New Zealand’s classification system can be a confusing thing, especially when it comes to games. The law has struggled to keep up with technological advancements like digital distribution, which typically happens on a global scale. It’s clear that Australian classification influences New Zealand, but the how and why of that is often unclear. Frankly, the treatment of games under classification law is a bit odd to start with.
In an effort to get some clarity, I had a chat with Henry Talbot, who is the Senior Advisor at the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). Right off the bat, he acknowledged how hard it can be to understand: “It is a bit confusing, and it can be made more confusing by technological change. In addition to that, there are now law changes being looked at about classification in the digital age, so it’s a bit confusing where things stand at the moment, more so than it has been in the past.”
A lot of misunderstanding stems from Section 8 of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 – which you could be forgiven for not having come across. Simply put, games (and certain types of film, like training videos) are exempt from usual labelling requirements unless they have restricted content. That means that unless the content of a game is such that it’d earn a restricted label it can legally be sold in New Zealand without any sort of age rating at all.
So a game only needs to be classified by the OFLC if it has restricted content, but how do you know if it has restricted content unless you get it classified? Basically, exemptions aren’t granted; they’re automatic, based on the game’s content. It’s up to the distributor to know their game, and with assistance from OFLC advisors like Henry, to determine whether it could be restricted and would therefore need to be classified.
“If people come to us and say ‘Oh, I’ve got this game. It’s been rated PEGI 6 and it’s got these little things jumping around.’ I might look at that and say ‘It looks like your game is likely to be exempt because it looks like it’s at an unrestricted level.’,” said Henry. “If they’ve got a high-level game – if it’s clearly full of blood and guts, sex, and that sort of thing – then it might be likely to be restricted. We’ll give distributors information about the criteria and things like that, and nudge them towards what might be a good idea.”
What are those criteria? Broadly speaking, they cover sex, horror, crime, cruelty, violence, offensive language, that could be “injurious to the public good” (Sections 3, 3A, and 3B of the Classification Act outline the full criteria). Of course, a lot of this comes down to degree and context. A depiction of consensual sex is going to be treated as less objectionable than sexual assault, and cartoon violence isn’t treated the same as something more realistic or graphic. The medium, the artistic merit, the target audience, and the dominant effect of the publication as a whole are all things taken into account.
You may have noticed that almost all your games carry an Australian rating label – that’s because Australian Classification Board ratings are recognised here. Anything with a G, PG, or M rating in Australia is de facto unrestricted in New Zealand, though if a complaint is made, it could end up restricted. On the other hand, anything that gets an MA15+, R18+, or Refused Classification label in Australia is required to get a NZ rating before it can be sold here. “That’s a way of streamlining that system, because it’s recognised in regulation” Henry explained.
Other ratings system like PEGI and ESRB aren’t recognised here. However, they can be a useful point of reference for a publisher trying to decide whether something would be exempt under Section 8, or whether it would be restricted and therefore need a NZ rating.
“If something gets a higher ESRB or PEGI rating, then we can say ‘This is indicative that it may have restricted content.’ It’s not an official thing we’re saying, but we would certainly recommend it,” Henry continued. “In that sense, we pay attention to other overseas ratings, and we try to be helpful to distributors. That can be more helpful than just saying ‘Here’s a list of our criteria. Do you think it’s restricted?’”
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