Why Australia’s Outdated Classification System Doesn’t Work And Needs To Be Overhauled

The Australian classification system is in disarray. In the space of a few weeks, we’ve seen Saints Row 4 banned for incentivising drug use, and Grand Theft Auto V rated R18+ because Rockstar did a better job of explaining how it’s relevant in the context of the story and why it won’t make the average 32-year-old gamer start abusing heroin.

Why is this happening?

The system is broken. Australia’s Classification Scheme is running on legislation devised in the ‘90s, before the CD-ROM was mainstream, and long before anyone thought a 15GB game could exist, let alone be downloaded from a foreign country, bypassing Australian classification laws.

All entertainment — games, movies, TV and publications — are classified by just eight people. Although, since I began researching the Classification Board, a further 13 have been listed as “temporary members”. I’m unsure of their exact role.
Our system works on [the viewer] being 15. G, PG, M and MA15+ are all related to a 15-year-old. Eight permanent staff determine what you watch and play, and they’re mostly middle-aged women with university degrees that used to be teachers or journalists. Of the eight people on a board which claims to be diverse and representative of Australia, five are women in their 40s or 50s with another that is 33. Of the two men deciding what’s okay for you to play, the youngest is 27.
They’re all far out of touch with a 15-year-old; all content is classified based on how a 15-year-old will interact with it.
”Our system works on [the viewer] being 15,” Interactive Games and Entertainment Association CEO Ron Curry told MMGN. “Even a PG rating is based on a 15-year-old, it’s not an 8-year-old as some people think. G, PG, M and MA15+ are all related to a 15-year-old.”
Mr Curry believes the system has become dysfunctional and no longer works in a digital environment. Local developers aren’t going to bother spending thousands of dollars on an Australian classification when they can release it to the world for free through a US store — and we all saw how easy it was to play Telltale’s The Walking Dead without a classification last year through Steam.
It begins with the legislation. It needs to be overhauled to be consistent in a digital environment and across all forms of media instead of treating games more harshly than movies or TV.
”The legislation was created in the ‘90s,” said Mr Curry. “We’ve patched it all the way along, putting band-aids on it, and the Australian Law Reform Commission said last year that it’s broken now, it can’t be patched anymore. It needs to be tossed out, which includes tossing out this notion that the states and territories need to be unanimous in everything that happens with classification because that doesn’t allow any sort of progress at all.”
But that doesn’t mean games like Saints Row 4 aren’t going to continue to be banned. The IGEA expected some games to be refused classification, and point out that “context” is a key word when it comes to violence and drugs. The onus is on publishers to show the classification board members — many of which aren’t gamers — why these fit the context of a game.
”When we pushed for an R18+ rating we always said there would still be an outer limit, there will still be games refused classification,” added Mr Curry. ”We weren’t quite sure where that line was going to be and when we saw the new guidelines come out to allow R18+ we were a bit disappointed that games were held to a higher standard than, say, movies.
”The people classifying the games don’t get games. We have to ensure we really contextualize it well for them.”
That probably wasn’t the case with Saints Row 4 because it’s not an easy game to  ; although there is also the issue with “rewarding” players. While Grand Theft Auto V may not reward players for using drugs in the eyes of the board, Rockstar must have done a better job of convincing the ACB of that than Deep Silver’s local distributor.
Mr Curry told MMGN that the government-run Australian Classification Board isn’t the answer. He proposes a system similar to PEGI in the UK that would see publishers classify their own content using guidelines formed by the government.
“Government needs to form a framework that says ‘these are the acceptable guidelines’ and those guidelines should be informed by research, which hasn’t been done in a long time, by speaking to parents and the general public to find what is important.
“The government should put that together and then tell the [entertainment] industry to self-classify based on these criteria.”
After all, classification is designed to help parents decide what content is appropriate for their children to consume. Not act as a firewall blocking adults from playing games made for them because they could fall into the hands on children. After classification, it really comes down to how parents use the information.
The current system isn’t clear enough. I remember my parents confused by the difference between an M and MA rating over a decade ago and it doesn’t seem any simpler now.
I don’t think it’s clear for parents,” said Mr Curry. The system, to me, is dysfunctional. The Law Reform Commission said we need to go back and work on classifications that are meaningful. If I see an M game or movie, is that suitable for my 9-year-old? I’m not sure.
”I’d rather something like ‘General, 8+, 13+, 15+ and 18+’. That’s simple and easily gives me a feel for who that content is appropriate for,” he suggested.
Even with a reformed classification scheme, offering tools so parents can make informed decisions about digital games on Steam and the App Store is a global issue that the IGEA is working towards solving with PEGI in the UK and the ERSB in the US among others from all over the world.
When we saw the new guidelines come out to allow R18+ we were a bit disappointed that games were held to a higher standard than, say, movies.
There were 40,000 games released digitally last year. No classification board can handle that.
”The international industry is working on a project at the moment looking at a solution to develop a global classification scheme,” explained Mr Curry. “That doesn’t mean one classification for the whole world. What it means is when a developer or publisher wants to digitally sell a game, let’s say on the iTunes Store, they will answer a series of questions and those will determine the classification for any given territory.
”It may be that a game is high in nudity, so it may get an MA15+ rating in Australia, an adult rating in the US, where they’re a bit more sensitive, and an M in Europe because they’re not as sensitive about nudity.”
The games would always be self-classified so parents can make their decisions, and work as part of the proposed system to replace the Classification Board. The government would act as a watchdog randomly checking games and imposing penalties if publishers and developers are being dishonest.
It’s either that, or digital-only games continue to escape classification.
An R18+ rating for games was only the beginning. It didn’t solve the biggest problems and merely masked the underlying issue of an outdated classification system that doesn’t have a place in the digital world.