In the wake of the most recent Grand Theft Auto rating shenanigans
, I was reminded about a question I sent to the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (aka, the OFLC, aka, the Destroyer of All That Is Fun) back in 2005 - a question that I still hadn't received an answer to.
Why does World of Warcraft not have an OFLC rating?
At first glance, it appears that it should have a rating. The OFLC's compliance guidelines
Generally, computer games (including amusement arcade games) must be classified by the Classification Board or Classification Review Board before they can be sold, hired or demonstrated in Australia. "Demonstrate" includes to exhibit, display, screen or make available for playing.
This seems pretty clear - if you want to sell a game in Australia, it has to meet the OFLC's guidelines. Most well-connected gamers are well aware of this with the all the ruckus about Grand Theft Auto over the last few years.
However, some video games can be exempt from classification. The OFLC's Exempt computer games
page has more information on this, but the main thing to note here is that there are five categories that are eligible for exemption: Business, Accounting, Professional, Scientific, or Educational. World of Warcraft certainly doesn't seem to fit in any of these categories.
Further, the Act (the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995
, which you can download here
if you're having problems sleeping) which is the root of all these classification guidelines actually states:
However, a film or computer game is not an exempt film or an exempt computer game if it contains ... material that would be likely to cause the film or computer game to be classified M or a higher classification.
So if you created an educational game about, say, gunshot wounds, and included some graphic images of same, it would probably not be exempt.
A game exempt from classification carries the following sticker:
World of Warcraft, in Australia, does not have this sticker. It's not exempt, because it doesn't fit under the exemption guidelines.
More importantly though, it doesn't have this sticker because it has never been submitted for classification to the OFLC
Exclusively online games are not submitted to the OFLC for classification.
My original question (sent to the OFLC on August 22, 2005) was answered today when the OFLC's Ron Robinson called me to discuss this topic (I sent a followup email a couple days ago after the GTA stuff jogged my memory of this ancient request).
Ron let me know that World of Warcraft was not rated by the OFLC - in fact, was never even submitted for classification - it was a "waste of time" as the game is exclusively online, exclusively multiplayer, and has no defined start and end. Thus it is inherently unclassifiable
Evidently, they thought differently about Dark Age of Camelot
(G8+) and EverQuest
(M) - although a) they are from back in the day, so maybe some policies have changed since then and b) many other popular and recent MMOs have not been rated, including Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Guild Wars, EVE, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Fury, just to name a few.
It should also be noted that the US ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) has given World of Warcraft a T for Teen
rating. The ESRB is is like
the OFLC in that they classify games, but there's some key differences - the ESRB is an industry body, not a government organisation - and publishers are not required to submit their games to the ESRB for rating - it is a voluntary process.
As a result of its inability to be classified, World of Warcraft (and other online games) have not been submitted to the OFLC for classification, or exemption. Ron mentioned that games like this simply don't get submitted at all - so I assume there's some sort of understanding between publishers and the OFLC about which games they can not submit (one would assume the fines for non-compliance are extremely steep, so it's probably strong encouragement for them to stick to this).
Comparisons to Grand Theft Auto
Arguably, World of Warcraft is a totally different game to Grand Theft Auto. The OFLC can easily sit down and churn through most of the controversial content in GTA in a few hours. World of Warcraft is a much tamer game (in terms of content, violence, and sexually explicit material), so it might seem fair that it isn't given the same rubber-glove treatment that other games get.
Of course, anyone that's even seen the Internet, let alone played an online game, will know that all sorts of crazy stuff can happen online. Blizzard obviously take pretty extreme steps to keep the game safe, but it seems that - given the scrutiny that games like Grand Theft Auto and all those other games get, these unclassifiable online games might warrant some
form of classification - even if it's just an ESRB-style warning like the one below (which is also attached to WoW):
What happens if Rockstar make a Grand Theft Auto MMO?
An obvious question. If we get some sort of Grand Theft Auto Online, will it be subject to the same casual disregard that World of Warcraft and the other MMOs appear to receive? It seems safe to assume that because of its reputation, it could quite possibly meet with a different fate.
However, it should be noted that in the current situation described to us by the OFLC, an entirely online version of Grand Theft Auto would not need to be submitted to the OFLC for classification
Q: Is the inherent lack of classification of these games documented anywhere in any of the OFLC's guidelines for classifications, or somewhere in the Act?
A: No. The unwritten rules that were reported to us by the OFLC are that if a game has any playable segment that you can access on a standalone PC, it needs to be classified formally. If it is entirely online, it does not require classification.
Q: Are there any formal arrangements between publishers and the OFLC about this process?
A: There does not appear to be. It appears to be common knowledge. (Note: trying to confirm this with publishers now.)
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Posted 02:45pm 11/4/08
I just checked my email history though; here's how it went down:
1) Pre-July 19 2005: I contacted the OFLC (can't find an email so it might've been via a web form) asking them about this.
2) July 19 2005: I got a first reply saying World of Warcraft wasn't in the OFLCs database
3) July 19 2005: I replied saying I didn't understand how it was for sale and not in their database and asked for more information.
4) August 22 2005: I send a followup (incidentally saying "The only reason we can think of that it might not be classified is that the game is essentially exclusively an online game", how prescient of me) trying to chase them up.
5) August 23, 2005: OFLC replies asking me if I'm talking about Warcraft 3.
6) August 23, 2005: I reply saying no, I'm talking about World of Warcraft, and asking to confirm if you're allowed to sell a game w/o an OFLC rating.
7) September 8, 2005: I send a followup to the OFLC trying to confirm above.
8) September 8, 2005: I get a reply from the OFLC telling me, no s***, that I need to give them a postal address before they can respond to me.
9) September 8, 2005: I reply with my postal details.
10) September 20, 2005: I send a followup again trying to confirm above.
11) Two and a bit years go by...
12) April 8, 2008: I send a followup again
13) April 11, 2008: I get a phone call from OFLC answering my questions.
Posted 04:07am 15/4/08
Posted 10:32pm 17/4/08
Posted 06:19pm 14/5/08
Posted 06:26pm 14/5/08
Posted 03:35pm 02/7/08
Very good work here, Trog. Highlighted a huge gap in current censorship laws (and gave me a free article at the same time!) Noice.
I'll be lurking to steal more scoops (with full credit of course).