Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Inconsistencies Of Australian Videogame Classification

Note: This post is the first of hopefully many in which I respond to something I've read that has been thought-provoking, intriguing or just generally interesting. I read a lot of articles about games, both in magazines and on blogs, so naturally there are times where I read something and form a response to it in my head. Most of the time though, I never get to make that response anywhere. I don't like this and, using this post, here is my attempt to change that.

No doubt by now you are well aware of Left 4 Dead 2's banning in Australia. Much has already been said about this particular banning, as well as the many previous ones this country has seen over the years. This post isn't about the latest game to be refused classification specifically, but rather the inconsistencies made apparent over the various games that have been banned.

Like most of the bans we've had previously, I'm not too concerned or affected by Left 4 Dead 2 being refused classification. Sure, it sucks, and now Australians will probably end up with some edited version of the game, but even so it doesn't bother me all that much. What does bother me is the inconsistency of our classification board (previously known as the OFLC) and how, ironically, they are confusing the general public with the refusal of certain videogames. Allow me to explain by breaking it up into three categories: excessive violence and gore, illegal products such as drugs, and, of course, sex and nudity.

Violence/Excessive Gore

Apparently Left 4 Dead 2 was banned due to the excessive violence contained within, particularly to do with the use of melee weapons. While I haven't played the game or seen its content, it still baffles me how the ratings board can refuse a game like Left 4 Dead 2 when the original game passed through fine and, more pertinently to my point, franchises like Gears Of War and Ninja Gaiden are currently sitting on Australian retail shelves. I'm curious as to how Left 4 Dead 2 can receive a ban when the Gears Of War series contains excessive violence and gore, including the fact that you can chainsaw someone in half, with the blood and remains staying on the ground thereafter for all to see. In interviews conducted with the classification board in the past, I've heard explanations that these games get through to retail shelves because the more horrific violence being inflicted is usually against alien species, zombies (hello irony!) or other, more surreal enemy types -- thus being completely fictional and "non-realistic". Yet, in a simple counter point, the aforementioned chainsawing in Gears Of War doesn't just apply to the Locust species found in the game, it also applies to the COG -- or, in other words, the humans. This can be done either by the Locust in the main campaign or by other humans in competitive multiplayer (such as Wingman in Gears 2) -- meaning that the explanation about non-human enemies loses its merit and doesn't justify the inconsistency that we've seen. Other games such as Ninja Gaiden and God Of War depict violence and extreme gore as well and while yes, the context they are viewed in is different to that of Left 4 Dead 2, the overall content isn't really all that different. For someone like me who follows the industry closely, I might judge a game's content individually because I'm aware of how the game(s) might compare to others, but for the average consumer out there who bought Left 4 Dead and Gears Of War 2 last year and who now wants to buy Valve's sequel this year, the specifics of the ban don't make sense and is confusing as a result.


Drugs and, to a lesser extent, alcohol are another common concern, as you'd imagine, and yes, there are inconsistencies seen here too. The middle of last year saw the wonderful Fallout 3 banned briefly due to its inclusion of the drug Morphine. Once the drug's name was changed to Med-X, the game received the MA 15+ rating (Australia's highest rating) and we got to enjoy it like the rest of the world. This happened fairly quickly so really, what's the problem? Well, as a matter of principle, the game shouldn't have been refused classification over a name. Not when other games containing drugs have passed through fine. The most recent and arguably best example is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS. Aside from exploring Liberty City and participating in Huang Lee's story, the main thing players would be doing in GTA: Chinatown Wars was drug trafficking; buying and selling various drugs all over Liberty City in order to make a profit. The issue here is the simple fact that these drugs didn't contain fictional names: they were named exactly as they are in real life. From Cocaine to Meth to Heroin -- it was all present and accounted for, and the game was released in Australia without a fuss. Intriguingly enough, previews of the game in the media even assumed the addition of drugs would cause controversy, bringing the issue into focus regularly if not aiding the potential backlash a possible ban would have caused. This potential ban didn't eventuate though and the game was released without any dramas. There was no controversy (here, at least), and furthermore, there was barely any hype surrounding the game despite raving reviews. The game didn't sell as well as expected and now developers Rockstar are releasing it on the PlayStation Portable and the iPhone in an attempt to muster a few more sales. It will be interesting to see whether those releases also fly under the radar or indeed spark the controversy that everyone was expecting. As you can see, Fallout 3's ban was rather ridiculous. The fact it got edited quickly is beside the point; it is simply unfair for one game to be banned over a name while other games pass through fine.

Nudity/Sex Scenes

Nudity and sex in videogames is also a regular concern when it comes to our ratings system here in Australia, but personally I feel the issue is a little more controversial overseas than it is here. Take, for example, the drama that surrounded BioWare's Mass Effect and the mild sex scene contained within. A fuss was made over its depiction of sex, and questions of whether it was suitable for videogames or not were asked. The reason I feel that sex is more of a point of contention overseas is because of some games that have been released here. Quantic Dream's game Fahrenheit was released here in Australia containing both sex and nudity and not once was it spoken about. Meanwhile the American version, Indigo Prophecy, had the scenes edited out, for reasons unknown. It could be argued that the inclusion of sex in the game was ignored because it flew under the radar a bit, but even so the inconsistency still applies and the contrast between a fully-fledged sex scene and one that is mild and shows nothing is significant, if not worrisome. Preview footage of Quantic Dream's next game, Heavy Rain, also shows nudity and it wouldn't be hard to assume that a sex scene of some sort will also feature somewhere, due to Quantic Dream's attempts to tell a realistic, mature and adult story. It will be interesting to see the reactions to the game after its release sometime next year.

When Australia's classification board refuses to classify a game, for whatever reason, it doesn't just confuse Australian consumers; the industry gets confused as well. With each ban the line is blurred a little more, and by association, the moral standards of what should and should not be allowed in videogames are increasingly unclear. Even more so when a country renowned for being strict compared to the rest of the world allows content to pass through fine when such content poses a problem in a usually more lenient country. The ramifications for this are serious and new standards really need to be set so that developers, publishers and indeed, consumers alike are clear on what videogames are allowed to portray; but when big name companies like Rockstar feel the need to submit edited versions of their games (in this case, Grand Theft Auto IV) for classification in order to ensure their games are available everywhere, the future looks unfortunately hazy. A shame, then.


Michelle said...

I was not aware of the banning of Left 4 Dead 2 in Australia, - how utterly bizzare, for all the reasons you've mentioned.

I mean sure there is some definite violence, but even so my somewhat desensitized mind it's just not logical for a game less violent than other games within the genre to be banned.

I must try and find a list of the games banned there, and a list of the games banned there and see how many pair up.

Is this decision likely to change btw? Are you planning on importing for example?

Steven O'Dell said...

Michelle -- I'm absolutely certain the game will see release here, as generally speaking, the games that get banned (Fallout 3 as just one example) here are eventually available once an edited version is classified, or, the original version is reclassified on appeal from the developers or publishers. In fact, in the case of Left 4 Dead 2, Valve's Gabe Newell mentioned their plans for the rating just today, which conveniently ties in with the timing of my post.

As for importing or buying the edited version, it's not on my radar at this stage. That's not to say I'm not interested in the game, it's just that, I haven't played the original yet so until I do, the sequel doesn't interest me. Thanks for stopping by. :)

Scott Juster said...

Nice post, although it only served to confuse and enrage me.

One would assume that the classification board has some kind of logic or motive, but their inconsistency is baffling.

Perhaps, as you say, high-profile games get more scrutiny. Still, GTA is traditionally a lighting rod for controversy, so why would it sail through while Fallout 3 gets stopped?

Not to sound like conspiracy nut here, but are you aware of any monetary interests behind the submission process for games?

I wonder if companies have to pay fees to get classified. In that case, denials could be used as revenue-generating techniques. Additionally bribes or kickbacks to board members could contribute to a smooth approval process.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to back down into my bunker to retrieve my tinfoil hat. :-)

Steven O'Dell said...

Scott -- I absolutely wouldn't have a clue how the board operates, or how developers and publishers go about submitting their games for review. All I know is that for games to be released here, they need to be rated (with the exception of MMOs and online games -- though that could be changing); How do things work with the ESRB (?) over there?

Throughout the years where the OFLC and refused classification games have been in the news, nothing has been mentioned of devs/publishers paying for submissions, or of any monetary gains obtained through the classification process. I'm not 100% sure, but I think the Australian government runs the board, so if that provides any potential insight into it then I hope that helps. If not, let me know and I'll do some researching to find out. I'm sure it'd be very intriguing.