Classification: the end of an era? (Photo: Tim Young)

Video games: is the age of classification dead?

When floppy discs first arrived on the shelves, they blew the minds of early gamers. Gone were the days of arcade machines and chasing high scores, and in were immersive worlds packed full of stories and stylised violence. As impressive as System Shock may have been to the first person to insert that floppy disc into the computer, a question lingered on the tip of consumers’ tongues as they blew the heads off zombies: how far can this violence go? 

If this is what we had then, what would we have in the future?

Classification has existed within Australia as early as 1901, with media considered ‘blasphemous, indecent or obscene’ being refused distribution within the country. 1917 was when new guidelines were added to films, including banning anything that incites violence or is hurtful to Great Britain.

Over time Australia worked to develop a new system away from censorship, one that placed the power in the hands of its citizens rather than the politicians: classification. By the late ’70s, Australia had moved onto a uniform system for classifying materials which would then develop into the ‘Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995’.

There has not been a new act pushed through legislation since 1995. While many amendments have been made: 1995 was a very different time.

It was only two years after the release of the controversial video game DOOM, a game that sold itself on its violence alone. But DOOM wouldn’t reach the peak of its controversy until 1999, during the aftermath of the Columbine High School Massacre, when DOOM was found in the rooms of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Politicians blamed the game’s excessive violence for the shooting and called to ban violent video games. 

That was over 20 years ago. Imagine if the politicians clutching their pearls at the 2D pixelated violence of DOOM saw the possibility of video game violence today.

Ottico Labs media producer Chris Martin has worked with classification for years getting advertisements on free to air television.

“It was quite loose in the early noughties,” he said. “The process was quite simplified but then obviously over the years I’ve seen massive change in that space.”

“In 2004 the process was, you’d actually make your ad, you’d finish making your ad and you’d get this documentation…and basically you just say what are you advertising sign it fax it off, basically they fax it back with your approval number and send you a bill in the mail.”

“Now in’s an online portal but there…is a handbook of 250 plus pages and it increases every year on what you can and can’t say, what you can and can’t do.”

The rate digital media has been progressing has left some people wondering if it has outpaced the classification system altogether.

Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA) CEO Ron Curry believes classification is necessary but the current system is outdated.

“Many years ago when we started,” he said, “there were two reasons: one was copyright and the other classification.”

“We saw 10, 15 years a system was created before CD ROMS were the way of distribution. It was never gonna work. It was always going to move to digital distribution.”

“We’ve moved onto digital distribution, and I’m not sure we’ve brought the Government along with us”

Ron Curry

The list of video games that have been refused classification has only grown as time goes on. But what’s the point when these video games are still readily available online?

These days people have access to pirating, allowing them to download anything they want. Virtual private networks (VPNs) are also available, which can bypass region-locked content. Some video games are still being sold on the Steam marketplace even while still having a refused classification status.

Take Mother Russia Bleeds and Postal 2 for example. Both are still available on Steam, the biggest digital games distribution platform in the world. In fact, there is no mention on the pages that it even has an RC classification at all.

Screenshot of Postal 2 on Steam.

“When Grand Theft Auto III came out here,” said Mr Martin, “I was a 20 year old and it was a game changer.”

“It was out for about five or six weeks and it had content of a certain level of violence.”

“It was on the news and then all of a sudden stuff got pulled off the shelves and we had to wait eight weeks for stock to be refilled and there was a slight change in content and classification.”

“I just wanted the game (but) I missed out.”

Moderators of sites like YouTube and Twitch are becoming so overwhelmed with the influx of content they are finding it difficult to keep up. Content ranging from pirated episodes of TV shows to porn can be found if you dig deep enough. Websites like Liveleaks are easily accessible to anyone and you don’t even need to know how to get on the deep web to see some of the worst the internet has to offer.

“I have customers who will challenge me because of it,” said Mr Martin. “We can get away with it in these media channels, why not on TV?”

What’s to stop children from stumbling on these kind of videos? A child can bypass Netflix‘s kids mode as simply as closing the app and choosing a parents account on the sign in page. All a kid needs to do to stray from the kids YouTube version is click the one that doesn’t say “kids”.

What would an R18+ classification mean to a kid who watched a season of Narcos because they liked the Netflix thumbnail?

Currently Australia uses the IARC System to regulate apps.

“If I was a developer from Finland and I made a game, I would then go in and be asked a series of questions to be given a classification,” said Mr Curry.

“Not perfect, but what it does is fill that big hole between 400 games and 400 thousand.”

It has been argued that an automated system like this works better than the actual system since it removes the element of human error.

“There’s a level of human decision making,” said Mr Martin. “You can run into a classifier who gets used to certain things coming through and…won’t ask too many questions.”

“You might meet someone else. New on the job or having a bad day and they will push it further and make it difficult to get classification.”

“That can make it unfair to get classification”

Some recent examples of what some have called unfair classification is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 getting an MA15+ rating even while containing scenes in which the player partakes in a mass shooting.

Now this is the level of violence seen in a game refused classification:

Seem fair? Ron Curry says ‘yes’, explaining that it comes down to context.

“It’s a moral choice that has to be made in the game.”

“You look at that in the whole context and you look at something else and think ‘hang on, is there any context to this pure gore’?”

Boy in the Striped Pajamas should really have never been released if you only see the bad parts of it. It’s an incredibly powerful story (in context).”

The Classification Board defends the decision saying you have the option to not shoot at all and that every other level will end with instant failure if you shoot a civilian. They say one ‘out of context’ scene shouldn’t dictate the classification of the whole game.

With the Wild West nature of the internet, it is of course impossible to regulate every dark corner. Despite the shortcomings of the classification system, many still argue it’s important to have these guidelines.

“They don’t censor games,” says Mr Curry. “But classification isn’t about censorship it’s about information.”  

“If classification is about informing, I’m incredibly supportive of it.”