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An Introduction to Gaming in Australia

Welcome to Australia. Enjoy our beaches and reefs, but watch out for the dropbears, the hoopsnakes, and the killer lamingtons. We’ve got blowflies the size of your fist, sports that reward you with a point if you miss the goal, and around 150 big things including, but not limited to, a beer can, a potato, and a dead fish.

We’re also a nation of gamers, and our numbers are growing every year. According to stats from Bond University in Queensland, in a survey conducted by the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA), 92% of Australian households were found to own a device for playing videogames in 2012, up from 88% in 2008. Break those numbers down further and you’ll find a game console in 68% of Australian households, mobile phones in 43%, and handhelds in 13%. The average gamer is 32 years old, females account for 47% of the total gaming population, and 75% of gamers are aged over 18. Clearly, we like our GTA as much as our XXXX (it’s a brand of beer), but when it comes to how we game compared to the rest of the world, things are a little less straightforward. 

GamesRadar posted a piece titled The Worst Countries to be a Gamer, and of the 25 countries and nations mentioned, Australia was deemed the overall winner. The reasons won’t surprise - a truncated classification system and inflated software prices are a double whammy of political and societal fists to the face of gamers, no matter where you’re from - and from the outside looking in, it’s hard not to imagine an oppressive regime that stamps out violent games and charges you twice as much for the privilege. But what is it really like? Forget the hyperbole, forget the outrage - let’s examine first-hand the experience of the average Australian gamer.

CLASSIFICATION

The obvious challenge is perhaps the most publicised: Australia’s classification system. It stretches to six categories for film - G, PG, M, MA15+, R18+ and X - but for videogames the system only goes as far as MA15+. This means that if a game submitted for classification is deemed to exceed that rating, it will be refused classification - the dreaded RC. With no videogame-friendly marking available to them, classification board members are left with no other choice but to assign it the RC verdict, essentially forbidding the game from legally entering the country.

What happens next depends on the game, the submitter, and seemingly, which direction the wind is blowing. Offending games are either edited to come in at the MA15+ level (The Witcher 2, Fallout 3, Dark Sector), or are barred from sale entirely (Mortal Kombat, Reservoir Dogs, Syndicate). Sometimes games are RC’d retroactively, receiving a retail release before being removed upon appeal (Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, Manhunt), and sometimes they’re RC’d and then put on sale after a classification revision (Aliens vs Predator, House of the Dead: Overkill - Extended Cut, FEAR 2: Project Origin). Then there are the games, such The Walking Dead, which are barred from sale on XBLA, yet freely available on Steam. Baffled? Get in line.

It’s an obfuscated - and seemingly arbitrary - series of decisions that count towards a game’s release in Australia, yet perhaps it’s also an overstated one. At the recent GameTech conference in Sydney, Jane Fitzgerald, Assistant Secretary at the Classification Operations Branch, revealed that of the 891 games classified in 2010-11, only two were refused classification: Mortal Kombat (which remains RC’d) and The Witcher 2 (which was edited and resubmitted.) And in 2011-12, out of 807 games, three were RC’d: Syndicate (still RC), Mortal Kombat: Game of the Year Edition (ditto), and House of the Dead Overkill: Extended Cut (appealed and passed under MA15+, no edit required). It’s such a small number as to be practically insignificant, and in terms of volume, hardly worth quantifying as a "drastically cut-down selection of games".

So why a noise so loud for a number so small? Because it’s a constant issue. Each RC decision or Australia-specific edit receives an extraordinary amount of attention and media coverage; fresh reminders of a longstanding topic. Perhaps it’s coverage that’s disproportionate to the scale of the problem, but with Australia the only country in the developed world without an 18+ classification for games, it’s hardly insignificant. Go back to that earlier stats dump: 75% of Australian gamers are aged 18 years or older. That’s 75% of the game-playing population barred from experiencing the mature end of the gaming spectrum, yet free to experience similar in another medium - say, an R-rated movie. They’re allowed to watch Mr Blonde slice off an ear, but not allowed to play the game tie-in. And in terms of how games are classified, there’s no demonstrated consistency: what is permitted in one game is not necessarily permitted in another. The Darkness 2, for instance, is free to rip out hearts and slice bad guys down the middle under an MA15+ rating, but Mortal Kombat’s blood-letting was deemed too excessive. Precedence is not a factor when it comes to game classification in Australia - it’s purely on a case-by-case basis.

It’s a frustrating spectacle, compounded further by its impact on gaming culture and history. For the collector, our classification system creates a situation - a divide - where edits or concessions made to an Australian-specific version of a game distance it from the “real”, unedited version released elsewhere. Two resulting products, yet arguably only one conveys the developer’s vision - and the intended experience - intact. Look at the Australian edition of Left 4 Dead 2; one finds it hard to believe that its disappearing corpses, lack of blood, and absence of dismemberment goes anywhere near towards reflecting what Valve wanted to create in its zombie-shooter. And when it comes to true collectors, anything less than the pure experience is the “wrong” experience.

The ratings system alters how a game is perceived even from a purely cosmetic standpoint. Here’s a typical sample of Australian game boxart:

Look at how much cover real estate is taken up by the classification marking. This system, implemented in 2005, was designed to curb suggestions that the previous markings were too hard to see; they were getting lost in the cover art, and parents encountered difficulty in their efforts to take the classification advice. Today, they can’t help but stand out, attracting the eye as much as the art itself - and in fact, going some way towards changing it altogether:

The classification marking of Australia is such that the cover art for Far Cry 3 has to be mirrored in order to accommodate its size into an area where it would not obscure a vital element - in this instance, the head emerging from the sand. It’s yet another example of publishers bending over backwards for Australia’s approach to videogame classification; whether it is to the product’s benefit or detriment is up to the reader to decide.

Come January 1 2013, Australia will finally have an R18+ rating for games. With the revised system having passed the Senate in June, the country’s gamers can finally look forward to a system in step not only with that of movies, but in line with the rest of the developed world. Time will tell, however, if it benefits mature gamers, or isolates them further.

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7 comments

  • gazzc - August 22, 2012 11:10 a.m.

    Wow those prices are terrible, how did such a situation arise? Is it common to earn a good wage and thus people can afford to spend more or have the companies involved just pushed things as high as they dare based on the fact that it is considered normal to overcharge there?
  • Craza - July 28, 2012 4:58 a.m.

    As I've often commented before, my boyfriend lives in Queensland and I've constantly heard how much more expensive electronics, games, and computer gear are. A game we'll pay $60 for here brand new can be as much as $120 over there. Now, $60 is a LOT for me, but if games were $120 here, I'd have HALF the library I do now, IF that. The laptop I have now was $700 on Amazon, and my boyfriend found the same laptop in a shop for about $1700. It's ridiculous! I do feel bad for the guy because he shells out so much more. He does usually order stuff overseas or cheap from Ebay (As Amazon won't even ship to Aus) though, so he spends about the same amount as I would, but it takes much longer and it's not as convenient as just picking it up from the store of course. The thing that really gets me is buying from Steam, too, as was mentioned. In fact, just over the summer sale, most every game that my boyfriend bought was the same exact price I would pay EXCEPT for Fallout: New Vegas, which is a game he's wanted for a very long time. It was a measly $5 (No DLC included, but he didn't care) for me, but for him, it was about $10-$12. The Ultimate pack which had all the DLC was $12 here, and about $25 for him. What was REALLY funny was that he had bought ME the game just less than a year ago when it was on sale on Steam for $20. It was the same price for the US, but I didn't have the money in my PayPal account to buy it without waiting 5 days to transfer it from my bank account and by then the sale would be over. So, he bought it. Soooo...why was it the same price THEN, but it was different for the summer sale? I thought it was not only inconsistent, but really stupid. I bought him New Vegas, and also bought Skyrim when it was $40 on Steam, yet still $70 there. That time, he just sent me $40 on PayPal and I purchased the game for him. The point brought up about bringing more sales into the country by adjusting the costs to levels similar to Europe's or America's is a logical idea. When things are that high, people can easily buy it overseas and ship it for half the price! I'm glad there's always the option to do that, but it shouldn't have to be that way. Lower costs, and you'll bring more (and keep) revenue within the country. Let's hope something gets done. And on a final note: Yaaay for new rating in 2013! I didn't think they were allowing it so quickly.
  • Darkhawk - July 27, 2012 11:46 a.m.

    "dedicated Australians will bend and break the rules" Good. Australians live in the modern, developed world, and they should in no way tolerate such outrageous censorship. Fine, it's not (entirely) the fault of the game developers, but if there's no other option, I fully endorse piracy etc.
  • mockraven - July 27, 2012 6:49 a.m.

    I have a few friends in Australia, 2 of them a gaming couple. I guess when you both work and live in a mine in the middle of a desert there's little in the way of entertainment besides booze and games. They seem to do well enough through Steam and digital purchases, although the prices are still atrocious when they tell me how much they paid for what's a $60 title here in the US.
  • KA87 - July 27, 2012 5:58 a.m.

    That pricing situation is insane. Sorry you guys have to put up with that.
  • Rivenscry - July 29, 2012 1:42 a.m.

    Hey, don't worry about it. Most of us just buy from overseas anyway, which would explain why our retailers and developers keep on colapsing. ;) Having said that though, there are other side effects to not having access to an 18+ rating system though. For example, collectors edition's are some of the most expensive you will ever see. Mass Effect 3 for the ps3 cost me $160 + $10 deposit. I swore that would be the last time I ever pre-order something locally ever again. The P.C. version was $10 cheaper, btw. (I loved ME3, just so you know.)
  • Optimitron - July 27, 2012 2:52 a.m.

    A good read, and that's coming from a fellow Australian! I'd rather game here then sit in Brazil and get my PS3 something like 4 years late. You're right in saying the whole classification debacle is largely exaggerated, it's never felt like more than a minor inconvenience every now and then (apart from the Fallout 'morphine' incident, that one had me scared). It seems to happen to something like 1% of our games. I've never understood the uproar, however I did think the lack of 'R' rating classification was ridiculous, glad it's been revised. But yeah, the prices for our games suck. Absolutely suck. There's nothing else that can be said for that.

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