Steve Farrelly over at Ausgamers attempts to unravel the apparent inconsistency in two recent decisions of the Classification Board in rating computer games: refusing classification to Left 4 Dead 2, but granting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 an MA15+ rating, where in most other jurisdictions it was rated as suitable for adults only.

Farrelly argues that:

the system itself is flawed, because in [the Classification Board's] arguments against classifying Left 4 Dead 2 they cite many things that you are currently able to do in other games, specifically Dead Rising, which encourages the use of creative melee weapons to dismember and kill the undead. The Samurai sword, as the best example, offering equal amounts of locational damage also showing off zombie insides; a game quite easily marked with an MA 15+ upon submission. And that is but one example.

The problem here then is there's no such thing as precedent. In the Board's eyes, despite releasing both Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising as MA 15+ games (among many, many others), they hold no ground to how they should treat Left 4 Dead 2, which is why it's entirely fine to walk into an airport in Modern Warfare 2, kill innocent people and watch piles of bodies build up on the floor around you, but it's not okay to smack a zombie in the face with a frying pan.

This is an interesting point - it certainly seems as though there is great difficulty in the potential for inconsistency in the Classification Board's case-by-case approach. The Board does have guidelines which it follows quite closely, but when cases like this seem to lead to inconsistent results, it lessens confidence in the system.

If you have some comments, head on over to the Ausgamers weekend discussion and add your voice.


  1. Having read the (non) explanation given by the board for their decisions, I am left scratching my head - it appears to be less an issue of precedent and more one of wild inconsistency. Saying "look at the guidelines" is hardly a valid explanation, these two decisions with virtually the same 'offensive' content got polar opposite treatment.

    Whilst an R18+ classification would give the Board more scope and leeway in decisions, that's hardly going to matter if they continue to make such arbitrary and inscrutable rulings. They are supposed to reflect community values, not their own whims and biases (because what are we supposed to think? They clearly aren't judging based solely on content).

    Valve must be thrilled that their game got shot down for the same things that Activision have been given a free pass for. If I were Valve I'd be calling for an investigation into the Board right about now - I know I certainly have doubts about corruption on the Board (there is an awful lot of money at stake - and that always presents temptation for the unprincipled).

    Comment by Stuart on 14 November 2009 at 10:20
  2. Stuart, while I agree that there seems to be a problem with consistency, I don't believe that there's any reason to suspect the Board of corruption. I think the much more straightforward explanation is that each case is judged on its merits, perhaps by different examiners, and the subjective evaluation process can lead to vastly differing interpretations of the guidelines.

    Comment by nic on 14 November 2009 at 16:45
  3. Whilst the simpler explanation is more likely, it doesn't preclude corruption.

    As I stated: there is a lot of money involved in this situation - and unlike other media (primarily movies) there isn't an R18+ classification for games to be put into. Either they get the MA15+ or they get RC (and then years of development and millions of dollars are down the drain). That's millions of dollars difference on their bottom line. So the companies involved have a big incentive to bribe, and the Board members (given how subjective and unscrutinised their decisions are) have scope to be swayed.

    I have no evidence that the Board is corrupt, and I don't want to steer this conversation away from the primary issues. The Board has made questionable decisions that are a matter of public record - that is more than enough to discuss factually without introducing my speculations.

    Comment by Stuart on 14 November 2009 at 19:48
  4. Stuart: Do not attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity, or in this case innocent ignorance.

    My understanding is that context and treatment of issues and adult material is as important when deciding a classification as the questionable material itself. The board may feel that different treatments of the violent content may warrant a different rating.

    In L4D2, players are encouraged to be violent, gore is treated as positive and this would be present throughout the entire game. On the other hand, the terrorist scene in MW2 is intended to depict the violence as evil and is only present in a small portion of the game. In the rest of the game, killing civilians is a no-no.

    It's similar to the difference between the Saw movies, and a torture scene in a Bond film. Context and treatment are important.

    Comment by Claire on 16 November 2009 at 23:56
  5. Claire, I think you're right - context is very important. Here's what I posted on the thread at the Ausgamers site:

    It's an interesting point, but I'm not really sure that a doctrine of precedent would really improve the process. I think that fundamentally, these are subtle issues of context that amount to a relatively subjective evaluation of the impact of a particular game. Two games that share identical physics and mechanics, with a comparable level of gore, but have a different atmosphere ought to be dealt with differently.

    I don't think that it's as simple as saying that Dead Rising is more bloody than L4D2, as there may be other factors that influence the decision. I think it's probably legitimate to say that one classification was incorrect, and to review that decision on its merits, but trying to fit all games on a big continuum of precedent is likely to be pretty difficult, if not impossible.

    In short, I think that each review must be on a case-by-case basis - context is everything. (Take the Bill Henson images controversy, for example.) Classification is always going to be a somewhat inexact science; I think we can disagree with the results, but I'm not sure that we can easily say that one game is objectively more or less offensive than another - a doctrine of precedent may well be more trouble than it's worth.

    I personally think the answer lies in a more open discussion of the standards that games are held to. We need a better discussion about what goals the classification policy is trying to achieve; and perhaps, if the aim really is to enable adults to make informed decisions for themselves and those minors in their care, then we need something more subtle than 5 general categories.

    I guess the other point is that if these classifications really are advisory only (i.e., not resulting in a lot of prohibited content), then it doesn't matter so much if the Classification Board makes some mistakes, because consumers still have the power to decide for themselves.

    Comment by Nic on 17 November 2009 at 00:03
  6. I suppose my objection to the context argument is that it is so subjective. I prefer my ratings to be objective criteria (ie. exactly what you get with movies: violence, drug use, language, adult themes, etc.) rather than an objection to artistic decisions.

    To argue that the killing in L4D2 is 'worse' than that in MW2 seems odd to me in light of the fact that in L4D2 doesn't actually require you to kill from a thematic point of view - the goal is to make it to the safe rooms. MW2 in contrast has specific kill missions (and 15 different kill achievements to unlock!) - you must kill to proceed in the story (both literally and thematically). That seems worse to me (and the 'we are just, therefore our killing is just' good vs. evil dichotomy doesn't sit well with me either. MW2 is no more real than L4D2 - as many of the parody stories about it point out so plainly: "Ultra-Realistic Modern Warfare Game Features Awaiting Orders, Repairing Trucks" - )

    Having the opportunity to inflict post-mortem damage seems like an odd complaint also. It's almost like the Board is objecting to choice - you don't have to do anything to corpses in L4D2, but the possibility exists (and the Board clearly exercised that option at least once).

    If the Board intends to make classifications on thematic elements in gaming, I think it would help if they were actually willing to do so with more critical eyes than they have. To go 'ZOMG! You can do BAD STUFF!!!' betrays the fact that they don't understand the paradigms of interactivity *or* the themes present in the zombie genre (ie. classic zombies require headshots, modern zombies don't. Classic zombies are already dead, modern zombies are diseased people. How does one communicate that information *with* interactivity? How do you tell that story *without* resorting to turning your game into the passive, receptive film experience?). If film is a monologue, then games are a dialogue - and players participate in actions to advance the story (and my best argument for this is how gutted the storytelling experience is in the sanitised version of L4D2). It isn't possible to make a good game without interactivity (and I would argue that it is the truly *great* games that can tell a compelling story without forcing the player - the trick is getting the player to actively explore the story, whether that is linear (eg. Portal) or more free form (eg. Fallout, Braid)).

    I look at the Board's decisions and I just groan. I feel like they need far more experience in understanding games as an artistic medium than they have if they intend to assess games on thematic criteria.

    Comment by Stuart on 17 November 2009 at 07:39