Classifying The Unclassifiable: R18+ And The Bigger Picture

The R18+ issue is a big one – for gamers – but is it symptomatic of a larger classification issue? We speak to Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’ Connor, former Deputy Director of the Classification Board Paul Hunt, and CEO of the iGEA Ron Curry about the upcoming review of the classification system and what it means for an adult rating for video games.

Even the best ideas become bloated and ineffective with time. What was once revolutionary becomes redundant and decrepit; what was shiny and new turns to rust. When the Australian Law Reform Commission first set about creating the outlines for classification we lived in a different time – with a different set of rules. Fast forward to 2011; we exist in a transformed media landscape, a landscape in which converged media is exchanged at speeds beyond the control of parents – beyond the control of governments.

Within this broad media spectrum is the humble video game, and the ever-present spectre of the R18+ rating. To gamers – and the majority of the Australian public – an R18+ rating for video games is a proverbial no-brainer, but underlying this problem is a much grander one: how do we classify the unclassifiable? How does the current system manage the incredible burden brought upon by the constant influx of new content: iPhone Apps, video games, video content, movies, Android apps...

Simple put: it can’t. Times have changed, and the amount of content being consumed in Australia has increased rapidly over the last decade.

“It has become increasingly clear,” claimed Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor, “that the system of classification in Australia needs to be modernised so it is able to accommodate developments in technology now and in the future.”

Said statement was made in reference to an upcoming review of classification by the Australian Law Reform Commission, a review created “in light of changes in technology, media convergence and the global availability of media content”. Major tech issues surrounding the NBN and R18+ appear to have drawn attention to the fact that Australia’s system of classification borders on the archaic and must be changed. With immediate effect.

But what is the solution to this classification conundrum? And if there is a viable solution, will party politics, and all the complications that change brings, allow the system to adapt in a satisfactory manner?

A TIME AND A PLACE “It’s about bloody time,” laughs former Deputy Director of the Classification Board, Paul Hunt, speaking about prospective changes to the system of classification in Australia. “I just think that the entire system is out of date.”

Paul’s talking, of course, about the system of classification in this country – and the massive burden it must bear in regulating all the content that makes its way into Australia.

“It’s been my personal opinion that the system we currently have relates to stuff you get out of a box and stick in your machine and watch it,” he continues, “and that’s not really relevant. The idea that the Classification Board can look at everything before it goes to market is a little bit old fashioned.”

Ron Curry, CEO of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association agrees. The responsibility placed on the Classification Board is too great.

“There’s no doubt that the current system is broken,” claims Ron, “though this is more reflective of the rapid change in technology and the introduction of new media. The Classification Act was drafted at a time when games were being distributed on 3” disks and cartridges so it’s not surprising that it fails to cope well with digital distribution, mobile games, social gaming and the like.”

So most agree – the classification system is in dire need of a reboot, or at the very least a reshuffle. Surely the only ones that need convincing are the politicians? But speaking to Brendan O’Connor, we got the impression that he was fully aware of the issues – for O’Connor, finding the solution is the real problem.

“This review,” claimed O’Connor, “is a much needed review – that’s the point. We have 10s of thousands of items that are supposed to be classified and we need to ask ourselves, do we need to be doing things differently?”

DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY The classification review, which is due to report back in December of this year, mentions, among other things, “minimising the regulatory burden” placed on the Classification Board. That is one of its major goals. In Europe and the US the load is ‘minimised’ by allowing the games industry itself to classify their own products. Would a similar system here in Australia help ease the burden faced by the classification board?

Yes, claims Paul Hunt – and he should know. As the former Deputy Director of the Classification Board, Paul has seen firsthand the ponderous amount of content that must be reviewed and rated. According to Paul, allowing respective industries the trust to review their own content is the way forward.

“I actually think it’s a waste of time to classify the amount the board are classifying now,” claims Paul. “Attempting to classify mobile games – it’s silly. It’s just silly.

“Having a system where the industry has more regulatory control, with the government overseeing it, is a far more efficient model, in my opinion. And I know that if I was still in charge of the resources I’d just say look - there’s no way we can do every app on the App Store, for example. Even if you cut it down to just the games, you’d still be buggered.

“Physically it’s just impossible to classify everything in a traditional way. And hopefully that’s the catalyst for this review.”

The real challenge, of course, is downloadable content.

“I think it’s naive to believe we can classify everything that comes into the country given that the ‘world’ comes to us online,” says Ron Curry. “While it’s relatively simple to impose a regulatory regime on tangible goods, it’s the complete opposite on content that is delivered virtually, particularly that which emanates from outside of Australia’s borders.”

But the government has, until now, maintained that it would attempt to classify the unclassifiable. We’re talking about a Labor government that wanted to somehow filter the entire internet. Compared to that unassailable task, surely classifying a few extra games on the App Store would be chicken feed?

“It’s a tough question,” began O’Connor, when asked how the government would attempt to classify the massive influx of online video game content. “How do we regulate this stuff in the 21st century? There’s different agencies, different stuff, we have to think about how we can manage it.”

When we put it to Brendan that perhaps the government should pass the burden onto the games industry itself, he was surprisingly receptive.

“You know, I don’t want to jinx the findings of the Australian Law Reform Commission,” he began, cautiously, “but that’s a path we may have to look at.

“I think there’ll probably have to be some sort of balance – there needs to be a complimentary approach where we work together towards some sort of self regulation.”

GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY HAS TO REGULATE So O’Connor agrees, cautiously – everyone agrees - that some form of industry regulation for video game classification is a progressive solution of sorts. So what’s the hold up? The Australian Law Reform Commission? Probably not. Most – even those that believe the current classification system is utterly broken – believe that the ALRC do great work, and did a great job of creating the guidelines. In the mid-90s that is.

The problem is that those guidelines are outdated – which is far from the ALRC’s fault. In fact, most believe that come December 2011 the Commission will come back with a sensible set of recommendations, and that said recommendations will include an increased role for industry in Video Game classification.

“I think the ALRC will provide a practical series of recommendations,” claims Paul. “I’ve seen their previous work and it’s good. So I’m assuming they’ll provide some really good recommendations again.”

Any problems that do arise, Paul believes, will be the result of political point scoring.

“Whether or not the Government will take the recommendations into account will, unfortunately, become a political decision. I’m too much of a cynic when it comes to practical outcomes against party politics - but hopefully they’ll do the right thing.

“I think most people would be happy with a system that keeps a close eye on things,” he continues, “but only interferes when there’s problems. Unfortunately there’s political mileage in the whole issue, so you’re gonna get politicians and parties responding to that.”

POLITICS AS USUAL The political aspects of the classification debate are impossible to ignore, and the shadow of the National Broadband Network looms large. It’s no coincidence that Brendan O’Connor and the Labor government announced this new review in the wake of Senator Conroy’s NBN business plan release. The ALRC review was announced precisely one day after Senator Conroy went public with a near unassailable business plan for the NBN – a plan that almost certainly guarantees the NBN’s existence.

Considering the Liberal government have opposed the National Broadband Network every step of the way – and considering that improved internet in Australia will no doubt result in increased concerns about the online content coming into this country – there is little doubt that the NBN and classification are interlinked issues. The timing of both announcements is very deliberate – almost as if the Labor government is, issue by issue, attempting to clear up any potential opposition towards the National Broadband Network. The danger, for classification at least, is that the Liberals will oppose any recommendations (including a possible recommendation for the games industry to regulate its own content) to suit their own political needs concerning the NBN.

As always, time will tell – but precisely how much time? For R18+ there are now two separate issues, each of which will undoubtedly influence the other. First the gaming guidelines, which are currently being drafted for the next SCAG meeting in March. The other? The ALRC’s review of the entire classification process. During our conversation with Brendan O’Connor he assured us that they “were separate issues,” and that the drafting of new gaming guidelines “were already underway” – but even he couldn’t deny the possibility that the Attorneys-General would simply wait until the overall review was complete in December 2011 to make a final decision on R18+.

Ultimately, what was once a very simple situation has now become infinitely more complicated. Once upon a time the R18+ debate was simply about convincing a group of representatives that an adult rating for video games made sense – now it’s tangled up in a plethora of dilemmas that the Australian Government is attempting to solve in numerous different ways. In a sense, the R18+ rating is simply a single branch of a larger problem that needs uprooting – a casualty of politics.

And who knows, if the ALRC comes back with a whole new set of guidelines and recommendations, including a way for the games industry to regulate and rate its own content, the R18+ debate might ultimately become irrelevant regardless – even the best ideas become bloated and ineffective with time.

Only one thing is certain – changes will be made to the way media is classified in this country.

And where that leaves video games is anyone’s guess.


    WoW Imagine being able to regulate your own industry and say, hey this isn't for kids.

    I think the self regulation is the only answer still have a smaller group of people for now who oversea it and can take any issues moms have with Grand Theft auto X.

    Brilliant article

    Great article. I can see why you so busy and i'm doing your job on Ask Me Stuff. :)
    It does seem that the new classification guidelines and the NBN are intrinsically entwined for political benefit. I won't even start on the filter.
    I think that general guidelines should be set and the industry should self classify. If a game is going close to the edge it should be submitted for classification. If an inappropriate game is published and distributed the appropriate parties should be fined, banned or forced to work for Zynga.

    There were quite a few chills up collective spines when gamers gradually came to realise that the entire system was going to be overhauled - I think what was originally a bid to halt censorship by giving us an equivalent rating to the rest of the world evolved so that the overzealous ACL and gamers were on the same side: give the adults their more adult games under R18+, make MA15+ or M15 appropriate for 15 year olds again.

    I think the only people unhappy with this outcome are ages 15-17, and to them I take the same attitude from a Penny Arcade strip from a few years back:

    Get older - it just takes time.

    If video games are going to be considered under the same rules as other forms of media, then it's us the gamers who have to let them. We can't have our cake and eat it too. A lot of content currently classified MA15+, I would not want a typical 15 year old to see, if they were my child. MAybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy at age 28, but there's some content even *I* don't want to see - however I would never stop another adult from seeing it if they so desired.

    When I was young, (perhaps seven, perhaps nine, I don't know - I was on the train with my grandmother and found a folder of them under my seat which she promptly plucked from my hands and kept out of my reach until we disembarked), I discovered that sometimes good looking ladies would appear naked in magazines. No concept had ever intrigued me more.

    Alas, I was 15 before I discovered Australian skin stalwart The Picture was available on an unrestricted basis (recommended to 'mature' audiences - an the M in M15 stands for mature, right?) for a mere $3 a week. I was 18 before I could legally buy an R-rated magazine, and by then I think the thrill of buying magazines was exhausted.
    I'm not saying I became jaded to sex and sexuality or anything like that. In fact i'm wandered well off my point.

    Which is this: other forms of media - magazines, films (not only of the dirty variety), even music have an age restriction on them. I think part of the fear of introducing a new system is the alienation of a very small part of the consumer base which will be negatively affected - these 15-17 year olds are going to be upset, possibly. But for the greater good, definitely.

    Will under 18's get their hands on R18+ games? Absolutely. Let's not blow smoke up anyone's butt here. It's gonna happen.

    But the classification board is there to inform people's choices, NOT to rap the knuckles of every negligent store clerk or every parent who decides they want 15 year old Jimmy to play Blood War 9: The Mega Bloodening.

    We need a better system to make the choices more informed which will lead to a better exercising of judgement by EVERYONE concerned.

    If that means reclassifying movies, so be it. If it means removing MA15+ in favour of bumping borderline films into a more definitive adult category, then so be it! Better to strike now while the iron is hot than to force through abitrarily draconian restrictions like forcing all R18+ DVDs to be sold in blank packaging to make them less appealing to minors.

    Seriously, what?

      Where can one pick up a copy of this Blood War 9: The Mega Bloodening? IT SOUNDS AWESOME!!!

      brb need to patent "Blood War : The Bloodening"

      I'd like to touch on your comment about negligent store clerks; If they are to sell an MA15+ rated game to a child, that is, someone under the age of 15, then there are penalties. The clerk may be charged, and have their employment placed in jeopardy, and the business can face serious fines for such breeches.

      In the case of retail, it's in everyone's best interest to do the right, and legal, thing.

      If an adult purchases the game then hands it over to the child, all the proper procedures have still been followed. The child remains exposed to the content as if they had purchased it themselves.

      The classification specifically states that for someone under he age of 15 to view the content they require adult GUARDIAN supervision.

      In the case of parenting it's really a case by case, well, case.

      Point of sale can be policed, bad parenting is not so easy.

    Great article.

    I think you're spot on that the Government is conflating R18+ with other communications/internet-based policies in an attempt to link the NBN with modernising reform (of the law or otherwise). This may be highly unfortunate, because politicising the (supposedly common-sense) issue of classification reform might open it up to opposition from the Opposition for opposition's sake, or to suit a particular political agenda.

    Hopefully the ALRC's review of the current system isn't used as a political football, or tied to the dead-weight that is the internet filter (which has just about zero chance of proceeding). It would be regrettable if R18+ was turned into a moral problem rather than a practical one.

    One thing I did wonder, though, was the wisdom of advancing self-classification by developers. I couldn't think of a bigger target for the ACL-esque brand of fear-mongering and moralising. ("The corporations are classifying THEIR OWN material to lure your kids!!!") It's true that the 'burden of regulation' is large for the classification board at the moment, but would shifting the onus to companies lead to a fairer ratings system?

      I would disagree the fines for failing to meet the classification correctly would probably be quite high.

    The ESRB, classifying American games is separate to the government, and classifies games from EC (early childhood) to AO (adults only). It works there, why not here?

    "Even if you cut it down to just the games, youd still be buggered. "

    Well, you probably wouldn't be because that sort of content would be refused classification. :P

    Industry regulation is the only viable way forward, really, but it means government ceding control over what content we can see. It's fine for systems like games consoles or Apple's App Store where the platform owners police their content, but if you move all control over content to industry bodies, what do you do about stuff that isn't classified via one of those bodies? Simply saying that it must have an ESRB rating or whatever to be sold at retail doesn't really do much for digitally distributed games that don't have a 'recognised' rating.

    And there's the question as to how things would work. If you set up a local body for Australia's ratings, then it would just be swapping one broken system for another - it would be unable to cope with the volume from the iOS App Store alone. But say that you rely on the platform holders own content ratings systems. How do you reconcile the difference between one of Apple's ratings on the App store against one of Microsoft's on the Win7 Phone store or Google's on the Android store? And these are all different to ESRB ratings, or PEGI. What about, say, imported Japanese games which could have been classified by one of multiple different industry bodies over there? Do you have some kind of giant mapping thing which maps all the different content ratings from all the international industry groups into Australia's own systems? What happens when a category can't be easily split to fit our own, if you go down that path?

    If you give control to the industry, can you still restrict adults-only content to adults at retail? What about online? How do you do this?

    And most importantly, what is Australia's classification system designed to do? Is it meant for censorship, with government controlling the content we consume, or is it meant to be an informative service, with us deciding what content we consume? Right now the system is a censorship system - stuff that doesn't meet the criteria is modified or banned - but the incredible complexity of handing it over to industry is essentially moving it into the realm of being a content description service, and not a censorship system. I know I'd prefer to be the one making my own decisions, but is that what Australia wants? (We know it's probably not what our current communications minister wants :P)

    There is a saying about how to eat an elephant, you eat it one bite at a time.
    It seems the government are going to do the absolute opposite and bundled every thing together into a something bigger than Ben Hur, and are then to try and tackle it all at once.
    Its admirable to want to fix ALL the issues in one big sweeping change but it never works.

      You should probably kill the elephant first

    How about a version of self regulation with government oversight? For example, when activision release COD27, they can decide on the classification based on a list of content categories the OFLC gives them with some financial threat if they mess it up too much.

    If they rate it as R or M they'll probably be okay but if they rate it as PG or G then people will complain (I'm thinking there could be a complaints number on the rating label), the OFLC can investigate and fine activision for trying to pass off their puppy torturing level (or whatever sad controversy they think up next) as suitable for people under the age of 5 when its clearly in breach of the rules.

    That sort of system sounds like it'd be the best all round solution, the OFLC gets a LOT less work on their plate, the public get to bitch about games and might even get it right (with a multi-million sample size it's almost certain to happen once) and the industry (and especially indies) get to save money on the classification process. They'd still need to submit some sort of paperwork but without needing to have every single thing reviewed it should be a lot smoother.

    Sorry Mark, i only just got around to reading all this.
    Another simply fantastic article.

    It still astounds me that there seems to be a real gathering of genuinely respectable support, yet progress is just as slow as ever.

    One of the problems with politics, sometimes, is that it's mainly a lot of talk followed by very little action.

    I had an idea stirring around in my head for a while. What if big gaming chain stores like EB, Game, Gametraders or the Gamesmen (for those in NSW... it is NSW isn't it?) had a bunch of big "Suggested R18+" stickers produced, slapped them on games and then studied how that effect the reaction of parents and the like.
    Sure they wouldn't be able to refuse the sale of it to a minor because it's still technically a MA game, but i'd like to see the psychological effect that the nay-sayers are trying to tell us doesn't exist.
    It would certainly be something worth trying and presenting at the next meeting of the AG's.

    I mean, if all the stores i buy games from can slap giant "PRE-OWNED", "SALE" or "WOW" stickers on their games, why not these?

    I mean it may seem like a silly suggestion, but there are so many things we could do to support this, as a community, and sitting idly by is frustrating..

    this is a good story but one thing is glaringly absent. The reason that changing classifications is a 'political' issue in Australia is because religion makes it thus. The churches are ultimately responsible for the fact that there is no R or X rating for computer games. At election time both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are out to get preferences from the three Christian parties and they know that censorship is one of the most important issues to them. Just check out the number of stories on porn and classification on the Australian Christian Lobby website. They're mad for it. All the public opinion polls on R and X rated material show upwards of 72% support for regulated sale. The government knows that. They know it is very popular. Its just not popular with the 15% of Christians in the community. You also have to understand that almost 40% of federal parliamentarians belong to the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship and will side with the 15% of committed christians on censorship issues. At least three of the state Attorney's General are also solid conservative Christians who do not want any spreading of the R or X categories. This game is not going to won or lost on public opinion or logic. It will be decided only when there are more political parties who are prepared to stand up and tell religion to get back in its box.

    You let them self regulate, and provide a recourse to handle complaints of distributors that are doing a poor job of it. Instead of reviewing everything you now just have to review a much smaller portion of the market. Pending the review results, the classification may be forced on the media if it wants to continue being sold in the country.

    PS, hurry up with the R18+ game thing would you!

    Man this is what I've been saying for ages, R18 is really a minor step in a long long road.

    I just want to see it completley overhauled so we can get access to the indie game network on xbla.

    Times have changed.. religious f*** heads are still stuck in the dark ages.

    Self-regulation has its pitfalls. Look at the systems in the US, for example, which are really a bit of a mess. When you put the almighty dollar in charge of classification decisions, which is what you do in self-regulation, there will always be the temptation to push the label a bit lower or higher depending on the desired audience. So there would need to be extensive oversight of such a system.

    That said, this is the only way forward, IMO. It's simply not practical to continue the centralised method of classification we have now. And it's a little known fact that self-classification of games actually already happens - there are authorised classification people who work for the game distributors and give G, PG and M labels. If it's likely to be restricted (i.e. MA15+), then they have to submit it. This has been in place for a couple of years, though I'm not sure how widely used it is.

    The same thing applies to broadcast media (TV) - due to the sheer volume of content, the networks can classify the content themselves. There is a complaints system of course, and they get reprimanded if they get it wrong.

    I have to admit, I was initially against the idea of 'self-regulation' - I could see too many ways in which it might cause complications in classification, many of which may be 'deliberate'.
    I have completely changed my mind on the subject now and I can see that self-regulation is almost certainly going to be the best way to move forward - not that it will be perfect, however no system is... It would be a damn sight better than the system currently in place though (especially by preventing any "Christian" lobby groups attempting to control what information adults can access...). Switching to a classification system where 'Informed' decisions can be made, instead of the current 'censorship' classification system will also (hopefully) prevent any future attempts at censorship.
    If the above is also applied to the NBN and other 'digital' media types/formats (rather than just Film, TV, Literature and Computer Games) then it has my full support (killing the prospect of an Internet filter once and for all hopefully).
    The entire classification system of media is in dire need of an overhaul and I would prefer any new classification scheme to be implemented correctly rather than rushed.
    Having said all that though, I still believe that the AG's should implement an R18+ classification for games in the interim - not just because I am eager to see it happen, but because the existence (or lack thereof) of the R18+ classification will (I believe) have an effect on the overhaul of the entire system. If it were to be introduced at the SCAG meeting in March then at least people could see what sort of impact it would really make (thereby showing its value, and preventing the Christian lobby groups from objecting with further speculative propaganda).
    Excellent article BTW

    i think we should have a seperate film classification board and a seperate game board and one for literature as well.. abit like the UK or USA..

    as far as i know UK has a seperate board for games as does the usa, canada etc.. our system in australia is broken and outdated.
    the M rating is a old and we need a compromise of PG and M.. like in the usa/uk 12 or pg-13..
    MA 15 is and outmodded rating too.. and the markings are ridiculous and insulting.. are we so stupid that we need things pointed out to us with colours? its patronising..

    i think the government should but butt of classifying movies and games and literature.. its draconian and achaic.. reaks of communism to have governments control what you can see, hear, read, interact with..
    i think some guidelines are fine and good but each industry should classify their own and be held to account if they fail to honestly do the job
    publishera should rate thier magazines;
    Film distrubutors should submit thier own films to a film specified board; and game and interactive venders/distributors/publishers should submit thier own ware to a board that has an understanding of game ratings and whats allowed in games for different age groups..

    the ratings for each should be different too.
    what works for one is not appicable and should not be applicable to another.

    thats my peice

    I felt the need to comment on this, because I'm just completely spent on the thought of an R18+ rating. It's been in discussion since I was 15. I'm now 19. It's either not going to happen or it's going to take another few years for absolutely no reason. So instead of me trying to have the patience for the old men and women in parliament that think they are so smart and lead this country, I'll just take it upon myself to get whatever version of whatever game I feel like playing, whenever I feel like it, without confining to their ratings system. Cheers Parliament. This is how much power you old folk actually have.

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