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Australian entertainment restrictions: how do they compare?

Although it is often thought to be a free and liberal society that places both freedom of speech and a free and independent media at the heart of its democracy, Australia has one of the most surprisingly restricted entertainment industries.

The gaming industry in particular has suffered at the hands of this actively hypercritical approach to regulating the entertainment industry, which has seen a long list of video games banned over the years.

With this in mind, however, how do the censorship and classification guidelines compare across the various forms of media and entertainment? And furthermore, are they applied equally, or do some forms of entertainment come under much closer scrutiny than others?

In this short article, we will provide a brief comparison of how the different censorship and classification regimes compare across the entertainment and media industries in Australia. 

Betting and gambling

Online gambling and betting fans in Australia benefit from a relatively liberal regulatory regime. And when compared to more restrictive countries such as America, Australia has relatively few restrictions in place – although this is not to say that Australia is free from restrictions.

Online betting and gambling in Australia are primarily dealt with by the 2001 Interactive Gambling Act, which puts in place a long list of requirements and regulatory obligations for operators based out of the country or who service customers based in Australia. Notably, the Act restricts certain kinds of off-shore betting services, while also listing exceptions for some licensed services that provide online wagering, sports betting and lotteries.

How online betting and gambling is regulated in Australia contrasts with how video slot sites in Canada operate, where the regulation of gambling operators is provided for at the federal level. This is despite Australia and Canada both having a federal legal system. However, Australia and Canada are similar in that there are relatively few restrictions placed on people looking to use these services, with both countries having a healthy gambling and betting industry that benefits from regulatory oversight and a tightly controlled market.

Video games

The relatively liberal approach that Australia takes to online betting and gambling, however, contrasts with the restrictive approach present when it comes to other forms of entertainment such as video games.

This issue came into sharp relief last year, when the game Disco Elysium – The Final Cut was banned by the Australian classification board in a move that prompted calls by the public to scrap the entire ratings system.

The decision to ban the game was occasioned by the fact that it was found by the classification board to contain material portraying sex, drug use, crime, cruelty and violence. Based on these findings, the board refused to classify the game in Australia, which essentially had the effect of banning it until these issues were addressed. This was despite the fact that Disco Elysium had been available on the Steam online games store since 2019 and had garnered a number of industry awards.

This refusal to classify the game adds Disco Elysium to a long list of games banned by the Australian classification board, which includes games such as Left 4 Dead 2, Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto and many more.

Appetite for change?

The furore surrounding the banning of Disco Elysium stoked feelings that it was long overdue that Australia move on from the “moral panic” that the classification board so frequently indulged in.

However, while the Australian government did commit to reviewing the censorship regime present in the country, it is not clear to what extent – if at all – they intend to liberalise things. This is despite widespread calls from members of the public and special interest groups. 

The calls to liberalise video game classification in Australia are particularly urgent, given the disproportionate impact it is having on the video game industry. And the Disco Elysium episode highlights the fact that video games are frequently denied classification due to the same material that is considered acceptable in movies and TV shows. The discrepancy is seemingly rooted in an outdated and empirically false assumption that video games have an adverse effect on people in real life.

This discrepancy between movies and video games has held the industry back for many decades, with video game developers frequently having to provided localised, censored versions of games for release in Australia. This adds a significant financial burden, given the legal costs of either appealing the decisions of the classification board or the development costs associated with providing a localised version. Whether Australia will move away from this censorious regime, however, remains to be seen.

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