On or around the 4th of February this year, a funny thing happened in Australia. Across the entire country, copies of WoW, Guild Wars, Warhammer Online and a raft of other MMORPGs were suddenly pulled off the shelves. Many were perplexed as to why this was occurring, especially since most of the titles had been available for quite a few years.
The issue was thus – previously, games that did not have offline content, as in titles that required an internet connection to play, were not required to be classified. Under the National Classification Code, MMORPGs sat in a grey space. There was no obvious path of action, no pre-determined campaign to play through. Every person who entered the online space would have a completely different experience.
So for the last 10 or so years, those games would simply not require classification, regardless of content, and would go straight to shelves. The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, (or the OFLC as it’s more commonly known) already known for its erratic and controversial decisions, had made no comments in relation to the anomaly.
But that changed in February, when the office suddenly decided that all the titles be stripped from shelves and re-classified, adding that anyone caught selling the un-rated titles could be fined in upwards of AU$30,000. Everyone, including both the developers and retailers were shocked, but of course complied. But as it always is with the OFLC, it’s not the first time it’s made…. questionable decisions.
What’s the OFLC?
The OFLC is Australia’s national film, games, and literature classification authority. Every item of commercial media that wishes to be sold in Australia must first be submitted to the authority before it’s allowed to be placed on shelves. When it comes to games, publishers must provide copies of the games well in advance of their releases, which leads some clever gamers to scour the classification database to find possible release dates. The database is publicly available to all and searchable online, providing information about the title, its rating, and most importantly, if it has been changed or modified to suit the rating.
These classification ratings include:
- E (Exempt from Classification): This rating was originally given to MMO’s, but as of February its unlikely any games will get this rating in the future, other then games that involve things like cooking, fitness or education.
- G (General): Games for kids. Mild content, I.E. no violence, swearing or nudity.
- PG (Parental Guidance): Games that are a little bit racier but still very mild.
- M (Mature): The second highest rating a game can get. Not restricted to any gamer, but content isn’t suitable for kids.
- MA15+ (Mature Restricted): The highest rating a game can get in Australia and still be sold. The conditions for this rating tend to be quite broad, since any titles that cannot meet this rating get banned.
- RC (Refused Classification): If a game gets this rating, it’s banned from sale. Even IMPORTING this game is considered a federal offense. Most games that unfortunately get this rating are usually edited under guidance from the OFLC, and some of them may surprise you. (Most of the GTA games, including GTA4, Dark Sector, Fallout 3 and so on.)
It’s also a little known fact that things like game trailers and demos are required to get classification before they can be posted on Xbox Live or PSN. Because they will be purchased or “consumed” by players in Australia, they must be classified. The same applies to titles bought through digital distribution software like Steam, which is why as of late, a lot of previously available titles have been unavailable for purchase as the catalog is re-checked for ratings compliance. Australian gamers are probably more likely to start seeing the colourful rating symbols around the web more and more as game merchants, developers and distributors customize themselves to provide specific regional versions and communities.
Who makes the decisions?
The classification process is divided into two boards. The classification board, which rates titles, and the review board, which reviews decisions made by the original board, if an appeal is required.
The people who are chosen for the board are picked by the Office director under relatively unknown circumstances. The Classification Act of 1996 outlines a few of the requirements of a board, but generally the only one that matters is simply that they be “a broad representative of the Australian community”.
Essentially, the decision of whether Australians can play a certain title is decided by people who’s subjective decision on a level of violence, nudity, drug use and swearing meets black and white guidelines. Games may seem particularly violent in context, such as those with a horror element, but may be tame in comparison to other games with a more stylized form of violence.
In some cases, the board has been overly restrictive on particular issues, such as drug use in games, or even use of graffiti. Justification for these RC’s is required only in the form of a report, and a review is final. In some cases, a game may have to be re-edited and submitted multiple times to fit into an MA rating.
You can see where some problems may arise in this particular arrangement. This is what happens when you try to push games into an extremely outdated and draconian system that was originally developed for films.
The Fallout 3 conundrum
By July 2008, almost 3 games had been refused classification in Australia for that year alone. Dark Sector, Shellshock, and, along with a large amount of anger, Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was refused classification due to what the OFLC called “realistic drug use”. The following was taken from the OFLC’s original classification board review:
“The game contains the option to take a variety of drugs known as chems using a device which is connected to the character’s arm.”
“These chems have positive and some negative effects (lowering of intelligence, or the character may become addicted to the chem). The positive effects include increase in strength, stamina, resistance to damage, agility, and hit points. Corresponding with the list of various chems are small visual representations of the drugs; these include syringes, tablets, pill bottles, a crack-type pipe, and blister packs. In the Board’s view, these realistic visual representation of drugs and their delivery method bring the ‘science-fiction’ drugs in line with ‘real-world’ drugs.
“The player can also select and use Morphine (a proscribed drug) which has the positive effect of enabling the character to ignore limb pain when the character’s extremities are targeted by the enemy.”
When it came down to it, the OFLC’s chief beef was that the game original allowed a dying or hurt player to “inject Morphine”, a pharmaceutical grade form of Heroin, into themselves. No complaints were given to the violence, swearing or any other factors of the game. So because of this one issue, the game was banned.
Bethesda, developers of Fallout 3, were not really impressed. They took the game back to the drawing board and removed all references to real world pharma’s out of the game. But the funny part was that they didn’t just do it for Australia, they actually removed the references for all the territories. So thanks to the actions of one small countries’ censor, one of the most anticipated games of 2008 was edited for everyone on the planet, across all platforms.
But what makes this who particular situation strange is that quite a few titles incorporate drug use into their gameplay. Games from Starcraft (Stim Paks for Marines) to Bioshock, where, lets face it, half the game involves you visibly shooting up to power up. But it was the real world wording that set off the OFLC. Injecting drugs wasn’t the problem, calling them Morphine was.
The R-Rating controversy
Yet, one of the strangest elements of the OFLC and its relationship with the games industry is the omission of an R rating for titles. Both the film and literature ratings systems both feature one, which essentially restricts sale to those 18 and over. The discussion about this particular issue has been raised to the forefront in recent years, alongside record numbers of RC rated games, including those with wide appeal and popularity.
The responsibility of the ratings system and any changes henceforth comes down to the various state Attorney Generals in Australia agreeing to amend the code to include this rating. The first meeting on the subject occurred in 2006 at COAG, a meeting of all the various state and federal governments. The issue was raised and backed by Rob Hulls, the AG of Victoria, who argued that the rating was essential to bring Australia into line with other nations and also to correct the disparity in the system.
All seemed well. The large majority of the other AGs were behind the initiative, and the process could begin to draft changes and finally allow the predominately adult gamers of Australia to avoid holding their breath every time a game was reviewed. But there was a big problem, and his name was Michael Atkinson M.P.
You won’t be seeing this on a game anytime soon.
Atkinson was the sole, and unfortunately crucial, opponent to the introduction of an R rating. His argument factored around children and their access to adult material. Regardless of the fact that the OFLC’s job is to advise the population of their choices under the rating system, Atkinson found an avenue to push his extremely conservative agenda.
Since the decision must be completely unanimous, the proposition fell through. Atkinson has since refused to change his mind at recent COAG meetings since, regardless of the full support of the rest of the states behind Hull’s suggested changes. In 2008, though, a slight repreive was provided when Atkinson agreed to a public submission on the matter, saying he would “consider and gauge public opinion”. Unfortunately for gamers in this country, that submission has seemed to disappear.
The OFLC is in desperate need of reform. For it’s credit, it is transparent. All reports and classifications are public and parties can submit requests for review of ratings. But at the same time, gamers, developers and distributors as well as the entire industry is held at gunpoint by the archaic set of rules that govern it. Until we are given a real choice, a realisation that games are not just for kids, and politicians who listen to their constituents, we’re stuck in limbo.