When the latest game in the long-running Mortal Kombat franchise of beat-’em-up games was refused classification in Australia due to our lack of an R18+ rating for mature gamers, I didn’t think much of it. It was the latest in a long succession of games deemed unsuitable for children, which is quite a reasonable thing to conclude, given the games aren’t supposed to be for children.
Then there’s the slew of titles that get through with an MA 15+ rating, when in every other first-world country they’re illegal to sell to minors at all. But that’s an argument had a thousand times in the last few years alone, and not worth having here.
Still, this problem was foremost on my mind when a few of my friends started talking about playing Mortal Kombat.
Some were in the U.S. “Wait, it’s banned in your country?” they ask, surprised. I sheepishly admit it is, quite embarrassed. They just laugh at us, like we’re living up to the Crocodile-Dundee-is-my-neighbour never-seen-a-computer-before cliché the world’s media sometimes presents us as.
Others were, however, in Australia. Now, I’m no fool – I know people order games from overseas. However, I was still a little surprised by just how many of them were doing it. Weren’t there laws against this sort of thing? So I started asking people just how and why they were doing it.
“Oh, I ordered mine a few days ago from a site in Asia,” one friend said. He does this a lot. Tired of paying through the nose for games here in Australia, he just orders it from the U.S. or somewhere in Asia – paying the same as his America-based gamer friends, even when the game is available here.
I asked him if Customs check for this sort of thing. I’d spoken to a few other friends who wanted the game, but were scared of ordering in case it got picked up by those tasked to protect our borders from such terrifyingly illegal things as, in this case… video games.
He wasn’t sure – but he’d certainly never had a game stopped. So I asked a few more people who I knew ordered from overseas. The next person I spoke to had been ordering from overseas for years. He’d never had a problem. “Oh, wait,” he adds. I think he’s about to say that he had lost a game to Customs once.
But no, it turns out to be a whole portable game console, ordered in the months before it was due for release here. This made some sense to me – after all, my vague understanding of these sorts of things had me figuring that it wouldn’t be legal to import electronic goods that hadn’t passed our Australian certifications for usage within the country. (Think about all those stickers on your power supplies and such stating they’re okay for use, for instance.)
“So you lost hundreds of dollars because of that?” I ask.
“Oh, heck no,” he replies. “They just noted the cost of the device, decided it was expensive enough that I should pay tax on it, and refused to let me pick it up from the post office until I gave them $150.”
Right. Well, with that in mind, I ordered my copy of Mortal Kombat, paying a mere fraction for a brand-new, sealed copy of the game which would probably cost $120 AUD if it were being sold here.
As days passed and I waited, I spoke to more friends.
One friend explained that he tended to get games via direct download services, usually giving cash to an American friend and letting them pay for and ‘gift’ the game to him.
“It’s cheaper that way, you see, and you still get to play games that are banned here but available in every country with sane censorship laws.”
Some people I spoke to were amazed I’d ordered it from overseas. “Aren’t you worried,” they’d ask, “that you’ll be caught by Customs?”
Say – they were right! Just what IS the penalty for attempting to import banned games or films, anyway? I vaguely recalled a story of police shutting down a public screening of a film that had been refused classification some years previously in Melbourne.
So I asked around some more. “Oh, nothing,” answered a friend of mine who’d already researched this. “They just replace the box with a message saying that it wasn’t allowed here, and had been thrown in the incinerator. Unless you’ve ordered 25 or more copies. Then they can pin you with intent to distribute.”
Oh. So, not so big a problem, I guess.
On the day it arrived in Australia, I checked the tracking website for the courier bringing me my copy. Sure enough, I saw exactly what I’d hoped I wouldn’t see on the list. Between leaving the warehouse somewhere in Hong Kong and arriving in Australia, a Customs check was noted.
Damn. Oh well. I spoke to more people, including a friend of mine who works for a game development studio.
“Oh, sure. We order all our games from overseas. Unless it’s a PC game. Those we just buy unlock codes from overseas and punch them in to unlock the games on our accounts.”
I thought about this for a moment. “Wait, when you say ‘we’, do you mean you and your co-workers, or the company you work for?” I ask.
It turned out to mean the company. They need games for their break room, after all.
“The Australian classification system, in effect, is a complete pain of the arse for us. If we’re making a game with mature content and want to compare it to other, similar games, how can we do that when we can’t get them here?”
“If an Australian game developer releases a title that gets refused classification here at home, that will have so insignificant an impact on the total sales of the game that it’s almost not worth worrying about.”
Almost literally as we chatted, a courier arrived. I expected some kind of note saying they’d picked up my game and burnt it, but no. I guess the Customs guys are about a diligent as you’d expect when being asked to enforce a law so ridiculous that it makes other countries laugh at us.
A printed out sticker on the parcel read, “Cleared — Customs”.
As we push further toward a world where all content is delivered digitally, even this will cease being a potential problem. Between proxies, friends in other countries, and unlock codes for sale, trying to enforce these sorts of laws as about as crazy as trying to enforce internet censorship or ordering the tide not to come in.
So, after this several-day journey and its related conversations, like a huge number of other Australian gamers who only want to play the games that their siblings, cousins and friends in other countries can play as mature adults… I’m off to play my copy of Mortal Kombat.