Classification and Censorship

I’ve been lurking on a thread over at the Pigmi Discussion List that’s been debating the pros and cons of Game Classification, in the wake of the news (reported on Kotaku) that the Australian Government is working to close a loophole that allows unclassified games and applications to be downloaded and used on mobile devices. Coincidentally, I was contacted yesterday by Ben Grubb, a journalist with the The Sydney Morning Herald, for comment on the very same issue. I wrote this blog post partly to express my thoughts to Ben (his article has now been published online), and partly to respond to Nick Lowe, who expressed some opinions in the Pigmi thread which irked me. Nick has since written an opinion piece that suggests he had a change of heart before I’d had a chance to change it for him :)

Classification exists to allow consumers to make informed choices. The Classification Website states that games are classified to “provide consumers, especially parents, with classification information to help them choose a … game to play”. This implies that game classification exists to help us protect our kids, which makes it especially annoying when games clearly only intended to be played by adults are banned from sale in this country. Besides which, I believe that these kinds of recommendations are of limited benefit, and are often ignored by consumers. When deciding whether or not to allow my child to play a particular game, I’d much prefer to base my decision on my previous experience with the game, or on the recommendations of my friends and family.

The Classification Website states that “every film and computer game, whether produced locally or overseas, has to be classified before it can be made legally available to the public”, which means that most of the games I’ve ever created, including my GameJam entries, and the iPhone and iPad games released on the App Store by RocketHands, are illegally available in Australia.

Apart from causing some titles to be banned, this mandatory classification system, which requires game developers and publishers to pay to have their games classified, has resulted in some content just not being available at all in this country (presumably because publishers/developers choose to forego the expense of getting a game classified if it is not forecast to generate a large return in this market). This robs us from experiencing small, independent offerings which, for mine, are where the fun’s at. These classification requirements mean that many smaller WiiWare and Virtual Console titles don’t get a release down here, and have prevented Microsoft from making the Indie Marketplace on XBLA available to Australians. This is a regrettable state of affairs.

On the other hand, countless downloadable games and online Flash games are readily available, and, due to their entirely unregulated nature, sometimes contain highly objectionable content. The behaviour of the Australian Government makes it easy to accuse them of revenue-raising (by fining Apple, and requiring them to pay for classification) rather that performing their stated duty of protecting the kiddies (although I’m presuming that they assume their proposed Internet Filter will take care of everything else).

I think Apple should be applauded for flaunting the letter of the law, allowing countless applications and games to be available to Australians via the App Store, while satisfying the spirit of the law, by policing the App Store themselves, ensuring that violent, pornographic content is not available, and rating all games and applications to allow consumers to make an informed choice. Rather than complying with the Australian Government, Apple needs to fight for a shake-up of our classification laws. At the very least, games should be treated the same as TV, where the commercial stations self-regulate based on an industry code of practice (which is essentially what Apple has been doing until now).

What I’d like to see happen is for the classification process itself to be deregulated and crowd-sourced, with each game initially released as unclassified (and, therefore, unavailable to minors), and for adult users to submit the age threshold that they deem appropriate after experiencing the game for themselves. I’d predict a wide standard deviation of responses (which begs the question of why we allow one or two public servants to make these decisions for us), but it’d be great to be able to see the average recommended age for a game as taken from members of my social circle.

P.S. Note that “Plants vs Zombies” has been classified as 9+ by Apple, but that I’m still happy for my 4+ daughter to play it :)

36 thoughts on “Classification and Censorship

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  2. Clinton

    Thanks for the post. Clearly there are many problems with the current classification of games. I’ll have more to say on this when I’ve had more time to go through the international comparisons.

    Given your view that “… I believe that these kinds of recommendations are of limited benefit, and are often ignored by consumers”; and “… I’d much prefer to base my decision on my previous experience with the game, or on the recommendations of my friends and family”; perhaps there is room for a dedicated private service. Is there anything like this currently? If most people are going to ignore the classifications anyway, there must be a demand for such a service, based on average user ratings – in this case, average user classifications, like tripadvisor. Why not start something? Many parents simply don’t have friends and family they can approach for advice on a particular game. If they are not gamers themselves, chances are thier social circle are not gamers. And there is the first mover thing.

    I don’t know much about the process, but the classification process seems to be entangled with censorship. I see this as a problem too. My position is that I am against censorship, but for classification as an informational service. A widely used user-classification community might go some way to forcing a rethink from policy makers.

    Reply
  3. Eric Spainn

    The thing that annoys me so much isn’t the classification, it’s not a bad idea. The most annoying thing is that games are being barred due to the cost of the COMPULSORY classification system. Most of these games wouldn’t make back the cost of the classification. Other games are too risky to pay up front for the classification before they hit the market.

    If the Board really was concerned about children, then they’d make the prices for classification reasonable. $500 is too much for a $1 game, it’s completely untenable. If the board really wanted to prove that they cared about the industry and not the money lining their own pockets then they would reduce the price to make it more affordable. They should lobby the politicians for funding and stop preventing developers from being able to survive in what is already a harsh market. The AAA game companies can afford it, but not the small guys.

    So, does the board have the courage to forgo their lucrative income? Or will they try and protect their dirty gold mine?

    Reply
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