Art+LAW

Rebuilding Australia’s National Classification Scheme for the Digital Economy

1st October 2013

uploaded to Flickr by EricHolsinger under Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence

Introduction

How is a computer game classified as G, PG, M, MA15+ or R18+ in Australia? Why doesn’t Apple’s App Store use Australia’s classification scheme? This article will outline how the current classification scheme works in Australia and will explore how the current scheme is failing to operate effectively in a digital environment.

 

How does Australia's classification system work?

Australia's current approach to classifying computer and video games is derived from recommendations that were made by the Australian Law Reform Commission over 20 years ago.[1] These recommendations were made at a time when the Nintendo Gameboy and 16-bit Super Nintendo System were the game consoles of choice and when consumers were purchasing all of their games through bricks and mortar retailers. More importantly, the classification framework was designed for a 20 year old centralised distribution model that was within reach of Australia’s domestic regulation.

The current scheme is underpinned by a number of principles, including that adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want; and minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.[2]

State and Territory laws require computer games to be classified by the Classification Board before they are sold or demonstrated to the public.[3] Accordingly, before any game is sold in Australia, game developers or distributors must:

1. Complete and submit a number of prescribed forms and documents;[4]

2. Prepare and submit a copy of the game;[5]

3. Prepare and submit a separate recording of any contentious material within the game;[6]

4. Pay a classification fee ranging between $430 and $1210 per game.[7]

Australia’s Classification Board (currently made up of 8 members that are representative of the Australian community[8]) will review the submitted materials and determine the classification for the game with reference to the prescribed Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games (Cth). The decision must be made within 20 working days[9]

Since the classification scheme’s inception, the Classification Board has classified an average of 755 games per year.[10]

 

Flexibility of the National Classification Scheme

The National Classification Scheme is a co-operative scheme between commonwealth, state and territory governments. In this co-operative scheme, unanimous approval of all Australian states and territories is required before any change is made. Since representatives from the states and territories generally only meet twice per year to discuss classification, it is incredibly difficult for the scheme to adapt to the demands of consumers and the industry. For example, it took just over 10 years to debate and finally introduce an R18+ classification for computer games even though the average age of gamers in Australia increased from 17 in 1999,[11] to 32 in 2012.[12] The R18+ journey is just one example of how the classification system is failing to accommodate the demands of a constantly innovating games industry.

 

Classification and digital distribution

The interactive entertainment industry has experienced significant change since the classification scheme was introduced. Australia’s video game market has matured considerably since the commencement of the scheme, with the average age of gamers being 32 and just as likely to be female or male.[13] 92 per cent of all Australians own at least one device for playing games (such as a tablet, PC, smartphone or console) and nearly 40 per cent of gamers now purchase content online.[14]The Internet has promoted the development of new business models, with game developers of all sizes now able to distribute their games globally for lower prices, on a subscription basis or even for free. Most significantly, games are now delivered using a decentralised distribution model, with many games being sold by developers directly to consumers over the Internet.

148Appz.biz reports that 41,713 iOS games were released on Apple's App Store in 2012 alone,[15] an amount that is over 55 times the average amount of games currently classified by the Classification Board. These figures don't even include the huge range of games that are released on other distribution platforms such as Steam, Android, Sony Mobile and Windows Phone.

As the amount of games that are being developed and sold through digital channels continues to grow exponentially and move well beyond the scope of the current classification scheme, it's clear that wholesale changes are needed. The scheme’s inability to operate effectively in a digital environment has caused a number of issues, including mixed messages for classification information, the removal of content from Australian digital storefronts and an unwarranted legal burden on Australian game developers and distributors.

 

Mixed messages for classification information

Australians have traditionally relied on the ratings provided by the Classification Board to ensure content is appropriate for themselves or their children. The use of prescribed markings (classification labels) as well as consumer advice (e.g. strong sexual references, mild violence etc.) is a key component of Australia’s classification scheme. As new digital storefronts and platforms emerge, the classification process has been decentralised with many businesses choosing to provide their own classification information instead of using the classification indicators with which Australians have become accustomed.

For example, first person zombie shooter DEAD TRIGGER is available on a number of platforms and storefronts, including iPhone's App Store, the Appstore for Amazon's Kindle and Google Play for Android. While DEAD TRIGGER is classified '17+' on Apple's App Store, it's labelled 'Mature' on the Appstore for Amazon and 'High Maturity' on Google Play. This decentralised approach requires users, including parents, to leave behind the familiarity and trust of the Australian classification markings and struggle with a variety of new classification systems, labels and types of consumer advice.

This inconsistent application of the current scheme undermines its effectiveness and can send confusing messages to parents, disregarding the original purpose of the classification law, to protect minors "from material likely to harm or disturb them".[16]

 

Some games, including Australian developed games, are being withheld from the Australian market

While some businesses continue to sell unclassified games over the Internet, other businesses simply aren't willing to run the risk of potential non-compliance with Australia's classification laws. As a result, many digital exclusive titles are not being released in Australia. Between PlayStation 3 and Vita's online stores, there are at least 63 games that have not been released in Australia due to classification requirements. XBOX Live's Indi Channel, comprised of almost 3,000 independently developed games, is not available in Australia - a decision also attributed to the prohibitive cost of compliance with Australia's classification laws.

 

The risks and costs to the local interactive entertainment industry

Australia’s classification scheme has placed Australian game developers and distributors in a difficult position - should they wear the cost of compliance, withhold product or completely ignore Australia's classification scheme? The massive scale of digitally delivered content, the relatively high cost of classification and Australia's small percentage of the global market makes this position even more difficult.

According to Bruce Thompson from Sydney based developer Nnooo, indie developers can sell a digital game in the Americas (with a population of about 1 billion) for free, yet in Australia (with a population of 23 million) where only 2 per cent of the company's revenue is generated, it costs at least $430 and up to $1210 to classify a game.[17] Compared to overseas markets, it's clear that Australian businesses are at a disadvantage.

 

The need for reform

It's clear that Australia's current classification scheme is rigid, expensive and failing to operate in a digital world. The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) conducted a comprehensive review into the classification system in 2011.[18] In the final report for the review, the ALRC acknowledged the need for a new system that is sufficiently flexible and nimble enough to adapt to rapid technological change. One of the most significant recommendations put forward by the ALRC was a call for the interactive entertainment industry to play a greater role in, and take more responsibility for, classifying games.

Since the recommendations were made in February 2012, our Government is looking to implement a 'pilot program' to automate the classification of mobile and online computer games.[19] While the interactive entertainment industry has welcomed this initiative, it is still considered a band-aid solution. The industry, along with the ALRC, is calling for a total overhaul of Australia’s classification scheme. In particular, the interactive entertainment industry is calling for an industry led classification system than can address the shortfalls of the current scheme.

 

Can the interactive entertainment industry self-regulate?

Currently, Australia sits alongside Germany and Brazil as being one of the few territories where classification is led by Government. Self-regulated industry bodies oversee the classification of computer games in key territories around the globe. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an industry owned ratings body, classifies computer games released in the United States and Canada.  The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI), another industry owned ratings body, classifies computer games that are released in the United Kingdom and over 30 European countries.

Industry self-regulation of content standards is not a foreign concept in Australia. For over 20 years Free TV, an industry body that represents all of Australia's commercial free-to-air television channels, has successfully worked in conjunction with the Australian Communications and Media Authority to manage content standards for television broadcasts. This industry-led model has empowered the free television industry to develop codes of practice for content standards that are ultimately enforced by Government - and the same success could be shared by the interactive entertainment industry.

 

Next steps

The ALRC’s recommendation for a new classification scheme is approaching two years old. With the introduction of a new Government, the major recommendations from the ALRC’s recommendations should be seriously considered and implemented to ensure we have a new, nimble, low friction and future proof classification scheme that will achieve the goal of informing the public, protecting children and allowing adults to read, hear, see and play what they want.

 

Joshua Cavaleri is an Associate at TressCox Lawyers and Legal and Policy Counsel at the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association.

 


[1] Australian Law Reform Commission, Censorship Procedure, ALRC Report 55 (1991).

[2] National Classification Code 2005 (Cth).

[3] For example, Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Enforcement Act 1995 (NSW), s 27.

[4] Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995(Cth), s 17(1).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995(Cth), s 17(2).

[7] Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995(Cth), s 17(1).

[8] Part 6 of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth).

[9] Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995(Cth), s 87A.

[10] The database of Classification Board decisions on www.classification.gov.au

[11] Marketing, 27 May 1999, London.

[12] Interactive Game and Entertainment Association, 2011, Digital Australia 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] http://148apps.biz/app-store-metrics/?mpage=appcount

[16] National Classification Code 2005 (Cth).

[17] http://www.vooks.net/automated-classification-for-games-in-australia-coube-be-the-eshops-best-friend/

[18] Australian Law Reform Commission, Classification – Content Regulation and Convergent Media, ALRC Report 118 (2012).

[19] Jason Clare, 5 April 2013, Reform to the National Classification System, Media Release.

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