Australian video game publishers and retailers are risking hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines by selling online role playing games such as World of Warcraft without age classifications.
The games industry believes there is a legal loophole exempting online games that don't have a single player component from classification requirements but this view is contradicted by the federal and state attorneys-general.
World of Warcraft , with more than 11.5 million subscribers, is the most popular of the online-only games but there are other examples including Age of Conan , Warhammer Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea.
All are sold as boxed sets in retail stores across the country without classification by the Classification Board or the appropriate labelling, for instance M or MA15+.
A spokesman for NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos said the NSW Classification Enforcement Act prohibited publishers and retailers from selling unclassified computer games: The NSW legislation covers computer games bought online as well as those
bought in stores, and treats single, multi-player and online games the same way .
The spokesman added that enforcement of the act was the responsibility of police but penalties for breaking these laws ranged from $1100 to $11,000 for individuals and/or 12 months' imprisonment. For corporations the fines were approximately double.
A spokeswoman for Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said that, although it was up to each state and territory to enforce game classification requirements, Commonwealth legislation also had no loopholes for online games: The National
Classification Scheme does not distinguish between games based on whether or not they contain a single player component. Online games are computer games within the meaning of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 and
are covered under the existing legislation.
But Ron Curry, chief executive of games industry body the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia said he believed that online games without a single player component did not require classification by the Classification Board.
Despite reports earlier in the week that World of Warcraft and other multi player online games were being withdrawn from sale due to legal reasons, the games are still for sale in all stores.
A loophole in the Australian law that allowed online games with no single-player content to go on sale without a classification was exposed earlier this week, and the federal and state attorneys-general declared that all titles without this
classification were to be withdrawn from sale. However, this only applied in NSW, the other states were unaffected. Also, it was up to the police to act on complaints about sales of the games, something which they are unlikely to receive.
Game distributors, retailers and advertisers may be at risk of prosecution and heavy fines for selling popular online games such as World of Warcraft , Warhammer Online and Age of Conan without classification.
The gaming industry has long assumed that online multiplayer games like these are "unclassifiable" due to the inherent unpredictability of online play, and therefore do not require classification. This assumption has led to countless copies of
online multiplayer games being sold without classification over the years, despite legislation which prohibits the sale, demonstration and advertising of unclassified games. The assumption is said to be based on an understanding between the industry and
the Classification Board, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that distributors who have applied for classification of this type of game have been told by the Board that it wasn't required.
But this longstanding assumption may be under threat. When media reports shed light on the disconnect between the legislation and the industry's practices, representatives of the Commonwealth and New South Wales Attorneys-General firmly rejected the view
that online multiplayer games were exempt from classification. A spokesman for the NSW Police Minister also weighed in with an invitation to the public to contact local police if they saw retailers selling games illegally.
Australian Home Affairs minister Brendan O'Conner has revealed proposed new laws to Parliament to allow the censorship of apps and games sold online.
Technically the Classification Board should review every app, but because of the sheer size of the app store -- it contains hundreds of thousands of apps -- it is simply impossible to do so because of a lack of resources.
O'Conner says instead of having the Classification Board review every single app, the Government will use the online content system which in based on ratings provided by the store. The store allows users to complain about offensive material. Only
apps that receive complaints will be subject to review by the Australian Censorship Board.
If Apple, or any other marketplace provider such as Google, continued to sell content that is refused classification then they would be breaking the law, O'Conner said: We would prosecute people who actually broke the law . People cannot [be
allowed to] break the law. People cannot at the moment sell, distribute or watch... games that have been refused classification.
App makers say it would be too cumbersome. MoGeneration chief executive Keith Ahern says the current system within the App Store is working well: The current system is probably more effective than anything the Government can introduce. So maybe the
bigger question is, how does the App Store set this? I would say that system has been partly responsible for the success of the app store itself
Thousands of mobile phone apps released every week in Australia will be exempt from classification for the next two
years under a federal government plan to give mobile phone application creators and businesses clarity pending the ongoing review of Australia's classification system.
Currently, mobile apps are treated the same as video and computer games and are technically required to be classified by the classification board. But because of the huge volume of apps created every week, very few actually go through the system.
Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor, who will introduce the legislation to allow the exemption, said:
The current classification system never envisaged the technology powering smart phones, let alone the rapid development of online games or mobile phone apps.
These changes will allow most mobile phone and online games to be supplied without classification for the next two years, while retaining safeguards to protect children from computer games that are of concern.
The exemption will not apply to computer games likely to be refused classification and the classification board will retain the power to call in a game if it is likely to be classified M or above. The public will still be able to lodge a
Over the weekend of June 20th to 21st, the results of the first three months of the International Age Rating
Coalition trial were dumped into the Classification Board's database. They reveal censorship on a scale never before seen in Australia.
The first mobile game/app is listed as being banned (Refused Classification) on March 18th. At the time of writing, a total of 242 have been banned.
Interestingly, the Classification Board has chosen not to give a reason why they have been banned. Several of the banned apps have innocuous titles so perhaps there is a technical explanation such as not filling in the forms correctly.
In the past four months, the Australian Classifications Board has labelled 220 video games, making it
illegal to sell, advertise or exhibit them in the country.
Australian newspapers have been downplaying the censorship saying that it doesn't sound so bad when one realises that the amount of bans is related to the large quantities of back catologue apps being processed via a new rapid decision program,
perhaps up to 150,000 of them.
In fact that the 220 games are properly banned under censorial rules for what's allowed in adults only R18+ games. There was a lot of political opposition to allowing an adults rating at all and the final compromises rules ban games for content
that would be perfectly legal in most western countries. For instance more or less anything to do with the depiction of drugs is banned from Australian games.
Examples of banned games on the list include:
Torture the Murderer 2
Measure Bra Size Prank
Douchebag Beach Club
Pass the Grass
Time for Cocaine
Police Bus for Criminals
2015 Athletic Fruits Girls
Fun Swimming Pool Love Kiss
There are also several instances of the same game developer submitting multiple, obviously identical games (for example Weed Time submitted as Smoke a Bong FREE, Smoke a Bong, Smoke a Joint, Smoke a Joint FREE and Nose Dose ).
So it seems there are still serious discussions to be had around Australia's game censorship system, including the fact that Australia is much stricter than other countries when it comes to representations of sexual content and drugs, something
that has resulted in the blocking of a handful of high quality, well-respected games that adult players in other countries enjoy.