Downsides Down Under: Censorship in Australia

If you live in America and are feeling annoyed when your favorite politicians decide that anti-videogame legislation is the perfect way to appear family friendly without pissing off anyone important, take a look at some of your neighbors around the world and you’ll realize we actually have it pretty good. Plenty of countries are much more strict about what they want their citizens seeing, sometimes in bizarre ways.

In Germany, everyone in Command and Conquer: Generals was roboticized to satisfy the ratings board. In China, depicting bare bones is considered taboo, so games like World of Warcraft have had to change the look of some the more flesh-impaired ‘undead’.

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But it’s the part of the world known best for opera houses, marsupials, and overpriced videogames that gets the shortest end of the stick in the western world. If a videogame survives prices hikes and crazy delays, there’s still the chance it might not even make it there at all, like poor Left 4 Dead 2.

Why exactly does Australia have such a strict censorship policy? The main reason is that no rating higher than 15+ currently exists–meaning that any game that would be rated 18+ (this would be closer to our M for Mature than the Adults Only rating we have for 18+ games) is automatically refused classification–which effectively bans it from sale or distribution. This is seriously different from America’s system, which doesn’t even require games be rated in order for them to be sold.

Even Germany isn’t as severe, as it has an 18+ rating and games without classification can still be legally purchased in the country, just not advertised or shown to minors. However, because Germany’s tolerance for violence is very low, games are typically rated much more strictly. This has led to a great deal of self-censorship, so that companies like Rockstar can sell Grand Theft Auto III to a wider audience.

While Germany’s paranoia towards violence has some obvious historical basis, Australia’s attitude might seem a little odd to people not familiar with the country. The Australian Constitution does not have any explicit protection of freedom of speech, according to the Parliament of Australia’s Parlimentary website, where you can see that the real actual coat of arms of the Australian government has a picture of a kangaroo holding a shield.

The site goes on to say that “In theory, therefore, the Commonwealth Parliament may restrict or censor speech through censorship legislation or other laws, as long as they are otherwise within constitutional power.” Of course, Australia’s High Court has found that there are implied rights of freedom of speech for citizens, but the legal phrasing here certainly puts control of freedom of speech very much in the hands of the government. And part of that consequence of that is that content without its blessing is banned.

The Australian system is more than a little underhanded. While AU boasts abnormally strict censorship by western standards, there’s nothing strictly wrong with that. What is wrong is not even giving the games the chance to be considered, especially when 18+ ratings exist for all other forms of entertainment.

The “why” to all this is more or less the same as it’s always been–videogames are new,  and they’re misunderstood by the generations of people who grew up without them. While some politicians and policy makers make it their duty to understand what videogames are and what they do for us, others would rather use censorship to make all those confusing flashing lights disappear.

Micheael Atkinson, South Australian attorney general, is considered the main reason the classification doesn’t exist, as he’s consistently voted against it and the referendum requires a unanimous vote from Australia’s regional attorney generals to add the 18+ rating. With his retirement in March, it’ll hopefully open some more doors for our friends down under.

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Andrew Vanden Bossche

Andrew Vanden Bossche has gotten through life on the strength of his tremendously long and unspellable last names. He also majored in English and creative writing, and is now a student of journalism. His three favorite games are Ico, Half-Life, and The Final Fantasy Legend.

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