There is some discussion at the moment that the Australian government might move to require mobile application games to be classified according to content. This is a move that is consistent with requirements on other computer games and, on the face of it, if classification is policy there it would seem that it should be policy for mobile games. (Note to commentators: it may well be that classification of games is silly but I’m not looking to discuss that here.)
What I want to discuss is the implementation of this. Here is what the concern is:
The government is now making plans to require developers to submit their game apps to the Classification Board before they are released. This would cost developers between $470 to $2040 per game.
This would cause several things. First, literally thousands of overseas developed games would be removed from the various mobile application stores in Australia. Most of these do not cover the developer costs and even those that may have in the past may not do so in the future. Not to mention the cost of applying for classification. The effect on Australian consumers would be immediate. Second, this would have an impact on local developers. Fortunately, with regard to games, most of their sales are elsewhere. But we will see a headline within a year: “Australian teenager has hit mobile game but her friends cannot play it.” Nonetheless, there will be a disproportionately negative impact on developers who are trying to tailor games to the local market. Third, this will end up including educational games and books. For instance, Dr Seuss books on the iPad have little games in them. I assume that means they require classification. Maybe popular children’s books won’t be impacted but there will be many other educational apps that will be and this will spark further headlines. Fourth, apps that use Apple’s iAds will be impacted as these ads may include games in them. Finally, all of this will cause Australians to either pirate games in droves — indeed, they may do so just to get games that are actually free elsewhere! — or move to overseas app stores. My guess is that rules imposed internally by Apple and co that prevent purchases by Australians from say, New Zealand will be relaxed. This will alleviate the harm of all this but it will be a very bad look. Need I say, that this is as much a problem for Apple and Google as it is for developers and consumers. In other words, the doom and gloom forecasted may well occur.
The good news is that there is an easy solution to this. First, raise the fines for selling games in Australia with the incorrect classification; including on application stores themselves. Second, allow developers to self-classify their games. That’s it. The vast majority of games can be classified easily and, indeed, Apple already does this. There seems little reason to add another layer of review prior to an app’s launch. Instead, the onus would be on developers and publishers/platforms to review applications and make sure their content is rated properly. If they fail to do so and there are complaints — which there inevitably are — then the Government can prosecute. Anticipation of that and a large fine will keep this in check.
My point is that all of the dire consequences for the industry arise because Classification requires pre-evaluation. If it was made a self-evaluation process plus a later process to deal with infractions that would alleviate almost all concerns without sacrificing whatever public policy goals there are from the classification policy. And if developers are still concerned about taking that risk, then they can pay a fee and be pre-classified. See, this is one area where everyone can be happy so long as a little bit of common sense is applied. I guess we will have to see what occurs.