Massively’s Tateru Nino has written a fascinating piece on the issue of games classification in Australia. Specifically, she’s confirmed with the Federal Attorney General’s Department that:
“Where a sale is within the jurisdiction of the relevant State or Territory legislation,” Heffernan informed us, “it is a criminal offence under those laws to sell unclassified computer games. Enforcement of those laws is a matter for the States and Territories.”
There may be no surprise in that to many people, but Tateru’s discovery is that most MMOs have no displayed evidence of having applied for Australian classification. After doing some digging for the story, she believes it’s a case of oversight combined with governmental miscommunication.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that the major MMO publishers wouldn’t understand that Australia had a classification regime. The claim is that such publishers were advised in the past that MMOs didn’t need to comply, which is plausible given their nature in comparison to a standard 1-person game at the beginning. Now, MMOs are so widely used it’s a problematic argument to uphold. Behemoths like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and its expansion packs aren’t labeled with any Australian classification – an unusual thing unless historic advice has been provided to say local classification wasn’t required. WoW in particular has nothing to fear from classification given how innocuous its gameplay is and its well implemented moderation options.
It’s more an issue of principle: the government only assesses applications made to it, there’s no proactive work done on ensuring new releases are classified. There’s an obvious problem here – if a less responsible publisher arrives on the scene to release an MMO that would rate R18+ , it can still hit the shelves if that publisher doesn’t apply for classification rather than being refused classification if they did apply. As Tateru mentions in her piece, Australia has the farcical situation of having no R18+ or X18+ categories for games, so everything at that level is refused classification. Add to that the fact that State governments are responsible for enforcing the law and it’s not hard to see how this situation has arisen.
Essentially, the current voluntary application process combined with no ‘adult’ games ratings and the old Federal / State blameshifting actually fosters an environment where a non-ethical publisher would be mad not to release their MMO product unclassified. If they’re ever caught (which seems unlikely unless the MMO is beyond the pale), there’s a growing precedent of other MMOs selling tens or hundreds of thousands of locally unclassified copies. I’d have thought that would be one hell of a defense.
Hopefully the Australian Attorney General’s department has another look at the issue, particularly the lack of adult game classifications, because the status quo is becoming more untenable as MMOs continue their growth in popularity. The risk is that a crackdown will occur without an expansion of the classification options – that would be nearly as bad as the status quo.
Update: Tateru Nino has posted a follow-up story on the issue