In the wake of reports earlier in the week, a lot of people are under the impression that massively-multiplayer online games are now barred from sale in Australia. Off the shelves. Well, they are not.
Let's clarify what's happened, and look at things from a more practical point of view.
At the moment, most MMO games are unclassified in Australia. That means they are not given a rating by the Classification Board (Australia's equivalent of the Entertainment & Software Ratings Board), despite this being, well, technically against the law.
Why? Because for years there has been a loose understanding between the Australian games industry, retail sector and the Classification Board, in which loopholes in the body's guidelines meant that MMO titles - thanks to the unpredictable nature of their online play - did not require a rating.
Because Australia's ratings guildelines were too outdated to cover a product like an MMO, and because there was no way of determining much of the game's content (you are, after all, communicating with people, who can say what they like), a blind eye was turned to the fact they were going on sale sans classification
It was, essentially, a gentlemen's agreement on a par with the "Game Experience May Change During Online Play" notice placed on American titles by the ESRB . You can read more about it here, which is a thoughtful and pragmatic piece on the subject.
Now, though, a stink's been kicked up in the wake of reports by both Massively and the Sydney Morning Herald, which both highlighted this loophole and sought comment from men connected to organisations overseeing the Classification Board (though not, it should be noted, the board nor the Classification Review Board themselves).
Those reports were reported on, and reported on again, and now we have many people - and many news outlets - under the impression that MMO titles (including World of Warcraft) are now somehow "banned", or barred from sale in Australia.
They are not. You can walk into an Australian store, today, and purchase a copy of World of Warcraft. Or Warhammer Online. Or Everquest 2, if you can find it. And you can do this at EB Games, GAME, or any other retailer across the country.
I've spent the last two days calling stores across the country, and while some staff were aware of the issue, none had received notice to bar the sale of the products, nor had they any intention of taking the games off the shelf until they received formal notice to do so.
And why would they? They've been selling MMOs for nearly a decade now without incident, without controversy. And with the current popularity of titles such as World of Warcraft, MMOs are good business.
Besides, it's not like the New South Wales Police (the police force of one of Australia's six states) are actually going to take this matter seriously. Let's take a look at the statement issued by a spokesperson for the state's Police Minister:
Police officers in the NSW Police Force will respond to complaints received from members of the community or other agencies to investigate alleged breaches of either the Commonwealth's or NSW's Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Enforcement Act 1995.
That's a generic, cut & paste statement. Anyone who has worked in the civil service will recognise that. And it's a cut & paste statement made, let's not forget, by a civil servant working for a state Police Minister, who is a politician. Not a member of the NSW Police, and certainly not the NSW Police Commissioner (who has 1,543,656 more important things to worry about).
Same goes for the other statement that some people (though it should be noted not the original SMH piece) have latched onto, by a spokesperson for NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos:
The NSW legislation covers computer games bought online as well as those bought in stores, and treats single, multi-player and online games the same way.
If there is any suggestion that any business is trading illegally, police need to know, and it should be reported.
Again, a response pasted from a template by a civil servant.
Neither of those statements are by the men themselves. They are not a political call to arms. They're not statements made with klaxons sounding. They're standard responses to a public enquiry made by a civil servant, representing a politician, from a single Australian state.
Which is important to remember. After all, neither the NSW Police Minister nor the NSW Attorney-General have a lick of authority outside the state of New South Wales. They can't impact the sale of games in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, Western or South Australia, or the Northern & Australia Capital Territories, nor over federal retail or classification laws.
Of course, this doesn't mean the issue is irrelevant, nor that it will simply go away. These games probably do need some kind of ratings, and this loophole couldn't remain hidden from the public's eye forever. And now that it's been raised, it's certain that somewhere, somehow down the line, action will be taken.
But it's important to remember, this is Australia we're talking about. Any changes made to the way the OFLC rates games has to come on a national level, not from some state politician, and with the country on the precipice of recession I highly doubt politicians will want to devote time and resources to amending a loophole that's stood for a decade and has already allowed millions of game sales.
A loophole about, let's be honest, video games. We're talking politics, police and federal government institutions here, for each of whom video games are about as low on the "to do" list as it can get. One need only look at the lack of progress made on a national level towards amending the country's lack of an adult (R18+) rating to see that.
One need only look at Blizzard's response to the whole matter to see how worried they are about the whole thing:
Blizzard Entertainment and its affiliates work very closely with the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia to ensure that we are in full compliance with Australian law as it relates to the distribution and operation of our games, including World of Warcraft. We'd like to reassure all of our players that World of Warcraft is currently, and has always been, distributed and operated legally in Australia.
So relax! World of Warcraft isn't banned. It's still on sale, it's game cards are still on sale, and if past experience with video games law and government policy in this country is anything to go on, it will be for quite some time to come.
UPDATE - Head over to Kotaku Australia for an extensive look at some of the finer points regarding Australia's classification of online games.