Remember that one about how massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft are being sold illegally in Australia? It seemed more than a little strange at the time. Now we can confirm: it's bogus. But why?
Blizzard told us:
"Blizzard Entertainment and its affiliates work very closely with the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia to ensure that we are in full compliance with Australian law as it relates to the distribution and operation of our games, including World of Warcraft.
We'd like to reassure all of our players that World of Warcraft is currently, and has always been, distributed and operated legally in Australia."
So why did the Federal and NSW Attorneys-General both claim, when speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, that online games such as World of Warcraft have to be classified? To be honest, we're not sure.
We spoke to Paul Hunt, former Deputy Director of the Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC), and now a regular advisor to the wider games industry. Hunt says the Attorney-General Department's reported statement to the SMH that "Online games are computer games within the meaning of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995..." is incorrect.
Indeed, the AGD does not have any authority under the Classification Act to determine if something is a computer game or not. That is the responsibility of the Classification Board.
The Classification Board has always defined various types of games as follows:
* Standalone game (no online components) - Must be classified.
* Game that includes standalone and online components - Must be classified. The Board does not take into account the online components, but may include a consumer advice that the gaming experience may change online.
* Online only game - not a computer game for the purposes of the Classification Act. This is due to the fact that the product sold in stores does not include a computer game, but rather provides data to access an online game.
Further confusing the issue, the Board's website states that "downloadable, online and mobile phone computer games can be submitted for classification." However, the Board doesn't specify a legal obligation that online content must be classified. In fact, we know of at least one Australian games distributor who did submit an MMO for classification within the past year, but was told by the AGD and the Board that it did not need to be classified. Thus, it was released without any classification marking.
So if online games are not the domain of the Classification Board, then who does look after them? Ron Curry, head of the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia, told the SMH that locally hosted online games fall under the jurisdiction of the Broadcast Services Act.
During our research we learned that the BSA does not require a game to be classified. However, similar to an age-gated website, for example, if the content was assessed as likely to be classified MA15+ (if classified) there must be a restricted access system in place to restrict access to only persons over 15 years old.
Hunt has a possible explanation for why the whole issue has generated so much confusion:
"It may be worth noting that some of the recent press comments regarding the classification of online games have not made a clear distinction between games that contain some online gameplay and games that are online only.
The previous advice from the Board (through the OFLC and AGD) has made clear distinctions between games containing online gameplay and games that are online only. Indeed, some of the advice has been that when the Board classifies a game that includes some online gameplay (in addition to standalone play) the Board does not consider the online gameplay in its classification decision.
However, in order to better inform consumer, the Board's practice has been to sometimes add the consumer advice "gameplay may change during online play."
So where does this leave us? Well, the good news is that there is no danger of MMOs or indeed any online games being pulled from retail shelves around the nation. But we can't help think that the whole issue has exposed yet another compelling reason for the Classification Act - which, remember, was written 14 years ago - to be thoroughly overhauled and brought up to date.