example: this is EA's upcoming first person shooter, a cyberpunk game set for a New Zealand release on the 24 February on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. You play a Syndicate agent, equipped with DART6 chip-enhanced technology and this latest title is a franchise reboot with the original games being released in 1993 and 1996.
Syndicate was refused classification by the Australian Classification Board (ACB) just before Christmas and that effectively means it’s banned from sale here. The ability to decapitate and dismember were some the reasons cited in the board's Decision Report yet New Zealand saw fit to classify the game for those 18 years and over.
Now, EA could have edited the game for a MA15+ rating but the publishing and development giant, flat out refused to butcher the title just to conform to Australia's retro classification system.
Making it worse, Kiwi games are hit by the Australian system too. Back in 2008, Australia received an edited MA15+ version of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Despite having a system with R18 being available, New Zealand gamers had to put up with that version. Those who wanted the more mature version had to import the unedited version of the title – something NZers could do legally, but Australians weren’t allowed to.
CEO of the interactive games and entertainment association (iGEA), Ron Curry, explained that it was not "economically viable" for publisher Rockstar to bring the full version to the New Zealand market alone, so too bad, Kiwi gamers: you got the neutered Aussie version too.
Leaving aside the nuisance factor for games consumers, Australia’s lack of an appropriate ratings system for games means developers and publishers in the country are partly shut out from a massive global market worth in the region of US$26 billion according to the ESA.
Getting a game classified in Australia means it has to fit one of the below categories:
General Audience (GA)
Parental Guidance (PG
Mature (M) or not recommended for people younger than 15
Mature Accompanied (MA15+) or unsuitable for children younger than 15
The last, MA15+ category is a legally restricted category, and it’s where things stop in Australia.
There is nothing above that category, and games that don’t fit in are simply refused classification. A refusal to classify doesn’t necessarily mean the game is offensive to reasonable adults, just that it’s not suitable for people fifteen years old or so. Often, the refusal to classify decision is based on pretty minor details that sometimes are edited out by games publishers. It’s rarely the entire game that’s refused classification.
If a game is refused classification, the penalties for selling it are severe: the maximum fine is A$275,000 and this can be accompanied by up to ten years in prison.
While it’s legal in most parts of Australia to possess material that’s been refused classification, attempting to sneak a copy of an unclassified game past Customs could land you with a $110,000 fine.
New Zealand’s classification system is much more in touch with reality, compared to the Australian one.
Kiwis use a labelling system with tricolour code, similar to traffic lights:
Green: suitable for all viewers
Orange: viewer restrictions may apply due to e.g highly offensive language.
Red: restricted according to age groups 13, 15, 16 and 18 years and older
In New Zealand, the Film and Video Labelling Body (FVLB) and the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) both oversee green and orange labels. The OFLC is responsible for the red labels however.
Note that not everything goes in New Zealand; far from it. If games contain "objectionable" material, as dictated by the legislation, they are banned for sale in the country.
Thanks to the fine-grained system New Zealand uses, to date, the OFLC classed only four games – Manhunt, Manhunt 2, Postal 2 and Reservoir Dogs - as "objectionable".
In Australia however the rating system has wreaked havoc on game publishers’ release schedules. Twelve games were released unedited or had the rating appealed after being refused classification. Five games originally released under the MA15+ rating were banned because of appeals. Eleven games were refused classification and disappeared from the market, whereas another ten games were edited to fit under the MA15+ rating.
Why is New Zealand so different when it comes to legislation? According to Curry video games were initially misunderstood but are classed in a similar fashion to DVDs and film aimed at adult audiences.
For the unfortunates across the ditch, the polar opposite happened in Australia. Curry believes that there is a hysterical opposition in Australia that view games as being entirely different to films.
This is partly the view of the government and a small very vocal Christian lobby that Curry says has an extreme amount of influence over the two major Australian political parties.
Things are changing though: Australia may get the new computer game legislation by next January. You can see the proposed Bill here. However, there is no guarantee that Australian gamers would be better off under the yet to be released final guidelines.
What’s worse, New Zealand's classification system that’s clearly more in tune with the rest of the world may have to continue to play second fiddle to Australia, as it did with the GTA IV debacle.
Why does this matter? Video game classification may seem like an inconsequential issue, but considering that in Australia, the industry is worth something like A$1.5 billion and in New Zealand, $200 million, a solution that harmonises both markets would make a great deal of sense.
There are jobs depending on games being developed and sold in the two countries that already share a great deal of industry regulation. Not having a joint classification system for an industry as large as video games is an anomaly that needs sorting out sooner rather than later.
Right now, Australia’s arbitrary Refused Classification is a nuclear option that negatively affects the games industry and consumers in both our countries that needs replacing.
Fingers crossed, the Australian legislators will take more than just one leaf out of New Zealand’s classification book, and introduce a more fine-grained system that is in step with the rest of the world and takes into account that adults play games too, and not just kids.