The IARC explained, and why you should care: How streamlining classification will change the culture of games censorship

cutting_the_red_tape_on_classification

By on March 27, 2014 at 3:32 pm

It was just another part of the daily news. The Abbott coalition government, as part of their plan to “slash red tape” and “remove unnecessary regulation”, announced that they would amend the Classification Act of 1995. The heavy, clunky, 1980′s style human element of the classification system for digitally distributed games would be gone, alongside a host of other small changes.

“These reforms are the first step in the process of ensuring our classification system continues to be effective and relevant in the 21st century,” touted the Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, who was effectively following on with pledges by previous Labor administrations to make the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations in enforceable legislation. On the surface, it didn’t really seem like much of a big deal — the meat of the R18+ sandwich had already come and gone. But in reality, the rest of the meal had finally begun to arrive at the table.

To explain why this change is significant, we need to understand how the current status quo works.

For a game to be classified in Australia, it needs to follow a fairly long, expensive, hands-on process of applications, fees, reviews and (possible) rejections and re-submissions. If you want to sell your game in an Australian marketplace, whether a brick and mortar store or online marketplace, it needs to be rated — end of story. Currently, there are exemptions if your game is educational or scientific, but that’s it — although many indie games have managed to skirt these rules thanks to a lack of enforcement when the title is on an international marketplace, such as Steam or mobile pp stores. If you’re caught distributing your game without a rating, you can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars; even more if you change your title and do not resubmit it for reclassification. Currently, this can be for any reason — technically, even something as simple as adding a single new level in an update or new songs in Rock Band.

Then there is the cost. There are three levels of fees when it comes to submitting a title for a rating, and compulsive, regressive fees like these can  be punishing for a startup or garage dwelling individual. Just to get your foot in the door with a written application with no video attached, it’s $1210. This is considered a “Level One” application, and is generally considered a cakewalk for most titles with non-controversial content. If you are willing to put in a bit more effort and make a video reel of your game’s touchy moments, then there is “Level Two”, a slightly less abhorrent $890. The third and final level is a whopping $2460, and it’s when the board deem your title to be so damning and/or bewildering that they want you to come up and demonstrate it in front of them. While you can apply directly at any of these levels, it’s entirely up to the board whether they bump you up to a higher fee levy based on the content you submit.

The process can (and will) take at least a month before a decision is made, but the richer publishers and developers can pony up an extra $420 if they’d like it within a week (it’s amazing how efficient government can be when there’s a bit more to cover “administration costs” in the kitty). So, all in all, to give your title a foot in the door of the Australian marketplace will cost just over a grand (not including time and money spent in order to develop the application), with the proviso that you may not even get a rating at all if you fall outside the scope of the guidelines. In this case, the fee is still applicable. Someone had to pay for those long lunches, after all.

In 2014, this process is not only ridiculously expensive, overstaffed and overbearing, it’s just completely pointless for most titles. It assumes almost automatically that everyone who submits content is attempting to subvert the system to vomit a plethora of octopus hentai dating games onto unsuspecting children, requiring a whopping 22 full-time people (only one of whom is under 30) to physically go through every film, game, and book to ensure it won’t upset someone. This is in addition to the five members of the Classification Review Board who re-check the content if and when it is disputed, the Classification Branch who handle policy and operational advice, and the public service who handle the day to day operations of everything else at the OFLC. Meanwhile, music, online content and TV are self regulated, where complaints are rare and when they are officially submitted, most generally end up dismissed for irrelevance. Whether or not you support compulsory ratings, which I personally don’t, this is hard regulation suited to a society that still watches films on VHS.

So now we know what was, how will things change after legislation is passed, i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed? The good news is that the new legislation allows classification to be completed via “Classification Tools” – systems that streamline the process, and avoid the 20th century method of manually vetting every 2MB app on the app store. The caveat is, however, that a large portion of titles — namely those still sold in retail shops, will still find themselves shuffling through the old regime even if they also have a digital version. The reasoning behind this is mainly due to the sheer impossibility of updating a disc inside a box without a full recall, meaning each new iteration will still need (ugh) to be manually vetted.

The front runner to take charge of this new world solution is  a system known as IARC, or the “International Age Rating Coalition”; essentially, a group of national classification boards across the world that have agreed to allow a once-only, entirely free, enforceable ratings certificate that provides classification in all supported territories. Currently, this network includes the US, Canada, UK, Brazil, The Middle East, most of the EU and Germany; and in time, us as well. The crux of this tool is that anything that is wholly digital – that is, almost everything sold entirely via a participating digital marketplace (Steam and the larger App Stores are still in negotiations with the IARC) — will be fast tracked through.

The process is simple, clean and done entirely online. The developer simply fills out a questionnaire that queries the content properties of the title, while an algorithm in the background that has been programmed with the various rules and regulations of each system begins to build a ratings profile. By the end of the process, if enough information has been provided, a ratings result is given. That’s it. No fees, no month long waits, no rooms full of 40-year old lawyers and postmen debating the merits of something they spend barely an hour playing. What this system does, aside from making classification accessible to anyone regardless of their budget or profile, is to remove the emotion and the government from the decision of a rating. This direct human factor has been the reason so many titles have been on the receiving end of arguably wonky and inconsistent classification conclusions, where the weight of small amounts of certain content — particularly its sensitive nature in the minds of the board, rather than the guidelines — has found many similar titles given R or even RC ratings for little to no reason.

This new system of self regulation also pushes the onus of community expectation back onto the people that matter — the community themselves. If a citizen decides to dispute a rating, they will need to make an effort to back up their complaints with guidelines, and it’s been shown that most people generally don’t care or largely agree with most content. After all, how many people have complained to the board about the many unrated and hopelessly violent or vulgar titles on Steam that are sold to Australians? Additionally, how many Australians overwhelmingly supported an R-rating in the first place, with significantly wider guidelines than were eventually pushed, in the end, by politicians lobbied by the hard right?

So yes, this is not the silver bullet that pieces the heart of the fight for a fairer, freer, classification system, but it’s one giant step in the right direction. As more titles become digital, as retail sales drop and internet quotas grow, more and more titles will find themselves eligible to be self-assessed. More tools will make themselves available, including some that may, somehow, cover the physical titles that will be left out of any early changes. But regardless of what you think about this government, and its decisions over its first five months in power, this is one particular ideology I can certainly get behind.

20 comments (Leave your own)

(only one of whom is under 30) … I stopped reading right there, what has that got to do with the price of tea in China?

 
James Pinnell

venom:
(only one of whom is under 30) … I stopped reading right there, what has that got to do with the price of tea in China?

I thought it was interesting to note that out of 22 members, only 1 is in the 18-30 age bracket, the largest cluster of gamers and a very sizable part of the population. It’s hardly representative.

But hey, if that stops you reading and gets you angry, then you’re missing out on a a pretty interesting development.

 

James Pinnell: I thought it was interesting to note that out of 22 members, only 1 is in the 18-30 age bracket, the largest cluster of gamers and a very sizable part of the population. It’s hardly representative.

But hey, if that stops you reading and gets you angry, then you’re missing out on a a pretty interesting development.

I agree, it is an extremely relevant point to make.

It should be the people that use the products that help rate them, after all a rating system is there to be a guideline so people know what to expect rather then a way to decide what people are and aren’t allowed to see for them.

 

venom,

Well, except for the fact that 18-30 is the largest demographic of gamers, who (Spoiler alert) Games.On.Net write these articles for, that also means that there isn’t both a man and a woman under the age of 30 on the board.
So, no. It has nothing to do with anything at all and our system as it currently is is flawless and not effected by bias in any way shape or form.

Right?

 

I know this is the epitome of laziness but could someone TLDR for me?

 
James Pinnell

matty:
I know this is the epitome of laziness but could someone TLDR for me?

Considering how much work I put into making it… ;) But I live to serve my readers.

Old System: Expensive, slow, heavy handed and plagued by subjective decision making.

Potential New System: Free, fast, fair and puts the control back in the hands of the community.

I highly recommend spending 10 minutes or so reading through the detail :)

 

James Pinnell: I thought it was interesting to note that out of 22 members, only 1 is in the 18-30 age bracket, the largest cluster of gamers and a very sizable part of the population. It’s hardly representative.

The only one under 30 is on extended leave from the Classification Board. So you can cross him out.

Interesting to note that the average age of an Australian gamer is now 32.

http://www.igea.net/2013/10/digital-australia-2014-report-finds-the-profile-of-a-typical-gamer-mirrors-the-typical-australian/

 

I have to admit I thought the issue of only one Board member being under 30 as being largely irrelevant.

Doesn’t this change simply streamline and speed up the classification system? It doesn’t mean a ‘relaxation’ in classification guidelines and games may continue to be censored?

Despite Europe using this system, games like Stick of Truth were still censored in certain countries.

 

So this new system assigns universal ratings to countries with backgrounds as disparate as the US and Middle East? I’m not so sure about that…

 
James Pinnell

ralphwiggum:
I have to admit I thought the issue of only one Board member being under 30 as being largely irrelevant.

Doesn’t this change simply streamline and speed up the classification system? It doesn’t mean a ‘relaxation’ in classification guidelines and games may continue to be censored?

Despite Europe using this system, games like Stick of Truth were still censored in certain countries.

The guidelines don’t change, but their interpretation becomes less about subjective opinion and more about a rigid set of question/answer replies. The onus is now on the DEVELOPER to provide the information.

jt83:
So this new system assigns universal ratings to countries with backgrounds as disparate as the US and Middle East? I’m not so sure about that…

No. It’s not a universal rating. Each jurisdiction is provided with its own rating based on the information provided, balanced against each jurisdiction’s specific guidelines.

 

James Pinnell,

This article is chock-full of bias and logical fallacies. You may have something great to say and many points to match, but hiding them under layers of the aforementioned negatives destroys any credibility your argument and points ever had.

:/…

 

PinothyJ,
You’ve given me the biggest confused frown. Are you sure you posted your comment to the right article? It’s not an opinion piece.

 
James Pinnell

PinothyJ:
James Pinnell,

This article is chock-full of bias and logical fallacies. You may have something great to say and many points to match, but hiding them under layers of the aforementioned negatives destroys any credibility your argument and points ever had.

:/…

Bias and logical fallacies? I’m sorry. Could you let me know what you actually found offensive? I’m genuinely confused.

This is a feature – it’s not a news article, it’s not an opinion column – as most of my features are, it highlights a particular issue, explains it, and includes my personal take on it.

If you disagree with what I said, that’s perfectly acceptable. But simply writing that “your article fucking sucks because it does” contributes nothing to the discussion. At least Venom mentioned the comment that upset him.

This site, and myself, have made no effort to hide our distaste for the current censorship regime, so this article’s anti-censorship bent should be no surprise. No article is completely without bias, and I don’t pretend that this isn’t.

That said, can you point to something in there that is factually incorrect? Did I lie about the costs imposed, or the time taken, or the staffing in the OFLC? Did I not cover both the benefits and the negatives of the new system? Did I not highlight that the main marketplaces aren’t available?

 

James I have disagreed with you many a time, this is certainly not one of them.

This sounds fantastic, however further information is required in regards to the complaints. I wish there weren’t but there will surely be a handful of people who take it upon themselves to ‘police’ these, so when a complaint is brought against a title what happens then? Is it immediately pulled until the complaint is addressed? Is it only pulled if the complaint is deemed legitimate, and if so who fronts the money for the trial?

I agree that this is a step in the right direction, and really hope it’s not abused.

Also, totally with you, no idea what Pinothy is banging on about.

 

dassquid,

I would imagine a game would probably only be investigated if enough complaints were brought up. If only a small number of people complain, I’d imagine they wouldn’t even think twice about it. If enough complaints came up, they’d then look at the complaints first before looking at the game and see whether it’s worth taking further steps.

Well that would be my assumption anyhow. I doubt it would be a case of “complaint: yank the game” type of thing.

 

excellent article

 

James Pinnell: No. It’s not a universal rating. Each jurisdiction is provided with its own rating based on the information provided, balanced against each jurisdiction’s specific guidelines.

Does this mean the banning and censoring of games (the two things I generally take exception to) will carry on because of regional guidelines? Faster and cheaper is good for everyone, but not if the same questionable decisions keep getting made. Also, I’m not sure how useful this will be when a fairly large percentage (I’m assuming) of games are still sold in stores.

 

The problem is that Australia isn’t ready to go fully digital until our Internet infrastructure improves. The problem is twofold.

1. Games are only getting larger and, by extension, end up taking more out of our data caps.

2. The vast majority are still on ADSL connections. Even on the fastest ADSL2+ connection, you’ll still be waiting multiple hours to download a recent AAA title like BF4, Titanfall or Bioshock Infinite.

EDIT: From reading the IARC website, this initiative seems to be rather pointless as it still uses our local government-issued guidelines. This can only work if the local guidelines are taken out of government hands altogether.

 
James Pinnell

dassquid:
James I have disagreed with you many a time, this is certainly not one of them.

This sounds fantastic, however further information is required in regards to the complaints. I wish there weren’t but there will surely be a handful of people who take it upon themselves to ‘police’ these, so when a complaint is brought against atitle what happens then? Is it immediately pulled until the complaint is addressed? Is it only pulled if the complaint is deemed legitimate, and if so who fronts the money for the trial?

Thanks for your praise mate!

When a complaint is raised it will go directly to the OFLC – as the ratings are still guided by their authority, the classification review board will have the final say. The current rules allow a product to keep its original rating until the review is complete, so I would say that would stand.

As vcat mentioned, it would take more then a single complaint to enable a full review.

jt83: Does this mean the banning and censoring of games (the two things I generally take exception to) will carry on because of regional guidelines?Faster and cheaper is good for everyone, but not if the same questionable decisions keep getting made.Also, I’m not sure how useful this will be when a fairly large percentage (I’m assuming) of games are still sold in stores.

Yes. If the IARC deems the game RC, it can be appealed to the OFLC. The same questionable decisions wouldn’t be made since the guidelines would be applied consistently and fairly, not subjectively based on the sensitivities of a particular set of board members.

It will be useful for the plethora of games not released in stores – mobile apps, indie games, early access games, and so on. All of these games risk being delisted currently due to their lack of rating.

 

vcatkiller:

I would imagine a game would probably only be investigated if enough complaints were brought up.

I wonder how many people the Australian Christian Lobby group could get to complain. The ACL will say or do anything in an attempt to get their way. If they lose they will then state they supported it, after fighting it. For example:

ACL believes that it was wrong for the Federal Government and the gaming industry to claim that introducing an R18+ rating was in the best interests of children when it is exactly the opposite. We also take issue with the Government’s selective use of polling to claim public support.

It is unbelievable to see this debate being twisted by spin to such an extent that having an R18+ classification is now being promoted as something that will benefit children.

http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2010/12/06/3086094.htm

After they lost:

ACL supported the introduction of R18+ classification this year on the basis that it would allow misclassified games from MA15+ to be put out of reach of children.

http://www.acl.org.au/2013/09/mr-acl-concerned-new-classification-rules-for-video-games-not-being-applied/

 
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