"Every film ... and computer game ... has to be classified before it can be made legally available to the public." - Australian Classification Board
One of the hitches in game-ratings in Australia is that there are no "R18+" or "X18+" ratings for games as there are for films. Games that would fall into these categories are refused classification. Because of this, no video games can be traded or sold in Australia that have content that is not appropriate for a 15-year-old. Without a formal classification (and compliant labeling) for a game, it is a criminal offense under Australian State and Territory laws for it to be sold, hired or demonstrated.
The problem here is that comparatively few MMOG titles sold on Australia's retail shelves ever carry a rating and labeling as the Classification Act requires. Could publishers, distributors and retailers of these unrated MMOGs suddenly wake up to find themselves in a legal hole hundreds of thousands of sales deep?
After seeing so many MMOG titles on Australian retail shelves that lacked any classification or compliant labeling, we spoke to the Australian Federal Attorney-General's office, which is responsible for Classification policy. Frankly we were curious about the basis for these titles making it to the shelves.
"In Australia, the Classification Board will classify a computer game with online content if it receives a valid application," a spokeswoman for the Federal Attorney-General's Department told us, "It can and does provide consumer advice that 'gaming experience may change online'."
The onus to actually apply for classification is on the publisher, importer or distributor. While it appears that they are scrupulous about application for video games in almost every category, MMOGs are notoriously absent. When we first noticed the discrepancy, we wondered if the Classification Act contained some manner of exemption for MMOGs.
"Online games are computer games within the meaning of the ... Act"
We were assured that this was not the case. She told us, "Online games are computer games within the meaning of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995. Under the cooperative arrangements for the National Classification Scheme, State and Territory legislation contains the requirements that games be classified as well as setting out the effects of classification, such as age restrictions."
The only two MMOG titles we've been able to locate that are presently on shelves in Australian stores and that are in compliance are Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (rated 'M' for "moderate fantasy violence"), and EVE Online (rated 'PG' for "mild violence, Gaming experience may change online").
One title that caused a particular stir when it was submitted for ratings classification in some countries -- Funcom's Age of Conan -- arrived on Australian retail shelves silently, without classification or compliant labeling.
So, what exactly happens when unclassified video games are sold in Australia?
"it is a criminal offence under those laws to sell unclassified computer games."
"Where a sale is within the jurisdiction of the relevant State or Territory legislation," the AG spokeswoman informed us, "it is a criminal offence under those laws to sell unclassified computer games. Enforcement of those laws is a matter for the States and Territories."
So, technically, most of the MMOG sales in Australia have been potentially criminal acts.
Enforcement is dictated by the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) (Enforcement) Act 1995.
"selling a single copy of an unclassified game attracts a penalty of AU$27,220.80 or two years"
According to the Act, selling a single copy of an unclassified game attracts a penalty of AU$27,220.80 or two years.
Selling unclassified games in commercial quantities (50 or more) can have a much steeper schedule of penalties, and additional penalties apply to advertising unclassified material, or simply omitting the correct ratings labels on the merchandise.
Some of the unclassified items have ESRB labeling (the voluntary ratings system used in the USA), which may conceivably constitute yet another offense (if it might lead people to incorrectly believe that the game does have an equivalent Australian classification). We've fallen into that trap ourselves for years, seeing the ESRB sticker on a game-box, and not even thinking to look for compliant Australian labeling.
Even keeping unclassified games on the same premises "where classified computer games are sold or demonstrated" constitutes an offense according to the Enforcement Act.
Unclassified games are essentially a sort of legal minefield of sections, subsections and penalties whose navigation is best left to the experts. What remains to be seen is how they are applied.