After issuing some apparently definitive statements about the requirement for MMOGs to be classified for sale in Australia, the department responsible seems to have thrown up its collective hands in confusion and is apparently unable to determine whether MMOGs should or should not be classified.
While the government held firm for a while that MMOGs were no different to other games for the purposes of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act of 1995, and that the position upheld by the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia (IEAA) was incorrect, that message changed earlier this week, when the message wavered and the department then suggested that publishers and retailers (and us) should seek advice elsewhere.
"One thing seems very clear," a government spokesman told us as a part of an official statement last week, "if a person is buying a computer game in a retail outlet, whether or not that game is played online makes no difference to the requirements in the State and Territory legislation that it must be classified. There is nothing in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 that excludes online games from classification. The requirements for classification of computer games (as defined in the Commonwealth Act) before they are sold are contained in State and Territory legislation."
Certainly the State legislation for the states of New South Wales and Victoria lays out out those requirements fairly clearly.
The IEAA however, was of a different opinion. Ron Curry, head of the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia said, "There are different classification requirements for games depending on how they are accessed by consumers. For instance, for a game sold off the shelf, where the media material is stored on a disk in the package, the classification requirements are straight forward and you will see the classification label on the box."
"However, in some instances the box sold in a retail outlet contains an access key to the game which can only be accessed online. If such a game is hosted locally it falls under the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Services Act, but if it is hosted internationally, it's classified in the country that hosts the game, rather than in Australia."
We put that to the Classification board, who once again disagreed saying, "Section 5A of the Commonwealth Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 defines 'computer game'. As previously stated, there is nothing in that definition excluding online games from the scope of the Commonwealth Act."
"The decision on the question of whether an individual game submitted to it falls within the scope of the Classification Act is one for the Classification Board. However, the Board has confirmed that it will accept a valid application for classification of an online game (which it could not do if an online game were not a computer game as defined in the Classification Act)." (our emphasis)
Games that have been classified thusly (and by the Board's own terms must therefore be classifiable computer games under the definitions set out by the Act) include EVE Online, Ultima Online, Everquest and Vanguard (among others).
Then, on Monday, the government who has reportedly been in some discussion with the IEAA broke step with its earlier position, and stated, "This is a difficult issue, as in some cases there are questions about whether what is sold is actually a computer game, or access to a computer game."
And finally, "[D]istributors/publishers should obtain legal advice on proposed transactions relating to their particular products if they are not sure of their obligations."
When we asked for details about what those obligations actually are, the department declined to give any additional information.
Now, here's the thing. Call us crazy, but if the government departments who are themselves solely responsible for the interpretation, implementation, and enforcement of the regulations can't figure out what the obligations of commerce and the public actually are, how is seeking advice from a third-party supposed to help?
Since the only useful advice consists in essentially knowing how the government and its agencies will deal with the matter, and the government and its agencies seem to be admitting that they do not, it seems that any advice that could be proffered is going to be little more than guesswork. The government seems to be free to reinterpret its position at any time, especially as they seem to be reversing course on definitive statements already.