Games censorship and classification in 2009

2009 has seen a fair deal of controversy regarding games censorship and classification.  Here’s some of the highlights:

Left 4 Dead 2:

The general release version of Left 4 Dead 2 was refused classification by the Australian Classification Board, despite Valve’s attempts to appeal that ruling.  In a nutshell: L4D2 is a pretty…intense game in the zombie-killing stakes, Australia’s highest games rating is 15+ and they felt the game was beyond a 15+ classification, therefore the game was refused classification.  This meant the general retail version of L4D2 could not be sold legally in AustraliaValve was then forced to accept a compromise in which it issued a toned down version of the game in Australia (which appears to have been panned).

Why all the hoo-ha?  Rightly or wrongly, largely the internets blamed one person:  the Attorney General of South Australia, Michael Atkinson, who has publicly stated his opposition to violent videogames and has refused to countenance proposals to give Australia an 18+ rating.  For example, he has saidI see my children become physically and emotionally obsessed with games, and it is difficult to drag them away from the gaming console. The repeated act of killing a computer-generated person or creature desensitises children to violence.

It seems that, following further outcry, the Australian government announced that it would consider whether to introduce an 18+ rating into the Australian system – but some commentators are doubtful as to whether that will really happen.

Another minor L4D2 controversy: it seems that the US ESRB required Valve to tone down its promotional poster, meaning that the ring and little finger of the iconographic L4D hand were pulled back rather than torn off – the cheek!

Aliens vs Predator

Another one from Australia.  The game was initially refused classification by Australia’s Classification Board because it was felt to be too violent for a 15+ rating.  The Board was apparently uncomfortable that “the violence in the game causes a high playing impact due to its first-person, close-up perspective, conceptual nature and the level of explicit detail involved in the depictions“.

Rebellion and its publishers Sega then raised the ante by announcing that they would not release a toned down version and would appeal the refusal.  The Classification Board subsequently changed their mind and stated that the game could after all come within the 15+ rating.  As a result, AVP may now be sold officially in Oz – hurrah!

Still, query why AvP was suitable to come within a 15+ classification when L4D2 was not.  Could this show a crack in the sensibilities of the Australian censors?  We’ll know more the next time a major title is put before them for classification…

Modern Warfare 2

As we all know, there was a lot of controversy caused by that level in Modern Warfare 2.  And, of course, politicians and newspapers got involved all over the world.

For example, UK Labour MP Keith Vaz said about the game “I am absolutely shocked by the level of violence in this game and am particularly concerned about how realistic the game itself looks“.  He even raised the issue in Parliament, questioning what the government would do to ensure that the game could not be played by children (see below re the new UK rating system).  Also, predictably the Daily Mail gave the game a kicking.

On the other hand, Labour MPs Tom Watson and Sion Simon stepped forward to do battle with Mr Vaz, with Sion Simon pointing out in Parliament that MW2 already carries the appropriate rating/warnings in line with current games classification legislation.  Tom Watson went on to found a pro-gamers pressure group called Gamers’ Voice, which (so far) has proven very popular.

Oh, and Michael Atkinson had another pop at games thanks to MW2.  At one point, he said he intended to appeal against MW2’s 15+ rating in Oz.  As far as I know, you can still buy it in Oz, so go figure (as our American friends would say).

None of which has changed the fact that the game has been a roaring success all over the world (as well, apparently, as being the most pirated game of 2009).

The FTC loves games (ish)

Speaking of politicans, it has not been all bad in 2009.  On a more positive note, in 2009 the FTC published its seventh report on “Marketing Violent Games to Children”.  From GamesPolitics: “The FTC review labeled the games industry the ‘strongest’ of the three entertainment sectors (games, music and movies), when it came to self-regulation.  Additionally, compliance with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) code within the videogame industry washigh in all media‘ “.

In other words, the report endorsed the self-regulation model for classifying games and protecting minors which has been adopted by the US games industry.

New games classification regime in the UK

For the UK government however, self-regulation of games classification by the UK games industry is no longer the way forward.

The UK Government’s Digital Economy Bill proposes for the first time a single UK games rating system, based on the PEGI system, under the control of the Video Standards Council (the previous practice was that some publishers used either the BBFC and/or PEGI systems).  The Bill is being debated in Parliament, but it is expected the new rating system will become law some point next year.  We’ve written about this in detail here

What does this mean for UK games classification/censorship?  Well, the Government says that the new system is intended to give better protection to minors, but we’ll have to wait until the new system is in place before we can see exactly what new actions the Govt intends to take to achieve that in practice…

And there will be more censorship controversy in 2010…

There are already signs that governments and regulators will be keeping a close eye on games censorship and classification into 2010, whether on grounds of protecting minors or simply on pure political grounds.  Here are a few examples which we’ve already heard about:

  • Censorship authorities in Dubai have suggested that they may investigate 2K’s forthcoming game Spec Op: The Line, which (says the LA Times) “follows a U.S. Army captain and his team of elite special-ops forces as they launch a suicidal rescue mission after Dubai is destroyed by a series of cataclysmic sandstorms”.  In particular, the game features a destroyed Burj Al-Arab.  Off the top of our heads, we can’t think of many recent games that allow you to explore post-apocalyptic real-world cities or countries (can you?), so this game could set an interesting precedent.
  • China has recently “placed more than 4.65 million computers at some 80,000 Internet cafes under watch in a bid to crack down on violent or pornographic online games” (according to ABS-CBN).  This information was derived from a recent state media announcement, so we don’t know yet if there is any published supporting info/evidence behind this action.

    The fact that the Chinese Ministry of Culture made this announcement may be the most interesting thing about this development.  Why?  Because there appears to be an ongoing battle between that Ministry and an entity called the General Administration of Press and Publication, which in 2009 announced that it was now in charge of Chinese games regulation.  The Ministry of Culture then responded tartly that it remains in charge.  Since then, these two Chinest govt entities seem to keep treading on each others’ toes.  So, have these internet cafes really been placed under watch and, if so, by whom?

  • A Senator in Brazil has drafted a games censorship bill with the intention apparently to “curb the manufacture, distribution, importation, trading, custody, and storage of video games that affect the customs and traditions of the people, their worship, creeds, religions, and symbols” (source: Boing Boing).  Now, so far as I am aware Brazil has not hitherto a high-profile games consuming country, but apparently that is no good reason not to have censorship laws, although query whether it really needs to be as widely drafted as the above sugggests – why would you want to censor a game that “ affect[s] the customs and traditions of the people”?

As always, we will be keeping an eye on games censorship and classification in 2010, particularly their legal implications, so watch this space…


Modern Warfare 2:

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