Don’t Blame The Classification Board, Blame The Government

Don’t Blame The Classification Board, Blame The Government
Image: ZA/UM

Games don’t get banned all that often, and every time it happens there’s a surge of interest in Australia’s archaic classification system. That’s generally followed by a torrent of abuse against the Classification Board, occasionally Australia itself, and more recently, a bit of public vitriol directly against the members of the board.

But as was the case when Fallout 3 and Mortal Kombat were completely banned from sale, the same situation applies with DayZ and, most recently, Disco Elysium: The Final Cut. Rather than directing ire towards the people whose sole job is to enforce the letter of the law, people need to go all the way back to 1995.

This story has been republished following the refused classification rating granted to Disco Elysium: Final Cut this week.

The idea of putting boundaries on what content Australians can consume is older than Australia itself. It was first born from the British idea of obscenity, which Chief Justice Cockburn established as a legal precedent back in 1868. Justice Cockburn was overseeing a case where Henry Scott was selling an anti-Catholic pamphlet called The Confessional Unmasked: shewing the depravity of the Romish priesthood, the iniquity of the Confessional, and the questions put to females in confession, and it was the first major case to test obscenity after England passed the Obscene Publications Act in 1857.

Chief Justice Cockburn only heard the case on appeal, after the court initially ruled that the pamphlets were designed to expose problems in the Catholic Church. In that judgement, Chief Justice Cockburn overruled the lower court’s decision and wrote that obscenity was “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall”.

In simple terms, the ruling meant the intention of the publication was irrelevant. If any part of a work contravened the act, then the entire work had to be outlawed.

That rule was called the Hicklin test, and after becoming the standard for obscenity in Britain it was adopted in the United States and re-enforced both through the Comstock Act and the rulings by federal judges, and in 1896, the Supreme Court. Because Australia adopted British common law as the basis for our own system, the legal idea of obscenity took root here, and in some ways, the spirit of that law still exists today.

The Hicklin test functioned as the rudimentary basis for censorship in Australia for decades and much of the country’s early history. An update to the Customs Act in 1917 established the Commonwealth Film Censorship Board, and under the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations of 1926 and Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations in 1956 (the latter of which is still in force today) it was the responsibility of Customs officers to search and seize any material deemed too obscene for Australia.

But it wasn’t until 1949 that the current model, and the basis for the problem that Australia has with video games, began. After the Second World War, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia signed a deal with the Federal Government that made the censorship of films — the first Australian TV broadcast wasn’t until November 5, 1956 — the Commonwealth’s responsibility. The rest of the states and territories followed suit, but it was only for films: states were still responsible for classifying, and banning if necessary, literature.

Don’t Blame The Classification Board, Blame The GovernmentThe clause in the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations 1926 act showing what content can be censored or removed from sale/distribution in Australia. This act has since been replaced with the current classification code. Image: Australian Government Federal Register of Legislation

By the ’70s and ’80s, new standards and precedents on obscenity and the censorship of material had changed worldwide. The Hicklin test was thrown out in 1933 when the government attempted to censor Ulysses — which was allowed for sale locally, then banned in 1929, unbanned in 1937, and then restricted in 1941.

Standards began to change thanks to Customs Minister Don Chipp — who later founded the Australian Democrats minor party and coined the phrase “keep the bastards honest”. A member of the conservative Liberal Government, Chipp had a strong personal objection to the idea of censorship, and began repealing censorship on literature entirely. His reforms allowed the sale of Playboy magazine in Australia for the first time, and Chipp also oversaw the introduction of the R rating for films, which wouldn’t be implemented for video games until over four decades later.

But there was still fragmentation between the states and the federal government on the classification of material. States and territories were still responsible for determining what can be viewed and broadcast in their own borders. In 1983, the Commonwealth and the states met to review the first proposals for Australia’s first national classification code, that would see all publications and videotapes given the same classifications regardless of location. Because of the prior agreements, the federal government couldn’t introduce a classification system without the agreement of the states.

As always, progress was slow. The states agreed that classification of videotapes would be voluntary, with the Film Censorship Board (which would later become the Office of Film and Literature Classification in 1996) being responsible for individual classifications. Five categories were agreed upon: G, PG, M, R and X, but off the bat, Queensland and Tasmania indicated that they would not allow the sale of X-classified material. The rest of the Australian states took the same view in 1984, leaving the Northern Territory and Canberra as the only places where X18+ material can be sold, seen or bought today.

And that would become the model for the evolution of Australia’s classification system, and why it took Australia so long to get an R18+ rating for video games in the first place.

Don’t Blame The Classification Board, Blame The GovernmentTo comply with Australia’s classification system, Bethesda edited all copies of Fallout 3 to make morphine Med-X, a change that exists today in Fallout 76. Image: Fallout 3

The National Classification Scheme was officially established in 1995, with the federal government, states and territories all passing legislation through their own houses to bring the scheme to life. Under the model, and explained by the Classification Board’s then-director during a speech to Monash University in 2009, the Commonwealth takes charge of the classification process, while the states and territories take charge of enforcing any breaches of the guidelines.

The Classification Board’s role, then, is really an advisory one. Rather than being responsible for doling out bans or classifications as they’re traditionally seen, their job is simply to review content applications against the guidelines established by the states — and that’s where the problem lies.

Don’t Blame The Classification Board, Blame The GovernmentSyndicate was banned in Australia due to the locational damage and potential dismemberment, decapitation or bisection of bullets, a feature that was common in shooters since the release of Kingpin almost a decade before Syndicate’s release. Image: EA

The problem with DayZ‘s ban, a game Australians could buy online for almost five years, is best told through the story of Michael Atkinson. Michael Atkinson was the former attorney-general for South Australia and, by virtue of his position, a regular feature at the yearly meetings between the Commonwealth and the states.

As Mark Serrels retold in 2014, Atkinson saw himself as the last line of defence in a war against corporate interests, an icon of democracy at work.

And importantly, he saw himself as right. Video games weren’t just a problem for his family, but a problem for the whole nation. During the 2014 state election, Atkinson told ABC’s Good Game that gamers were a bigger threat to his family than “the outlaw motorcycle gangs who also hate me”.

It was absurd, the worst kind of hyperbole. But as long as he was Attorney-General, Atkinson vowed to use his power to prevent an R18+ classification from becoming a reality.

We didn’t have an R18+ rating for years purely because one person, one single person in South Australia, decided it wasn’t in the interests of the nation.

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And that’s the problem we still face with the system today. As the industry discovered in the weeks, months and years after Atkinson’s resignation, Australia’s classification guidelines are a bit like the board of Nintendo. Everyone has the power to shut something down, and if there isn’t unanimous approval, then there’s no chance of getting changes over the line.

R18+ games are allowed to be classified in Australia, but the problem now lies with the antiquated guidelines themselves. Medicinal cannabis is a reality in Australia and the push for its legalisation is gaining steam. Yet, as DayZ discovered, the drug is still persona non grata. And as We Happy Few abruptly discovered last year, even trying to make a point about state-sponsored drugs and dystopian societies, like they did with the drug Joy, can fall afoul of the current classification guidelines.

As it stands, games cannot be rated in Australia if their use is “detailed or realistic”. And if that drug use is tied to anything that could be considered an incentive or reward, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a fake drug — that can’t be classified in Australia either.

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Following the unanimous overturning of the Classification Board's original RC rating for We Happy Few, Compulsion Games has expressed sympathy for the statutory body. The studio -- and Aussie gamers -- is glad that the RC rating was overturned, but one We Happy Few producer isn't sure the Board could have ruled any other way.

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The Classification Board’s problem isn’t that its members enjoy stopping Australians accessing games or content that most ordinary people know how to access anyway. The Board itself is actually quite diverse by design: the Act requires that the members of the Classification Board contain a mix of ages, professional backgrounds, life experience and academic backgrounds. The Review Board, which is a separate statutory body to the Classification Board itself, has a similar makeup.

The problem is that both bodies are stuck to the current guidelines, and changing those guidelines is almost impossible.

Don’t Blame The Classification Board, Blame The GovernmentImage: Supplied

If you’ve followed the history of games being banned in Australia, there’s been an interesting development over the last few years. It might be a result of more public exposure to games being banned, and it might also just be the changing dynamic of who sits on the board at any given time.

But in the last couple of years, the Board has been increasingly vocal about what’s been refused classification. Reports of games have included notes about things that could be removed, or what the board thinks the game would have been rated if certain elements were removed.

It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of a wink and a nod. Their job is to enforce the letter of the law, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think it should be changed. They still have to enforce it, and offering more vocal guidance around that is a nice, subtle way of putting a spotlight on how antiquated the current guidelines are.

The Classification Board is trying to change that. As part of the federal Department of the Communications and the Arts, the board is leading a review into the guidelines for film and video games “to ensure they reflect contemporary Australian community values”.

“Ministers agreed that the Australian Government will develop a new set of guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games and guidelines for the Classification of Films and, if necessary, an amended National Classification Code, to be brought forward at a later CAG meeting,” a joint note from the Council of Attorneys General said.

That process, which the Classification Board pointed out in their statement on DayZ, is public. It’s deliberately public because the Board and the ministers know that community attitudes have changed. Take this remark the board made in their annual report for 2017-18 about the current guidelines:

The Board is supportive of a review of the Games Guidelines so that the Board may more accurately inform the Australian public about the impact level of classifiable elements within computer games. Additionally, the Board looks forward to receiving research from the Branch about the Australian community’s awareness of, and concerns regarding the growing use of ‘loot boxes’ and other microtransactions in computer games.

Any changes will still take a literal age to go through. That’s natural: the state governments aren’t going to forgo their power to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth isn’t asking for it, so don’t expect games like DayZ to patch in blunts or Disco Elysium: The Final Cut to start doing lines any time soon.

The department is publicly telling people that the old system holding everything back is being set up for change. It’s a system that was designed to give state governments more agency and power, even if that power resulted in them having undue influence over the rest of the country.

And that’s ultimately where the blame should lie. It’s the small-minded states’ mentality that saw Mortal Kombat banned for years. It’s the same mentality that has made games like Disco Elysium, DayZ and other titles for adults struggle because they couldn’t fit within a set of guidelines written almost a decade ago, guidelines that can’t be changed without the unanimous approval of several individuals who mostly don’t understand why this matters to begin with.

Those state ministers will, in all likelihood, think the current system is fine. But it’s not. Gamers have no problem making their voice heard — it’s our job to make sure the right people are listening.


  • Anybody who had a closer look at the “victory” we had with R18 pretty much saw all of tgis coming though.. R18 is and continues to be a rebadged MA15+ tossed out to us to give the illusion of progress.

    Until we get a proper generation of politicians who can appreciate games are works of fiction and are the same as other older medijms we will be stuck with this gimped restricted rating. That or someone finally creates the next medium so we can push societies modern panic to the next medium..

    • It was clear that it was never going to be a catch all for everything that had been refused classification under the old scheme. After all, R18+ existed for films and we still had banned films.

      When they changed the laws, the new R18+ category certainly allowed things that the old MA15+ category didn’t. And it isn’t clear that the MA15+ category was further restricted. There is a grey area between the two, but that is mostly to do with violence: how exactly do you distinguish between “strong impact” and “high impact”?

      • To be clear I dont expect that R18 is the magical rating which means everything is open. As you have said even film has strict boundaries as well.

        At the same time the way video games are treated where content that has been available on other mediums such as sex, violence and drugs have been on films and other media rated with R18+ and MA15+

        Yet video games are treated with kid gloves on content meant for adult consumption because.. it will influence children? Its as ironic as saying porn should be banned because its a bad influence on kids… never mind its a product tailored solely for adult consumption hence the appropriate classification of R18+

        The current ratings system for games is a joke because of the in built hypocrisy of we are making a category for adults only but we cant show these thoroughly adult themes because.. children? Hence my statement of a rebadged MA15+ the way R18 is structured is the assumption that an “impressionable teenager” might be swayed by the content..

        • Porn is X-rated, and anything with sexual violence or implied non-consent is refused classification, so you really picked a bad example. Heck, in WA at least, even someone peeing on someone else is enough to refuse classification.

          • I was wondering why i got a reply on old post.. and hey its a ye olde repost with the actual paragraph its a repost slightly in the article so ppl click n skim read for a while and miss tge fact its a repost =P

            Anyhoo… not including the wonderfully weird inter state laws aside my point still stands though. R18 and X18 exists solely for products like porn which is aimed at adults. I just picked the most extreme end of the spectrum of mefia that would fall on that scope of the ratings to point out why is a rating that is aimed at adult using the “it is not appropriate or may affect minors” as a category/basis on decisions to ban?

            Again let me reiterate I do not mean that having R18+ means open the flood gates to stuff that would normally be banned in other media..but depictions of rape, violence and drugs have been in books, music and films and the severity/impact of those is always appropriately gated with the ma15+, r18+ (and yes x18) ratings. And yet 2 of those (drugs and sexual violence) will never be allowed in games because….. its bad for minors due to interactivity… except the whole point of those adult ratings is to gate off such content from minors. =/

  • No, I think I’ll blame the government and the volunteer board of wowsers who join up for the love of control.

    • The current volunteers are partly why these attitudes are changing, though, and I’d say it’s also a factor in the Board encouraging new guidelines.

      They also noted the high media interest in We Happy Few last year, so I suspect that’s played a part as well.

      • I don’t like to shoot the messenger, but I’ve always felt that the board is part of the problem. They’re deeply inconsistent in their enforcement regime: it isn’t just out of step with the rest of the western world, it’s usually out of step with itself. Given what gets banned and the reasoning behind the banning, there’s clearly vast quantities of content that they either miss altogether or are applying different yardsticks to. When they single out one game for punitive action and allow a truckload of others to slip by it makes them seem arbitrary and incompetent.

        • this seems to be a vast overreaction to weed, maybe someone on the board lost a child. I was reading an article about frequent weed smokers have total psychotic breakdowns and running around with knives and shit for no reason getting badly hurt or like running off a carpark roof.

          Disclaimer though i’m not sure how legit it was since it referenced something called “the winds of psychotic fire” supposedly the area of the brain responsible for these occurrences.

          Just saying the person might have a reason for going all authoritarian over weed wrong or not it’s rarely some puritanical asshole, usually someone misinformed or a reaction born out of unusually bad experiences with the subject in question rather than different yardsticks. Then again they are probably meant to leave personal shit out of it and just work based on the facts and rules before them so they are cocking it up either way.

          • I smoke a lot of weed, also my mates. Have done for over 20 years and I am yet to become psychotic and run around with knives hurting myself.
            I won’t argue that weed can definitely help to activate a dormant schizophrenia, but as to what you’re talking about, yeah I think you may want to find a slightly more respectable source material.
            Ice or cocaine, more like.

          • i know the article was based on a documentary that aired on the ABC here in Australia but i don’t remember the exact source of the information, but i think it was bias in the direction of prohibition.

            I know Ice can cause extreme reactions but i have never heard of cocaine causing anything like a psychotic episode of any description.

    • Why do you think the current board are wowsers? Are you assuming they’re stuffy old boomers with nothing better to do? Because thats far from the truth.

      In the order they’re listed on the classification boards page, they are 52, 43, 38, 41, 27, 36, 43, 48, 36, 30, 53, 64, 43, 26, 48, 46, 37, 30, 57, and 42 years old. The average age across that is 42.

      I’d wager that the majority of those have grown up playing games from a very early age, after all the NES is 36 years old now. Most also have Arts qualifications, meaning they’re in the field so have a better compassion for what the developers go through. Its a very good group, and as @alexwalker points out one of the reasons the attitudes are changing.

      • The youngest there is 27 though. The only time that should be the age of the youngest person in the room is a bingo hall.

        • Not sure I get your point. Wasnt saying they were kids, but that they werent a bunch of boomers looking to control something they dont understand. Which is how I interpreted the intent behind dustwinds post. And I presume your reply now as well.

          Games have been around so long now that pretty much every person on that board would have grown up in a world with gaming. At the very least a console if not a PC. You dont need to be in high school to understand the issues here. I know I’ve grown up with games around since I was old enough to play em, and I’m older than all but 4 on that list.

          By the way, the youngest is 26, not 27.

          • Not taking a shot at you. More that this doesn’t reflect on people that actually use the medium.

          • But it does though. The belief that games are only played by kids has been proven wrong so many times its not funny.

            The average age of a gamer in Australia is 32, not 12. Gaming has been around well over 40 years now. I know I never stopped playing games, its been a form of entertainment for me my whole life.

          • I’m that average age.
            But people under the age of 26 play as well. I just want a better spread, as I am sure the range of older gamers is over represented in this board. That’s all.

          • Fair enough, but the blunt reality is that aint gonna happen. These are positions of responsibility so are naturally going to go to people older than the average. Anyone younger isnt going to have had the time to get the qualifications or experience needed.

            That average age of 32 includes kids, who arent going to be on this board, so if you only look at gamers over 18, the average is naturally going to be well over 32. That board is the best representation you’re going to see. Frankly, its a lot younger than I expected as well. When I looked last (a couple of years ago) there were a lot more 50-somethings on the list.

      • No, but the police have discretion to issue warnings in certain circumstances. Just as here, the Classification Board has discretion when interpreting the guidelines. ‘Incentive’ and ‘reward’ are just some of the vague terms. There is a lot of wiggle room there, but somehow the Board seems to err on the side of RC. Doesn’t say a lot for their self-proclaimed progressiveness.

        • What makes you think they err on the side of RC? The amount of games that have been refused classification since the introduction of the R18+ category is tiny. And the existence of R18+ doesn’t mean RC can’t happen, in any media.

      • i blame the police in Darwin for handing out a seatbelt fine since they can ignore it and the fine is over $700.

        that’s just a dick move no matter how you slice it.

        sorry i just realised this has absolutely nothing to do with the argument. Now i feel stupid

  • I”ll blame the country. Its becoming a nanny state that no one can do anything without offending someone.

  • The Classification Board is trying to change that. As part of the federal Department of the Communications and the Arts, the board is leading a review into the guidelines for film and video games “to ensure they reflect contemporary Australian community values”.

    “contemporary Australian community values” is a term that worries me. Given how overly sensitive people have become, things could actually go backwards in a review and restrictions get worse and more broad then they already are.

    • i wouldn’t worry mate as long as they aren’t taking these measurements from twitter the minority of PC screeching dribblers we deal with here will be drowned out by the majority of normal people.

      ah shit they will totally go to twitter won’t they… it’s over boys time to just pray for that asteroid.

      • I really fear that the *extremely* vocal minority will get their way in the end. The problem I see is that; even if there are hundreds of thousands of legitimate submissions to any kind of review from industry bodies, advocate groups and gamers alike it will actually be the one hyper-sensationalised tweet in opposition that will gain media momentum and will swing the conversation that way.

        I avoid watching the TV news where I can but in the small amount that I do actually see they always tend to play up the fringe view in the interest of “balance” no matter how preposterous that view may be.

  • Great article Alex. Extremely informative and interesting.

    I’ll be honest, I’m fairly certain the continued coverage of the issue and the smart, adult critique of the system laid out on this site over the years has helped in the move forward for this antiquated system.

    I guess it’s the same as a lot of things – a lot of it comes down to having the right, and enough, people in the right positions for it to tip over into happening. Similar to the funding programs existing / not existing over the years, it’s a struggle and a slow push for politics to catch up to modern day. I guess the appearance of that is heightened a ton by the breakneck pace of the Internet.

  • They could just legalise marijuana instead. I actually think the board is trying to highlight how ridiculous that pot is treated the same as heroin and meth.

  • I think it’s the whole classification is a joke.
    Dayz was hardly breach of policy when you have games like gta5 where you can grow your own weed supply business or even bake meth.
    Yet these hardly ever get looked at

    • My go-to example is Life is Strange where you have teenagers smoking weed, which gives extra content when you play as Chloe and smoke. Yet it got through fine.

    • The weed in DayZ wasn’t the problem, it was the fact that using it had beneficial effects (health restoration I believe)
      Using weed in GTA only provides a negative effect and the other drugs don’t apply to the rule because there is no usage either way.

  • The ‘letter of the law’ is all about interpretation and context. The classification board could push the boat out far more than they do and so in that respect I do blame them.

  • Sorry, I am still blaming the Classification Board (ACB) and by large the Department of Communications.

    A recommendation to change the classification guidelines from the ACB would get us 90% of the way their to change. The whole “not our problem, them the rules” status quo/benign public servant thinking is the reason government doesn’t change.

    When you ask all the regulators about loot boxes, they tell you its not our jurisdiction or the law doesnt allow us. But they could make it their jurisidiction and change the law if they knocked on the door of their ministers office and said “this needs to change”… but rarely they do, cause time, money, and energy are a finite resource and any change has to come out of their budget.

    • The laws are set by the politicians. Without the law itself being fundamentally changed to alter how it’s dealt with, the regulators are bound to their legal scope. You want it changed you need to raise it with your local MP so Parliament does some work for once in its life.

        • Sadly, my local MP is on mental health leave at the moment and probably going to be busy with other stuff when he does get back…

      • The extra problem with this is that you need to change it with six sets of politicians before you even start with the Federal Govt.

        We had a relatable problem with GST right as I was retiring. Boring stuff so I wont go into the details, but some strict registration rules were becoming a problem. There were joint task forces and everything that were behind changing the rules, and to date it still hasnt happened that I know of.

  • From a policy perspective the main issue is that Australian’s aren’t provided a useful classification system. Any banned game can, with commensurate ease, be obtained online (just like anything else the government deems inappropriate, including actual drugs).

    The purpose of a classification system is to guide consumers choices, not to censor. By excluding content from the system they aren’t really achieving anything other than undermining the purpose of that system.

    Australia’s hysteria around drug use and the hugely destructive ‘war on drugs’ still affects all sorts of this in weird and annoying ways. We have a lot of growing up to do.

  • IMO this just promotes piracy even further in Australia, who lets political nonsense get in the way of them playing a game their really looking forward too? very few I’d imagine!

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