Rating the Past: How Classification Shaped Us All

As a generation of media consumers, we have, in one way or another, encountered the Australian Classification and Ratings System. You know, that little prohibitive green/yellow/blue/red/black box in the corner of the DVD or video game case you had growing up? Chances are that since you turned 18, you haven't given those ratings much thought. After all, they hardly apply to you anymore, or maybe they never did (especially for the more rebellious readers).


As a generation of media consumers, we have, in one way or another, encountered the Australian Classification and Ratings System. You know, that little prohibitive green/yellow/blue/red/black box in the corner of the DVD or video game case you had growing up? Chances are that since you turned 18, you haven't given those ratings much thought. After all, they hardly apply to you anymore, or maybe they never did (especially for the more rebellious readers). But I would say that these seemingly minute and easily avoided classifications have had more of an impact on our young lives than many would consider.

So, what is the Australian Classification System? Simply put, it is the series of ratings that you'll see next to a film, TV show, or video game. The classification system mostly comprises the following ratings:

  • G (general audiences)
  • PG (parental guidance)
  • M (mature audiences, recommended 15+)
  • MA15+ (mature accompanied)
  • R18+ (restricted)

In addition to these ratings are CTC (check the classification) and X18+ (restricted to adults due to sexually explicit content), but as these are far less common.

As someone who grew up in the final decade of widespread physical media, my keen content viewership would live and die by these ratings. The DVD store clerk, and my parents by their side, would observe like wardens whether I was taking a PG film off the shelf, or an M. The difference between the two felt palpable. MA15+ felt like a lifetime away, and the very thought of watching something R18+ was unthinkable. The disparity in these ratings felt like the difference between being a child and an adult, or at least that's what 9 to 12-year-olds thought. Of course, it only made matters worse that half the kids in my grade had already seen the 'darker' Harry Potter films, Iron Man (2008) or Avatar (2009). In some cases, kids had already progressed to MA15+ films like 300 (2006) or Tropic Thunder (2008). Simultaneously, TV shows like Family Guy and South Park and videogames such as Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) and Assassin's Creed II (2009) began to become 'cool' for our young age bracket. All the while, our parents became increasingly concerned about the 'desensitisation' apparently occurring. Looking back, I am sure that only a minority of kids at the time were consuming MA15+ content, and if they were, it was probably correlated with the burgeoning and unadulterated range of the open internet. Nonetheless, whether the classifications were respected or not, they presented a distinct dividing line between the abiding and the rebellious.

These ratings play an intriguing role within our own experiences and society in general. For parents, I imagine that these ratings can reflect both under-parenting and over-parenting depending on what they allow their child to see. The entertainment industry itself also lives and dies by these ratings. The difference between a film like The Dark Knight (2008) being rated M or MA15+ is the difference in millions of dollars in box office gross. The Australian Government also plays an integral role in ratings as they are the ones who both set and regulate them nationally, through the Department of Communication and the Arts and a Classifications Board. All in all, between families, global content creators, distributors and government regulators, there are a tonne of moving parts that make up a system for aiding and enforcing the boundaries for content viewership.

However, the major disruption to this system most of us grew up with is the advent of the internet and the hegemony of streaming. With the post-physical media age well underway, content creation and distribution processes have become chaotic over the last decade. Streaming services, of which there are an increasing number, pride themselves on their 'original content', a business model which uses the exclusivity of streaming rights to draw more eyeballs to their subscription service. Think Stranger Things (Netflix), The Mandalorian (Disney Plus) or Ted Lasso (Apple TV Plus). Video games have also moved en masse to the digital realm, supported by online multiplayer and increasing downloadable content (DLC) options. While they can still be bought in-store, most video games have their digital duplicate and promote online content. Due to the instant and global distribution that these online platforms provide, classification boards like Australia's have struggled to keep up with the barrage of new content throughout the last decade.

As a result, Australia became an early adopter of third party classification tools, used as a quality standard in regulating new content. These monitoring tools allow third parties to rate their content and then submit those ratings to the Australian Classification Board (ACB), who oversee the integrity of the program. Seems like a lot of bureaucracy, but what does this mean? Take Netflix, for example, which launched in Australia in 2015. By 2016, there was still no ideal classification infrastructure to regulate the fast-growing content streaming market, prompting Netflix to develop an automated classification tool — which eventually received government approval. To obtain this approval, the automated tool had to deliver 'broadly consistent' results over a sustained period in line with the values of the ACB. By 2019, the tool had been so consistently successful in automating ratings that it received permission for continued use and moderation from the ACB. Effectively what this means is that with the dominance of online media, the landscape for classification has changed dramatically in very recent history. Australia also engages with the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), whose purpose is to standardise ratings for digital games and distribute those ratings globally. So when a games developer approaches IARC for classification, they will determine if it's M in Australia, 12+ in the U.K, and so on. This is just another example of how Australia's classification systems have had to incorporate transnational third parties to standardise the ratings of our entertainment.

Despite these developments, I would be surprised to hear if anyone thinks about the classification system in Australia that often. For good or ill, it's fair to assume that its relevance in the public sphere will dwindle as the online era rages on. The reasons for this may vary. Perhaps we have become less stringent on the types of content we consume as we hop from live TV to social media to Netflix; our gratification is instantaneous and without bounds. Perhaps streaming services' online interfaces neglect to make obvious the classification of media in a way that the old DVD and VHS boxes wouldn't. Perhaps classification is only important for those under the age of 18. No one is calling for the end of our classification system, but it has seemingly faded from the public consciousness with our changing media landscape. We consume differently now, with optional 'NSFW' filters in our social media, trigger warnings preceding content and age restrictions on Netflix and YouTube. We tend to classify content for ourselves, for better or for worse.

But there is something to be said for the formative role that classification has played in our lives. It aids parents through an increasingly difficult landscape for monitoring what a child sees and plays. They also provide a useful context to understanding and processing a film or video game that you might be about to engage with. And although we may not think of them often, the classifications we either abided by or rejected as youth have subtle effects on our lives. They provide bounds for us to operate with or against as we form our own opinions and understanding of the world at large. By simply considering the Australian classification system we grew up with, I've realised how classification, societal recommendation and systemic boundaries, in general, have informed and profoundly affected my own life.

But looking forward, the future of classification is unpredictable. There are more content makers in the world now than ever before, and even more of us are consumers - on an instantaneously global scale. Content is also fast emerging, less centralised and far more diverse than simply 'movies, TV shows and video games'. Social media is the dominant source of content entertainment, its platforms reliant on the lofty and controversial ideals of free speech. With the outsourcing of Australia's classification tools and the international and privatised nature of social media companies, I even wonder whether Australia truly has a national classification system anymore. Perhaps it's symptomatic of change in the world and how we consume it. But now more than ever, questions of classification, censorship, and free speech are the crux of modern media, globalised content and instant communication.

If we can see the profound and subtle effects of classification by looking back on our past, I'm fascinated (and concerned) to see how the emerging and underlying classification systems of now will affect our future. 

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