Playing By the Rules: Classifying Online Video Games in Australia

In this GameSpot AU feature we look at the laws behind online-only game classification in Australia.

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It won’t come as a shock to anyone to learn that the classification of video games in Australia is somewhat of an entanglement. But walk into any game retailer in the country and it is immediately clear that one group of games is without any classification at all: online-only titles like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan. Between vague classification guidelines, an inconsistent Classification Board, the lack of an R18+ rating, and a constant game of pass-the-parcel between Australian government departments toying with the issue, classifying video games in Australia is proving to be a headache for more than just gamers. But are online games and massively mulitplayer online games exempt from classification in Australia? If not, is it then illegal to sell these games without a classification? And if so, why have games like World of Warcraft remained unclassified on shelves for years?

In this GameSpot AU feature we will look at the legislation behind the classification of online games in Australia and speak to the Australian government, the Classification Board of Australia, and Blizzard in a bid to end the confusion once and for all.

Is every game retailer in the country illegally selling unclassified games?

Conflicting Reports

At the start of the year a wave of reports surfaced on gaming news Web sites and traditional media outlets questioning the legality of games such as World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan due to the fact that these titles were being sold on shelves across Australia without a local classification. Many of these reports claimed that publishers seemed to be unaware that online games that did not have a single-player component needed to be classified in Australia, often referring to this as a “legal loophole.” This seems to have led to the widely accepted view that online games are exempt from classification in Australia. The following was taken from a report by Australian law firm Clayton Utz, published on May 1, 2009, by writers Gina Elliott and Danielle Briers:

“The gaming industry has long assumed that online multiplayer games like these are ‘unclassifiable’ due to the inherent unpredictability of online play, and therefore do not require classification. This assumption has led to countless copies of online multiplayer games being sold without classification over the years, despite legislation which prohibits the sale, demonstration and advertising of unclassified games.”

Online games like Age of Conan still have no Australian classification.

But little attention was paid to the Australian government, whose repeated stance on the issue was just as widely reported and documented. The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department told GameSpot AU:

“The Commonwealth Classification Act does not exclude online games from the definition of computer games. The Classification Board [of Australia] must classify a computer game (including one with online content) upon receipt of a valid application. The Classification Board often uses the consumer advice 'gaming experience may change online' for a computer game with online content.”

To further clarify the issue, the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department will soon be releasing a fact sheet on the classification requirements of online video games, following a request put forward by Censorship Ministers in April. The fact sheet, whose release date has not been confirmed, is being developed by commonwealth, state, and territory officers and will be provided to the industry, in the hope that the issue will no longer confuse and mislead.

Legal or Illegal?

If online games are not exempt from classification in Australia, does it follow that unclassified games such as World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan are currently being sold illegally in Australia? The short answer is yes. According to the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, it is the law that all video games must have an Australian classification before being sold, hired, displayed, or advertised. However, each state and territory in Australia has its own classification laws, which cover what material is legal; how it is marked, displayed, sold, and advertised; the penalties involved for breaching these requirements; and the policing of these matters.

The penalties differ from state to state; most involve prison terms for individuals and monetary penalties stretching into five-figure sums for companies. However, the actual online content part of a video game is regulated by the Department of Broadband and the Digital Economy, where the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992 regulates illegal and offensive online content, including video games. Under the Online Content Scheme of the Act, illegal or offensive online content can be taken down, regardless of whether it is hosted in Australia or overseas--the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA) can ask content providers to remove content if it believes it’s of a serious enough nature, and it must notify the Australian Federal Police if it finds any evidence of wrongdoing.

It is illegal under Australian law to sell unclassified video games.

But if the sale of unclassified video games is a crime, why have these penalties never been enforced? Why are publishers guilty of this offence not being charged and their games taken off the shelves? Since the enforcement of the law is up to each state and territory, GameSpot AU first put this question to the NSW Attorney-General’s Department, whose response, word for word, was: “Call the police.” Judging by this response, we can only assume the NSW Attorney-General’s Department does not attribute enough importance to this issue. Whatever the case, GameSpot AU did contact the police.

“The states and territories are responsible for the enforcement of their own jurisdictional laws relating to classification offences,” said Senior Sergeant Darin Ferguson from the Australian Federal Police.

Sergeant Ferguson could only offer his opinion as to why the issue has gone unnoticed for so long under state and territory police: more serious threats to deal with or just a general lack of knowledge about the existence of the issue. When contacted, NSW Police offered the following explanation:

“There is not a particular unit that deals with breaches of the state classification laws; it is an issue that is dealt with at a local area command (LAC) level, which means it is up to each individual police station to follow leads,” a spokesperson for NSW Police said. Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

According to NSW Police, there are a number of ways that the issue can be brought to the attention of the police: complaints, proactive policing such as plain-clothes operations, and other operations which may involve classification breaches. However, there is no way to record if any such cases already exist, because, according to the spokesperson, there is no database of charges laid at the LAC level.

Whatever the reason for this oversight, it’s likely that the undisturbed sale of unclassified games like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan has only served as confirmation of the misconceptions pertaining to the classification of online games in Australia. Whether this has had any bearing on publisher decisions regarding the submission of online titles for classification in Australia is something that remains to be seen.

Should people inform the police when they see an unclassified game being sold?

The Classification Board of Australia

The body responsible for classifying all video games in Australia is the Classification Board, formerly known as the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). For its part, the Board remains adamant that there is no confusion, or "legal loophole" for that matter, when it comes to the definition of video games; the Board will classify any video game, in whatever format, provided it is submitted with a valid application.

“Both online games and mobile phone games, whether played online or downloaded, are computer games and require classification,” a spokesperson for the Classification Board told GameSpot AU. “Section 5A of the Classification Act sets out the meaning of a ‘computer game,’ and online and mobile phone games fit into this definition.”

According to the Board, the process for submitting an online video game for classification is exactly the same as submitting any other game--publishers need to determine a suitable way in which the Board can view the game, be it via a live demonstration, actual hands-on time with the game, or a disc showing gameplay.

While the Board would make no comment on why the issue of classifying online games in Australia is so often misinterpreted, it did state that it believes the definition of "computer games" in the Classification Act is fine the way it is and does not require a separate clause just for online games.

“The definition is broad enough to cover both online games and mobile phone games. The Board has classified both types of games in the past."

The Board also pointed to the soon-to-be-released fact sheet from the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, which aims to clarify classification requirements for online games in Australia.

Publishers need to find a suitable way for Australian Classification Board members to view the content of their games.

The Industry View

Much like a responsible parent giving guidance where it’s most needed, the recently renamed Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA) represents and looks after publishers and distributors in Australia and New Zealand. To CEO Ron Curry, there is nothing more important than ensuring that his members are abiding by Australian laws and doing the right thing when it comes to classification. However, unlike the Classification Board of Australia or the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, Curry is willing to admit that the issue of online classification for video games in Australia has been anything but clear in the past.

“The video game industry has always tried to ensure it complies with classification legislation, no matter how unclear that may be,” Curry said. “In the past, as the previous OFLC will attest, there was some confusion on what constituted a computer game and therefore what did and didn’t require classification. We need to understand that the Classification Act was introduced in 1995 in a time where CDs were being introduced and online play was still a pipe dream, so it’s only reasonable to expect difficulty classifying today’s content through a 15-year-old lens.”

According to Curry, IGEA members have been submitting online games for classification for some time, and the Classification Board has complied to work with publishers to classify these games accordingly.

“We want to continue to work with the Classification Board and the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department to ensure we keep consumers at the centre of our conversations regarding the classification of video games. It’s through this open dialogue that we can all better understand and adapt to the changing and complex nature that the current generation (and beyond) of gaming presents to consumers, regulators and publishers.”

Blizzard and the Classification of World of Warcraft

After sitting on Australian shelves for five years without a classification, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft was classified by the Australian Classification Board in October 2009, receiving an M rating for fantasy violence and variable online content. Both of WOW’s expansions, The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, also received an M rating and the same consumer advice.

According to Blizzard Entertainment, the reason behind WOW’s heavily delayed classification was the inability of the previous OFLC to deal with the online content.

“Blizzard Entertainment has always worked closely with the Classification Board for all its titles,” Blizzard told GameSpot AU. “However, back in 2004, we were advised by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) that the online-only nature of World of Warcraft was unclassifiable under its definition of computer games at that time."

“Recent changes at the Australian Classification Board have led to their ability to classify online-only games such as World of Warcraft.”

Blizzard’s statement is in contradiction with that of the Australian Classification Board--the Board stated that the definition of "computer games," as written in Section 5A of the Classification Act, is broad enough to include online and mobile games. Given that this definition has remained unchanged since World of Warcraft was released in 2004, GameSpot AU asked the Australian Classification Board to clarify what changes led to its recent ability to classify online-only games.

“The Classification Board has been following developments in online gaming. It is the Board's view that World of Warcraft meets the definition of a computer game provided in the Classification Act and therefore can be classified. This is consistent with the intention of the National Classification Scheme to provide parents and consumers with classification advice on the content of games.”

World of Warcraft has received an Australian classification after five years on the market.

Moving Forward

Blizzard Entertainment’s acknowledgment that World of Warcraft was turned away from the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) in 2004 because it was “unclassifiable” signals that inconsistency was present in the classification system of Australia at one stage, however organised and down the line the Board’s stance may be now.

Whatever its past position, the Board now appears to have a strong idea of what constitutes a "computer game," and given the recent classification of World of Warcraft, the Board appears to be willing to work together with publishers to classify everything that is submitted.

What this means for the future of classification in Australia remains to be seen. What are your thoughts on the classification of online games? Submit your comments below!

Discussion

32 comments
Gammet25
Gammet25

the government still like earning money for the economy from the game sales. I just dont get why cant they cant just rate games like what they do in America

Orange_Titan
Orange_Titan

I think a nationwide re-work of the rules would benefit everyone involved. Bring in the "R" rating and it would make classifications a lot easier for online play.

Xerratul
Xerratul

Online, offline... Our laws are backwards at there very best, the people in control of these laws are ridiculous. and as stated in your segment the police couldn't give a rats ass regardless. so comes the big question, why don't they just give us an R rating and be done with it all. this will also help classifying online games broadening the spectrum. no wonder so many trainee police had there mass Exodus a couple of months ago , what was it? over 85 of them??, our laws stop even the keepers of the law from keeping the law.

mynameisGavin
mynameisGavin

@ Son-of-phantom- You are quite right and without a CLEAR law to go by police are unable to do anything. And to be honest why would they waste their time on gaming troubles when people have real not virtual problems. @ themovi3nut- i hope you remember that when your TV or car gets stolen. Perhaps the police will be too busy stealing freedom to help you. W@NKA. PS. I'm enrolling at the police academy in a few weeks.

ewok4
ewok4

Dont forget there is DeadSpace where the whole point of the game is too dismember the aliens.... cut off legs, arms heads anything and everything and get a nice amount of blood, then there is Wolfenstein, u can shoot off heads, arms, legs of human beings.... and its legal, u r right there is no consistancy in the labeling of classification, i mean u can find two games with similar content and one will be rated M and the other PG but u do pretty much the same thing in both of them....

millencolin
millencolin

I agree with veeks, an R rating and/or at least consistency in the classification. Left 4 Dead 2 is refused classification for dismemberment of infected human limbs while Ninja Gaiden 2 passes even though you can decapitate and dismember Ninjas and see the blood gushing with all its glory. Is this a joke???

veeks
veeks

Our classification laws require two things, an R rating so consumers can be informed and allowed to make their own decisions, and a more competent and/or informed Classification Board who are willing to take their task seriously. We need classification in this country and we need it to be consistent. I know what I find suitable for myself and my children through the classification labels and from monitoring what comes through the AV cables. If the Classification Board are be so frequently questioned, it seems obvious that they do not represent or reflect the consumers they are working for. Sorry all for the rant. But this is another young father/gamer who is bored with our censor$hit.

3DayFinisher
3DayFinisher

Heh, more power to us if the police are too lazy to look into it.

Maldark
Maldark

Damn, if only WoW was still illegal. I know a couple of people that'd need some prison time just to detox from WoW. It destroys young lives, more addictive than crack.

themovi3nut
themovi3nut

@Vain_Apocalypse - I can't believe I didn't think of that. @Son-of-phantom - Good job? all they do is rob people of there money and freedom.

R3velation
R3velation

I hope that Australia starts to focus more on this rather broken classification system of theirs.

Vain_Apocalypse
Vain_Apocalypse

Frankly, rating systems should be done away with altogether. Silly institutions.

Son-of-phantom
Son-of-phantom

lay off the police they do a good job, the issue is that gaming is relatively new and the vast majority of the older generations don't understand or care. sure the government should introduce better games classifications, like the European classification system which has a lot more levels of ratings, like M 17+ meaning that the games that are only just above MA level don’t just get thrown straight up to R, but going on about how the police and government should do their jobs better isn’t going to help. how about actually writing a serious letter to government, a letter that doesn’t just abuse them but instead makes valid points about the issue and asks good questions about what’s being done.

Shwa86
Shwa86

Hey EB Chatswood! Awesome! The situation is very interesting. I feel that its a bit hypocritical to let these games go unrated and yet they ban titles such as Left 4 Dead 2. You can't wipe one game off the map and have another totally unrated. The whole thing undermines their position on RC material.

zaprct
zaprct

Interesting article, thanks GSAU

gawthy
gawthy

These lazy people should do their jobs. Its not that hard to classify a game. If their is a shooter game im sure that is viloence, if their is swearing its coarse language not hard

gs_rutter
gs_rutter

why does it matter? i'm 18 next year so by the time they get their act together i'll be 18 the real problem is younger siblings watching there brothers and sisters play violent games, that cant help a child mental development

Ps1-2-3
Ps1-2-3

ToxinZA-"Ha I laugh in the face of classifications and ridiculous laws, its simple if I want it I will get it. There is no stopping me." Hmm, you sound like some sort of evil villain.

ToxinZA
ToxinZA

Ha I laugh in the face of classifications and ridiculous laws, its simple if I want it I will get it. There is no stopping me.

BertisAU
BertisAU

FluxZero - "I suppose they are too busy trying to catch murders and rapists." More like too busy holding radar guns at the bottom of a steep hill. Cops in Australia aren't instructed do anything unless it brings in $

LysanderNaFaile
LysanderNaFaile

Its all good. Kinda glad the cops dont care - because i certainly dont let the Classification Board screw with my gaming life. Justifiable Video Game Piracy lol

Jaguar_Shade
Jaguar_Shade

This article shows a lot of people just either not doing the job tax payers pay them to do, or they simply don't care either way. "Call the Police" ? I pay your wage! DO YOUR JOB! Get off your butt and do your job. If I shrugged off complaints and requests for information like that at work, I'd be fired! And tax payers don't pay for my damn wage!

Hippoboy
Hippoboy

A well written article but that it took 5 years for the OFLC to change enough to classify a online game is silly and that the video game developers and distributors were unwittingly breaking the law because of that is appalling. I do find it hilarious that the OFLC tries to defend that they failed epically and that games were allowed through as 'unclassifiable' thus allowing users not to worry about their censorship.

dr_satan666
dr_satan666

So they've finally got around to classifying online games. how bout they now get around to releasing the consultation paper so we can have our R18+ rating.....

shinji_kyoto
shinji_kyoto

good article. Honestly though, I would rather the OFLC turn a blind eye and the games continue to be sold ratehr than another L4D2 drama with something like Modern Warfare 2, resulting in no blood in game or something similarly ridiculous.

FluxZero
FluxZero

In other words no one really cares, or could be bothers devoting the man power to build cases. I suppose they are too busy trying to catch murders and rapists.

charles-dodgson
charles-dodgson

THAT was the official response from the NSW Attorney-General's Department? "Call the police"? Appalling.