ELSPA vs BBFC

The daggers are out in a very public spat between the organisation that lobbies on behalf of the UK

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.

Byron Review: Full Text
Byron Review: Executive Summary
BBFC
PEGI

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.