Long-awaited changes to our Classification System will finally drag it kicking and screaming into the future.
By James Pinnell 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.