Australian video game censorship: Does it work?

by on December 1, 2008 · 26 comments

AUAU2Do we have any Australian TLF readers out there? If so, I’d be interested in their input about how well video game censorship works down under.

I follow Australian content regulation via the wonderful “Somebody Think of the Children!” blog, operated by Michael Meloni of Brisbane, Australia. (Mike, if you’re listening, you have at least one big fan here in the U.S. and thank you for keeping the rest of us up-to-speed about censorship developments on the other side of the globe!) This week, Mike reports that another video game (“F.E.A.R. 2″) was refused classification by the Australian government’s Classification Board. Apparently, the “refused classification” designation is the equivalent of a ban in Australia. And F.E.A.R. 2 is the fifth game to receive that designation in 2008. (Other games that have been censored, or subject to some sort of political investigation or pressure, are inventoried at the “Refused Classification.com” website.)

First, let me just say that this again reminds me how lucky we are to have strong free speech protections here in the United States thanks to the First Amendment of our Constitution. I do so much bitching about efforts to regulate speech and media content (especially video games) that I sometimes fail to step back and appreciate how fortunate we are here in the U.S. to not have to worry about an official government ratings body overseeing all game releases. This really hit home for me when I read that “Fallout 3” was one of the 5 games banned this year. It’s a brilliant game and I just can believe it would be censored such that the Australian public could not play the same version of it that I can.

Second, I’m wondering how well these bans work in Australia. A big part of my research on speech regulation is focused on the practicality of censorship in the modern Information Age. [See my "End of Censorship" essay.] Thus — taking off my advocate hat and putting on my academic hat — I would be very interested in hearing from Australians about how effective these regulatory schemes are in practice. Can you still get games from overseas and play them on consoles and PCs in Australia? Do you download uncensored versions (either legally or illegally)? Does the government take steps to stem the flow of unregulated content? Or, are most citizens willing to just played the censored version of games that the Australian government eventually authorizes? Have there been academic studies done on the practical side of content censorship in Australia?

You get the idea. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

[Note: I have also been following the Australian government's big recent push for centralized Internet filtering. Would be interested in input as that as well from Australians citizens.]

  • Michael Meloni

    Hey Adam,

    Firstly, thanks for visiting. Your comments above are appreciated.

    In regards to Fallout 3, you may be playing the same version we are thanks to our censors: Fallout 3 to Ship Worldwide with Cuts Made for Australian Censors. I don't think there have been any other developments on this since.

    Do the bans work? To some extent yes. Removing the ability for retail outlets like EB and Target to sell these games means less people buy them. It has direct consequences on the market. As does people importing them from overseas (fairly common and nearly always successful).

    Downloading banned games is also an option. Torrents aside, distribution methods like Steam make it easy for users to bypass retail stores. That means such systems will certainly be of interest if mandatory ISP filtering is implemented.

    Many people are also satisfied with the cut versions released locally. Others would be left with no option but to buy the edited version.

  • Spikeles

    “It’s a brilliant game and I just can believe it would be censored such that the Australian public could not play the same version of it that I can.”
    Actually, because of the Australian banning, Bethesda changed ALL versions(including the US one) to be the same: http://www.videogamechat.net/news/gaming-news/C… ( and all they did was change the name of the drugs to fictional ones )

    “Can you still get games from overseas and play them on consoles and PCs in Australia?”
    The OFLC rating only governs the selling, hiring or demonstration of games, not the actual playing or owning, so if you can get it, for example, from overseas, the government can't do anything about it. Also, multi player on-line games are exempt from the classification scheme. Due to region restrictions on consoles, even if we imported games, there wouldn't be any guarantee they would work anyway. PC's fare a little better since they aren't region locked. Some Digital distribution channels, for example Steam, enforce region locks by requiring a valid billing address for your credit card to be in a certain country, whereas others like Impulse do not.

    I have download uncensored versions of games before. I remember i did once for Duke Nukem 3D. Did you know it was originally censored in Australia?

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Wow, thanks for the feedback guys. I had no idea that Bethesda Studios shipped the edited game worldwide, but I guess that's not surprising. It's the old “lowest-common-denominator” problem of global markets and regional regulation: Sometimes the best business decision to ship the “cleaner” product to avoid local hassles. Unfortunately, that means that the some very creative game content may be getting censored to appease just one set of regulators. Sad.

    And I realized that regional encoding / box-locking might be one way such bans were enforced, but I was wondered how many people were hacking their games or boxes to get around that. Of course, I understand that isn't easy (or legal, in some cases).

    Thanks again for the input!

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Wow, thanks for the feedback guys. I had no idea that Bethesda Studios shipped the edited game worldwide, but I guess that's not surprising. It's the old “lowest-common-denominator” problem of global markets and regional regulation: Sometimes the best business decision to ship the “cleaner” product to avoid local hassles. Unfortunately, that means that the some very creative game content may be getting censored to appease just one set of regulators. Sad.

    And I realized that regional encoding / box-locking might be one way such bans were enforced, but I was wondered how many people were hacking their games or boxes to get around that. Of course, I understand that isn't easy (or legal, in some cases).

    Thanks again for the input!

  • Michael Meloni

    Hey Adam,

    Firstly, thanks for visiting. Your comments above are appreciated.

    In regards to Fallout 3, you may be playing the same version we are thanks to our censors: Fallout 3 to Ship Worldwide with Cuts Made for Australian Censors. I don't think there have been any other developments on this since.

    Do the bans work? To some extent yes. Removing the ability for retail outlets like EB and Target to sell these games means less people buy them. It has direct consequences on the market. As does people importing them from overseas (fairly common and nearly always successful).

    Downloading banned games is also an option. Torrents aside, distribution methods like Steam make it easy for users to bypass retail stores. That means such systems will certainly be of interest if mandatory ISP filtering is implemented.

    Many people are also satisfied with the cut versions released locally. Others would be left with no option but to buy the edited version.

  • Spikeles

    “It’s a brilliant game and I just can believe it would be censored such that the Australian public could not play the same version of it that I can.”
    Actually, because of the Australian banning, Bethesda changed ALL versions(including the US one) to be the same: http://www.videogamechat.net/news/gaming-news/C… ( and all they did was change the name of the drugs to fictional ones )

    “Can you still get games from overseas and play them on consoles and PCs in Australia?”
    The OFLC rating only governs the selling, hiring or demonstration of games, not the actual playing or owning, so if you can get it, for example, from overseas, the government can't do anything about it. Also, multi player on-line games are exempt from the classification scheme. Due to region restrictions on consoles, even if we imported games, there wouldn't be any guarantee they would work anyway. PC's fare a little better since they aren't region locked. Some Digital distribution channels, for example Steam, enforce region locks by requiring a valid billing address for your credit card to be in a certain country, whereas others like Impulse do not.

    I have download uncensored versions of games before. I remember i did once for Duke Nukem 3D. Did you know it was originally censored in Australia?

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Wow, thanks for the feedback guys. I had no idea that Bethesda Studios shipped the edited game worldwide, but I guess that's not surprising. It's the old “lowest-common-denominator” problem of global markets and regional regulation: Sometimes the best business decision to ship the “cleaner” product to avoid local hassles. Unfortunately, that means that the some very creative game content may be getting censored to appease just one set of regulators. Sad.

    And I realized that regional encoding / box-locking might be one way such bans were enforced, but I was wondered how many people were hacking their games or boxes to get around that. Of course, I understand that isn't easy (or legal, in some cases).

    Thanks again for the input!

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