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New game rating comes with a catch

By PATRICK CROSBY: On 19 March, 2013, something very interesting will occur for 70% of Australian men, women and children.

After 12 years of battling, on 19 March 2013, an amendment to the classification of computer games that gamers worldwide have been fighting for will finally come into effect. An amendment that producers, designers, artists, gamers and retailers are all collectively inhaling in anticipation to experience.

But it comes with a catch.

The amendment addresses the need to introduce an R18+ category to interactive entertainment, effectively creating a range of games that can be enjoyed exclusively by adult Australian gamers. Current ABS statistics reveal that the average age of the ‘gamer’ is roughly 30 years.

It is a victory for the gaming industry, which raked in more than $1.7 billion in 2010, a steady growth from 1.3 billion in 2007. The amendment may lower costs of editing games, increase the market demand and finally bring Australia to a standardized classification system for all forms of interactive entertainment, including film, literature and music.

But it comes with a catch.

The Attorney Generals’ classification website defines an R18+ rating as one that deals with content that is high in impact. Currently, games that exceed the MA15+ rating are refused classification and by all intents and purposes banned in Australia until content is either cut or edited to satisfy Australian law.

The amendment will still allow games with high impact advertising to be refused classification.

The catch of course, is that what makes a video game R18+ such as drug use, addiction, crime, violence and abhorrent phenomena; will still be banned by the classification board because it contains high impact themes.

If it ‘offends against the standard of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.’ the Classification Board can still refuse classification to a video game, making the R18+ rating effectively useless.

The Attorney Generals Department in Canberra declined an interview to speak about this possible clash of policy, however UC Journalists were told that not one of the 1,380 staff who work at the ACT AG were available for comment.

Some, such as Academy of Interactive Entertainment teacher Tony Oakden, believe that regardless of classification, where there is a will, there is a way.

“We all know this: if somebody wants to get hold of a PC game that has unacceptable content in, the internet is a very big place,” he said. “it’s very easy to get this stuff. It’s going to be very difficult for the government to prevent this stuff coming into the country illegally.”

Mr Oakden would know of the rigors of editing controversial games, once producing the award winning BioShock video game in 2005. The game originally featured a syringe being used to boost health, violence and high impact themes.

“If it’s a big budget game, it’s going to be targeted at the states and Europe,” he said. “I was a producer on BioShock a few years ago… . It certainly had violent content in it, and was certainly an issue with the censors here.”

“Anything which involves changing a game costs money. There is a risk that, as Australia is a relatively small market, and it costs a lot of money to make a game that fits in with the governments requirements, there is a chance that the game will not appear in Australia.”

One of the most interesting factors of this story resides in the realm of cost. Mortal Kombat, a game that has been refused classification in Australia due to high levels of violence and gore, is now deemed objectionable material.

This will mean that the game, when imported into Australia, will be given the same penalties if it were a plastic explosive, drug or a radioactive substance. If caught with a shipment of this game, an individual will be charged $110,000 or three times the value of the product, whichever is greater, as well as five years in prison.

Malcolm Bennett, director for the Freedom of Information and Privacy Section at the Attorney Generals Office, says that he is unable to find any records of individuals ever being prosecuted for possessing restricted video games, or any documents relating to actual enforcement of illegal video game importation.

Mr Bennett responded to a Freedom of Information request earlier this year: “I have made all reasonable efforts to locate within the Department documents coming within the ambit of your request. I must advise, however, that I have not been able to locate any such documents. I have also been advised by officers in the relevant policy area of this Department, the Classification Branch, that they have no such documents in their possession.

“I must, therefore, refuse your request under section 24A of the Act – which allows an agency to refuse a request where the documents sought either don’t exist or cannot be located.”.

When asked plainly if Mr Bennett was aware of any circumstance where someone had been legally prosecuted for possession of a video game, UC journalists were asked to submit another FOI request using the appropriate language, to be deliberated in another month’s time.

Therefore, the introduction of the R18 classification has no impact on the revenue of Australia, only the revenue of the game developer.

A game developer may have to pay over $2,500 to have their game assessed and classified, with additional fees to acquire an exemption certificate. As the average mainstream game is set to cost anywhere between $10 million to $60 million just to make, editing the material to suit classification standards would also provide a hefty toll.

Dale Ward, project leader for indie game ‘Orbitor’ says that the R18+ sticker is needed in Australia, but that we must be wary of giving designers too much ‘free-rein’:

“I can see both sides of the argument, so obviously we want to limit the exposure of adult content and somewhat disturbing material from the younger generations,” he said. “But I feel as an artist and a game developer I should be able to express myself and put forward adult themes for an adult market. The classification for games in comparison to movies and other medium is not consistent. That is where the main problem lies, it is entertainment, it is digital medium and should be under the same classification.

“I think we are behind, and that this reflects on us badly in the international arena. If we are not developed enough to be able to put this (R18+ amendment) through in a timely fashion than it looks badly on us.”

Whether this amendment is a step in the right direction, or a pitfall for gamers is yet to be fully determined after the states and territories regulate their own laws to fit the bill.

Until 2013, gamers can play in hope that they won’t have to press continue on this issue any longer than necessary.

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