In the first part of Censory Overload, we dissected and discussed the current games classification system in Australia, the hoops developers and publishers need to jump through, and the titles unlucky enough to have gotten the big red "banned" stamp in the past. So now that you get how the system works down under--as well as what happens to titles that don't meet the classification guidelines--it's time to ask: Why is it that a nation such as Australia doesn't have a mature rating for games? And how does our games classification system compare to the rest of world? Read on to find out more in Part Two of Censory Overload.
Ask most people who oppose the introduction of an R18+ rating for games in Australia why they have that position and they'll likely say it's because children must be protected from inappropriate content. This point of view, of course, assumes that most gamers are children, a stereotype which has been disproven by many studies. One of the most recent Australian studies, "Interactive Australia 2007", a survey conducted by Bond University in Queensland, found through a random sampling of more than 1600 participants from households across Australia that the average of an Aussie gamer is now 28 years old. Eight percent of the total number of gamers surveyed were 60 years or older. From current data it is predicted that by 2014 the average gamer age will be 42 years old. The survey also found that over a third of Australian gamers are parents.
Ron Curry, CEO of the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia (IEAA)--an organisation which represents all major Australian-based game publishers--says government policy is to blame for the lack of a local R18+ rating. "Essentially, the bottleneck at the moment is the acceptance unanimously by the state and territory attorneys-general... from what I'm hearing the only objection so far I've heard is from South Australia," Curry said. "I think in the past (and hopefully this is slowly changing) Parliament [was] controlled by a generation who [didn't] understand the whole medium we're in. They don't understand video gaming. We have had attorneys-general in the past who have said 'games are for kids', so part of our responsibility as an association is to keep delivering the message that it's interactive entertainment, not games, and it's not just for kids. Our audience is way older than that, and way more mature."
As covered in Part One of Censory Overload, all of Australia's various federal, state, and territory attorneys-general must all agree before an R18+ rating for games is introduced down under. A long time opponent of such an introduction is South Australian Attorney-General and Minister for Justice and Multicultural Affairs, Michael Atkinson. While the minister was unavailable for comment for this feature, his most recent parliamentary statement on the issue offers a less than optimistic view for gamers hoping he may yet change his mind on the issue. "I do not want children to be able to get their hands on R18+ games easily. I understand that the lack of an R18+ classification denies some adults the chance to play some games, however, the need to keep potentially harmful material away from children is far more important," Atkinson said.
"There are not adequate safeguards that can properly protect our children from those disturbing scenes and I know how computer-literate they are. Like other parents in Australia, I want to try to protect children from being able to access computer-generated pornography and violence."
Rather than simply dismiss the "protect our children" mantra as a little more than a scapegoat defense, the IEAA's Ron Curry believes the South Australian Minister's statement should serve as an opportunity for all parties to reflect on the issues at hand. "Everybody along that cycle has responsibility. Publishers have a responsibility to make sure they're displaying the R18+ classification that we're classifying correctly, and the government has the responsibility to ensure legislation is in place that can enforce the sale of R18+ to the right group of people. Enforcement has to be in place; retailers have to be responsible about who they sell it to, and ultimately parents need to understand the content their children are watching or playing as they should with TV, Internet, DVD, and publications," he said.
While one of the main effects of the possible introduction of an R18+ rating in Australia will be an open recognition that gamers aren't just young children anymore, Curry also says it will further empower those wanting to keep young people away from inappropriate content. Curry says that despite the high proportion of adult gamers--so many of which play alongside their children--the vast majority admitted to being confused by the difference between M and MA15+ rated titles. "The average age is 28 and the industry needs to start catering for the more mature consumer," Curry said. "We need to treat them like adults and give them the broad choice of entertainment they're looking for. That's not necessarily more sex or violence: what it is, is more adult-themed gaming. We think it [the introduction of R18+] gives parents a better clue, it gives them the full toolkit so they know exactly what media their children have got and what that classification means."
Introducing an R18+ rating will mean fewer banned games, which in turn will lead to less piracy, Curry says. "I think you'll find, and certainly [this is evident] in the research being done in the UK, when a game is refused classification or banned there is a spike in piracy for that game. Our concern is that if a game is refused classification in Australia kids are going to get it some other way, they're going to download it off the internet and then they'll burn it and share it with friends. We'd rather a game that's R18+ be on shelves with a sticker so parents understand what the content is," Curry said.
While it may seem like the Aussie national classification in its current incarnation for video games is nothing but doom and gloom, the results of the latest Standing Committee of Attorneys-General meeting (held on March 28, 2008) offers a glimmer of hope for Australian gamers. The meeting was the first of its kind to discuss the viability of an R18+ rating for games since 2005, and prompted Victorian Deputy Premier and Attorney General Rob Hulls later on to say that in their current form, Australian classification laws were "out of step" with the remainder of the developed world". "It seems inconsistent that in Australia, adults are allowed to view 'adult only' films which have been classified R18+ by the Classification Board, but not computer games with an equivalent high-level content," he said in a statement. "With the increasing convergence between films and games, the different approach to classification principles is difficult to sustain."
While the Federal Government has yet to make up its mind or take a formal stance on whether it is supportive of the introduction of a restricted 18+ rating for games, it did announce that it will soon call for public opinion on the issue. No plans have yet been announced outlining how exactly community attitudes will be gauged. While a review of the current system and the introduction of the often publicly requested R18+ rating may still be some way off, this does represent a step in the right direction towards a more complete and informative rating guide for gamers and parents.
"Censorship in any form is the enemy of creativity, since it cuts off the life blood of creativity: ideas."--Allan Jenkins
Comparing Australia with the world
Australia is known globally for its tough stance on video game censorship, but how do we really compare to other nations when it comes to limiting game freedom? Do we Australians deserve the reputation we currently have for being video game prudes?
A quick comparison between our system and those found in other developed nations such as North America, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the rest of Europe confirms what many have long suspected—ours is the only one that doesn't have a rating for adult-themed games. All of the countries mentioned above have their own system, each with its own subtle nuances, age differences, and guidelines on the suitability of games. But each also acknowledges the need to classify adult content for adult gamers. Let's take a look at how our neighbours to the north works when it comes to rubber stamping new releases.
Japan's Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) was established in 2002 as a branch of the nation's Computer Entertainment Supplier's Association (CESA). The early '90s also saw the formation of the Ethics Organization of Computer Software (EOCS), a group started by the country's adult entertainment industry to help regulate primarily adult-themed games. CERO and EOCS happily coexist as their content does not overlap. Like Europe's cross-region classification system PEGI, submission to the EOCS board for rating is voluntary, but its uptake by publishers is high for fear of Japanese retailers refusing to sell unrated software. EOCS is responsible for the censorship of content depicting sex acts and the display of genitals--acts frowned upon in Japanese media. Content is usually digitally obscured accordingly. Although CERO and EOCS do similar jobs in different categories, they do not use the same rating markings on packaging to indicate the suitability of content to consumers. EOCS has a streamlined three tier rating system which includes a "general" category suitable to all ages, "restricted" for viewers 15 or over only, and "18+", the highest of the three and restricted to those olden than 18 years. CERO ratings, on the other hand, have a five-tiered categorisation system. The EOCS ages are represented in the system, but CERO also fills the gaps on either side with the option of two additional categories. The different ratings are represented by letters, with A giving purchasers an indication the product is suitable for all ages. B for 12 or older players, C is ages 15 plus, D is 17 or higher, and the maximum Z rating is restricted to those over 18 years. Z ratings are also the only ones to be regulated by the government.
Despite Japan's entertainment industry being classified by two voluntary, non-government-run rating systems, the country has had only several minor brushes with game censorship. In 2005, the Kanagawa prefecture imposed a self ban on Grand Theft Auto III describing it as a "harmful publication". Other prefectures considered a similar move, but rather than require government intervention, the Japanese games industry, through CESA, re-evaluated the then current policy, and as a result two more rating categories were introduced.
The United States of America is the world's largest gaming market, often taking in excess of US$1 billion worth of retail game sales per calendar month. Like Japan, game classification is self-assessed, with ratings approved by an industry group. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is an offshoot of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and began operating in 1994 with the sole purpose of classifying games. Because of its recognition by consumers, very few publishers do not submit under the voluntary process (even though it's not a legal requirement to do so). US software retailers continue to shy away from carrying unrated titles on their shelves, forcing a level playing field for publishers and helping give consumers fair warning of content they may purchase.
The ESRB offers a multi-tiered rating system, with scope for titles from EC (early childhood), E for everyone aged 3 plus, E10 for viewers 10 or over, T (teen) 13 and up, and M (mature) for those over 17. The ESRB also has provision for an AO adults only rating, which is (not surprisingly) reserved for adult titles and includes graphic violence or depictions of sex. While the AO rating can be given to a game, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo do not allow games with the rating to be published on their consoles. Many US retailers also refuse to stock the adult titles. This maximum rating has been issued sparingly in the ESRB's rating history, with the most recent recipient being Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2 in 2007, which was later re-evaluated and rated M.
Censory Overload: An in-depth look at Australian video game classification
GameSpot AU's in-depth look at Australian video game classification.