Is Australia getting grown up about age ratings?

This is a guest post by Lachlan Kingsford, an Australian games scholar and the brains behind Nerdy Gentleman.  I asked him to tell us a bit about the latest state of play regarding Australian games classification, which I’ve written about previously.

There is something rotten with the state of gaming in Australia. Unlike other entertainment mediums, games can not be given an R18+ rating or classification. This has two practical effects: Games that are deemed too mature (generally due to violence or sexual references) are banned, making their sale illegal, their importation illegal and in Western Australia, their possession illegal. Other games that have been generally rated R18+ equivalents in other markets (such as The Witcher 2) are downrated to MA15+ to get them through the system.

In Australia, all games sold must be rated by the Australian Classification Board, eschewing the voluntary nature of (for instance) the US ESRB rating system for games. Comparably to most ratings systems. media rated M is “recommended for mature audiences”,  MA15+ is restricted to people over 15, or those under 15 accompanied by an adult guardian and R18+ is completely restricted to people over the age of 18. The ratings system fall within the gamut of the state (rather then federal) powers, and as such the ACB itself is governed by the attorneys-general of each state – though is bound by the Commonwealth Classification Act.  Assuming that the states want to retain the consistency of  the system, decisions need to be unanimous. The rules of importation fall under Commonwealth law. What I hope I’m beginning to get across, is that getting any level of agreement between all of the involved governments (or at least their representatives) is no mere feat – a fact which has delayed the introduction of an R18+ rating for a significant period of time. It is worth noting that there remains some possibility of inconsistency between states, as evidenced by the X rated content being banned from sale (not import) in every state and territory other then the ACT and Northern Territory.


There have been rumblings of discontent with the current situation for quite some time, and rumours of change for almost as long. Supporters argue that the R18+ rating for games should exist to allow adults to play games intended for adults, and to avoid censorship of a kind that does not apply to other media. Furthermore, supporters argue that the R18+ will assist in preventing children from accessing mature content through sending a “clear, unambiguous message to parents that the game is unsuitable for minors”, and by preventing the misclassification of games (as discussed before). Dissuaders of the R18+ rating have largely focussed on protecting children from the effects violent games (and in some cases, from games in general). The Final Report on the R18+ rating produced by the federal Attorney-General’s department in November 2010 provides an excellent summary of the arguments and statistics on submissions at http://www.ag.gov.au/Documents/FINAL%20REPORT.doc.


In its comparatively recent history, no R rating has been forthcoming despite a majority support of the governing attorneys-general owing to the requirement of unanimity in their decision making. Michael Atkinson, the now former South Australian attorney-general was unwavering in his opposition to the rating during his almost 7 year tenure (concluding in March of 2010). However, Michael Atkinson is now out. In December 2009, the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Brendan O’Connor released a discussion paper on the R18+ rating for games, which led to almost 60 000 public submissions indicating overwhelming support (amongst those surveyed) for an R18+ rating. The attorneys-general voted on the R18+ rating again in July 2011 with unanimous support save for the abstinence of the the new New South Welsh attorney-general – who has since agreed in principal to the changes. (source: http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2011/08/10/3290150.htm).


Finally, there has been significant movement at the station which may indicate a chance of actual change. On February 15, a bill was introduced at the Commonwealth level to amend the Classification Act and Broadcasting Service Act to create an R rating of games and legalise their importation. The bill proposes that the R rating will be introduced on the January 1, 2012. It is likely that the bill will successfully pass through both houses of parliament, although there is a possibility of delay following its having been called to an inquiry by an investigative standing committee. Finally, to be effective the changes will need to be implemented on a state level. So those of us who support the rating are cautiously optimistic.


Why am I cautiously optimistic? Draft guidelines for the R18+ rating were released last year. (http://www.classification.gov.au/www/cob/classification.nsf/page/informationcentre_proposeddraftguidelinesforr18+computergames) They allow for drug use, nudity and realistic simulation of sexual activity – none of which is surprising. They will also allow violence permitted, except for “high impact violence, that is, in context, frequently exploitative and offensive to a reasonable adult will not be permitted” (p12, Proposed Draft Guidelines). We can not yet know whether this will continue to cause “Refused Classification” ratings to be given to games such as “Mortal Kombat”, and likely will not until the board starts classifying R-Rated games. Despite this, those of us who are keen on a bloody round against a foe from the Outworld for the fate of the very Earthrealm itself have cause to hopeful after these recent events…


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1 comment

  1. Very interesting, especially about NSW. As an educator, I am convinced we just need better community education on ratings in general, especially for migrant families.

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