What's Up With Australia's Draconian Classification Laws?

By Kate Gray on at

Content warning: this piece contains reference to sexual violence.

After news came this week that Outlast 2 had been un-banned from Australia, many were prompted to wonder: what's up with Australia's ratings system?

It's a land where spiders the size of a garage are considered nothing to worry about, because it's the tiny ones that'll kill you. Where snakes eat wallabies like it's no big deal. A place where no one lives in 90 per cent of it because it's uninhabitable, unwelcoming deserts, for miles and miles. A country where a large part of its population is descended from the people that we considered too naughty to keep in prisons. And, oh my god, have you seen kangaroos?

Of course, Outlast 2 is far from the first game that Australia has banned, refused classification or delayed, but it won't be the last. In fact, Australia only introduced the R18+ category in 2011—before that, it was either MA15+ or nothing.

So why is Australia known as the country that bans games? Well, for a start, it's not just games, says Sydney-based critic and game maker Claire Hosking. "I don't feel like games are singled out beyond movies and books for harsher ratings," she says. "Over the past decade we've pushed the board to introduce new 18+ ratings for games, and it feels like we've made progress." Hosking was one of the Australian players that opposed the Australian Classification Board's ruling to refuse classification for Grand Theft Auto 3, which made it illegal to sell, distribute or show in Australia.

"[I fought for GTA3] on the basis that citizens and outlets should be able to make up their own minds.,," she wrote in a 2014 Polygon piece. "But that included being able to make up their minds against carrying the content as well."

Here are the guidelines for what constitutes material that will be refused classification, according to Wikipedia:

  • Detailed instruction or promotion in matters of crime or violence.
  • Depiction of rape.
  • The promotion or provision of instruction in pedophile activity.
  • Descriptions or depictions of child sexual abuse or any other exploitative or offensive descriptions or depictions involving a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 years.
  • Gratuitous, exploitative or offensive depictions of:
    • (i) violence with a very high degree of impact or which are excessively frequent, prolonged or detailed;
    • (ii) cruelty or real violence which are very detailed or which have an extremely high impact;
    • (iii) sexual violence
  • Depictions of practices such as bestiality
  • Gratuitous, exploitative or offensive depictions of:
    • (i) activity accompanied by fetishes or practices that are offensive or abhorrent;
    • (ii) incest fantasies or other fantasies that are offensive or abhorrent

"It's actually a very sensible and straightforward set of rules, and has an admirable emphasis on context and nuance," says Chris Wright, founder of Australian indie publishing label Surprise Attack. He suggests that perhaps developers and marketing teams should spend more time familiarising themselves with Australian guidelines. "In quite a few recent RC [Refused Classification] cases, in my opinion and admittedly as an outsider to those games, I suspect they could probably have passed if they had paid more attention to explaining context and preparing the submission with an authorised assessor that knew how to present and explain the game properly."

It's worth remembering that Australia is not the US, too. The Australian approach to depictions of sex in media, in particular, is vastly different. "Sex work is legal in all six states and two territories," Hosking writes. "It's certainly more visible here. In my state, it's really not hard to find a brothel; they have signs outside, like any other business. As a result, our responsibility to ensure sex workers feel safe and welcome in our society is more pressing."

Yes, Australia's classification rules are stricter than most other countries. And as Hosking says, sometimes those decisions should be left up to the retailers and customers. But it's important to remember that not everywhere has the same cultural and social climate as the US and UK. "We're still struggling with more casual attitudes toward domestic violence, racially motivated violence, aboriginal deaths in custody and violence against sex workers," writes Hosking. "There's a tendency to treat us like we're an unincorporated territory of the United States, with exactly the same preoccupations and mores, but we're not."