The post-Byron review games industry is getting itself very worked up about regulatory frameworks.
Having commissioned the ‘Children and new technology’ review with the hope that it might provide some critical mandate for greater control of bad-technology - the surprise in government was matched only by its disappointment when Dr Tanya Byron turned in her findings.
Balanced, measured and refreshingly free from hysteria - Byron’s report affirmed many of the positive outcomes of playing videogames and singularly failed to provide the anti-games lobby with any serious ammunition. It’s strange then, that the industry has failed to seize on it as anything other than an opportunity to fight the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Whilst Dr Byron considered many of the potential risks to children and presented a number of measures to increase protection, in the thorny issue of regulation her findings were unfortunately less conclusive.
To recap, then: BBFC, media ratings body funded by submission fees with statutory powers - PEGI, the pan-European body established and funded by the Games industry in order to regulate itself. One can probably already sense where the tensions are going to arise.
Byron called for a collaborative approach between the BBFC and PEGI combined with a period of public consultation. To move beyond the confused system we are currently working with she recommended that the organisations work closely together to devise the best system for moving forward with.
When she made these recommendations her assumption was probably that these two bodies would be able to work together, however on the evidence of recent exchanges it seems she would have had more luck organising a McCartney-Mills reconciliation.
At a recent Westminster Media Forum examining the computer games industry, regulatory framework issues was always going to be high on the agenda, although no-one expected it to feature in the keynote quite as explicitly as it did.
Having limited time available, Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) director Paul Jackson used his opening keynote to make the case for PEGI and formally trash the BBFC in surprisingly emotive and unequivocal language. Jackson characterised this moment as, ‘the most biggest legislative challenge ever faced by the industry’ - that PEGI was the ‘gold standard’ and the ‘solution for today, and the solution for tomorrow’. Perhaps most explicitly, he directly accused the BBFC of simply not having the expertise to classify games. Such provocative fighting talk so early in the proceedings was a little unexpected, so it was disappointing that having drawn a circle in the dirt Jackson then had to put his shirt back on and leave for other business. The BBFC representatives sat on the back row, shaking their heads at this extraordinary attack. For ELSPA certainly, that is already not about how to best collaborate - but about aggressive lobbying to select PEGI as the existing system of choice.
In the following panel discussion, Paul Johnson, head of policy for the BBFC was afforded the right to reply - which he took with enthusiasm and delivered a robust defense. He addressed the reasons why the industry favored PEGI, ‘Industries do tend to like regulatory systems that they own and control’, before going to on vehemently reject ELSPA’s criticisms.
This continued for some time, with Times Journalist / ELSPA PR advisor Tim Wapshott describing the notion of the BBFC not ‘crying wolf’ by sometimes rating games lower than they are in Europe as ‘absurd’. Wapshott explained that this might mean an adult might be playing an adult game online with a child, clearly at situation which would be unacceptable and a wholly reasonable point. To emphasise his point, he later went on to claim that,”..at any one time there are fifty-thousand paedophiles on the internet..” Whilst not venturing to suggest how this number was obtained, everyone agreed that it was a jolly dramatic moment.
The key points were neatly rounded up by industry elder-statesman Chris Deering. In a presentation which was somehow both soulfully optimistic and apocalyptically jaded, he celebrated the artistic achievement of the industry whilst drawing everyones attention to the fact that the biggest challenge here is in the online space. If regulating the availability of static disc-based media is a huge challenge, how can either organisation possibly hope to control networked gameplay? It is of course, the same problem facing the entire online entertainment space. The problem of classification is but the beginning, the real challenge is how to practically restrict access.
Or perhaps not… On this showing the real challenge is apparently even getting the stakeholders in the regulatory discussion to talk to each other. Johnson announced that the BBFC have been trying to participate in a dialogue but that unfortunately, “ELSPA have instructed their members not to talk to us about Byron at all.”
Witnessing this extraordinary exchange, one couldn’t help but sense that we’re missing something here. Surely there must be a business development agenda here that’s being left unspoken? There must be some behind the scenes conflict that is precipitating this public showdown? Either way, this kind of display is hugely unhelpful for the industry moving forwards. The sorry affair put me in the disorientating position of finding myself agreeing with Margaret Hodge MP, who in her statement following the spat called on both parties to act in a ‘grown-up way’ in sorting this out.