R18+ classification for games passes Oz Federal houses for 2013

An image of each of the Australian Classification Markers, from left to right, "Check the Classification","G","PG","M","MA15+","R18+","X18+"

It’s been a rather long and shameful road for Australia’s media classification system. The system itself requires that most forms of media sold, rented, displayed or traded within Australia be properly classified and labelled, but the system has been … well, uneven, at best.

While all other media had six classifications, computer and video games had just four, restricting the allowable content for games to that which was deemed suitable for a fifteen year old audience of minors.

The lack of an R18+ classification led to some games being restricted from sale, while others wound up getting grouped into an overstretched MA15+ classification, which seemed to contain an increasing amount of inappropriate content.

It has been announced today that the new classifications category has finally (after many years of wrangling and obstacles) finally passed the Australian Federal Parliament and Senate – to commence on 1 January 2013 – but that’s not the whole story.

If the Federal Government passes R18+, isn’t that it?

Australia’s classification acts come in two parts. The first is the Federal part, the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act. This determines what classification categories there are and what goes into each category, what is exempt, how all of that actually happens and so on.

The actual rules about how (and indeed if) material of each classification and type can be rented, displayed, traded or sold is the responsibility of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Enforcement Act, and every Australian State and Territory has one of their own – all of which are similar, but different.

Having an R18+ category for games doesn’t actually mean that any State or Territory necessarily allows those games to be displayed or sold. A State might choose to not allow them (not all States allow the sale of all categories anyway), or might declare specific limitations on how these games might be displayed in stores (they might have to be kept in separate sections (screened away from minors), or use “plain paper” packaging. That’s all up to the individual State or Territory to determine, and they will need to update their respective local Enforcement Acts before sales of R18+ games can finally proceed.

Sales versus purchases of R18+ media

Something that’s important to note that the Classifications Enforcement Acts restrict sales, not purchases. When an Australian imports an item, the purchase is considered to be under local law, but the act of the sale usually takes place elsewhere. Australians in States which do not allow the sale of R18+ material are able to simply buy the material from a State or Territory where the sale is allowed.

Likewise most digital distribution systems have been relatively free to sidestep the classifications system because the sale itself is handled somewhere overseas.

To further complicate matters, the Australian Customs Service uses different criteria, when assessing imported goods. The ACS adheres (generally speaking) to Regulation 4A of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956, which prohibits the importation of “objectionable” material.

Back in 2008, an Australian edition of Grand Theft Auto IV was modified to fit the Australian MA15+ games classification. During the year, however, the ACS seized copies of the game, not only unmodified “international” editions, but also properly modified MA15+ editions, duplicated overseas and intended for lawful sale in Australia.

It was a huge mess, and it’s always been a toss-up about what sort of MA15+ (or unrated) games media any given ACS officer will allow or disallow, on any given day.

Anyhow, the long and the short of it all is that from Tuesday, 1 January 2013, the Australian Classifications Board will start classifying some games titles as R18+. For those titles then to be sold in the various Australian States and Territories, there will need to be additional local legislation. With just six months to go before the new R18+ classification goes “live”, the States and Territories will need to get a wiggle on to have their respective ends of the legislation done in time.