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Is WoW Illegal?

5th February 2009, 11:18am
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That's the question on everyone's lips today, after a post on the Massively blog yesterday prompted a flurry of discussion. The author of the post, Tateru Nino, suggested that the act that controls how rated and unrated games can be sold applies almost entirely to the party selling the product, not the person buying it. Sales are governed by the appropriate legislation in the location where the sale takes place.

Nino suggests that you can sell any game, regardless of classification status, through an online portal like Steam or Direct2Drive if neither the sale nor seller are in Australian jurisdiction. From what I understand, classifications in the US are not the law but are done anyway to help consumers, so technically you could sell any game to an Australia if the transaction is happening in America. Obviously, we're not lawyers, but that makes sense, right?

Here's where the issue gets muddy. The Sydney Morning Herald then asked why online MMOs are going unrated in stores. According to the SMH, Ron Curry of the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia believes that they do not have to get a game classified if it doesn't have a single player component. This seems pretty surprising. According to Curry, if the game bought off the shelf contains a disk with media, it needs to be classified as per normal. If it just a key with an access code for an online-only game, as described above, then it does not need to be rated.

The confusion here seems to be between a physical disc-based game that you use to play online with other people (like an MMO), and a game that you buy or play purely online. The IEAA seems to think that MMOs are the latter, but since you get a disc in the World of Warcraft box, surely it is the former?

MMOs are clearly computer games under the Classification Act, and don't appear to be exempt from classification because they don't fall somewhere in this table. The only other alternative seems to be receiving a certificate stating they are exempt as described in this section. Again, this just based on a cursory read of the act, but unless companies got an exemption certificate ages ago or continue to do so for each MMO they release, it's hard to see why it wouldn't need to be classified.

The Attorney-General of NSW, John Hatzistergos, believes that there is no loophole in NSW legislation and that all games, both online, offline, single and multiplayer, are treated the same. Similarly, Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland's spokeswoman believes they are computer games at a Commonwealth level too (see the previous paragraph).

This could cause some serious trouble. The NSW Police Minister wants members of the community to contact police if they see retailers selling games illegally. It's a nice wholesome "GAMES ARE TEH BAD" sentiment, but the fact is we have no idea if they are or are not legal yet. Activision-Blizzard have not yet commented on the situation, but don't expect them to ignore the issue. We'll keep you posted when they fill us all in.

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