Games are rated in the same way as film and DVD releases, but confusion still reigns in consumers' minds
Interactive entertainment is a hot potato, the subject of headlines, parliamentary discussion and media scrutiny. At the centre of the conflagration is the old debate about media effects: what (if any) real-life impact does playing a video game have on the people who play them?
The hundreds of games released every year tend to be lumped into the same bucket, accused of violence, sexual promiscuity and other content considered inappropriate for younger audiences. Yet, according to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, (ELSPA), less than 3 per cent of annual releases contains content that is rated 18. The problem is that many detractors appear unaware of the variety of gaming experiences that are on offer.
As a relatively new entertainment medium, games are generally misunderstood. On the one hand, most people think of them as kids' toys. On the other, the technological advances in game technology over the past 20 years allow designers to create political statements, hard-hitting dramas, and fiercely cutting social commentaries that are decades beyond the innocent blips of Pong. The Atari generation has grown up, and so have their tastes in leisure activities. Games are now developed for all age brackets - from infants to adults.
In the UK, all video games released to market are voluntarily submitted to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and are assessed like DVD and video releases. The classification board works closely with the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) system, a consortium of 29 countries.
PEGI was established in 2003 by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe to ensure that parents and other consumers were informed about games that may be unsuitable for children. Although it's voluntary, the programme does have the support of all major publishers and console manufacturers, including PlayStation, Microsoft and Nintendo.
When the games reach the board, the applications and the products are viewed and given an appropriate certificate, with the age clearly marked on the front of the package. The games are also tagged with icons that indicate potentially offensive content, from discrimination, gambling, drug abuse, sex or violence.
BBFC and PEGI
In the UK, the BBFC adds its own familiar icons to indicate U for "universal", through to 18 for adults. In contrast to PEGI's ratings, which are for information only, the BBFC's ratings are legally binding, and anyone caught selling inappropriate content to a minor will be fined. When a game is denied a BBFC rating, such as Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2, which was submitted earlier this year, it is effectively banned. Only two games have been banned in the initiative's 21-year history.
The interactivity of games can make a difference in ratings. The examiners work to a similar remit for both games and film, but a game may receive a higher rating if a player's action leads a character towards a behaviour that may be offensive.
At the GameCity event in Nottingham in October, BBFC examiner Jim Cliff explained that, for example, an instance of bad language in a film may result in a lower rating than a game, particularly if the language in the game is triggered by a player's action (such as pressing a button, passing a particular location) and can be repeated again and again.
Cliff admits that parents may know what a 15 rating for a film means, but may not understand what gives a game a "15" rating. To combat this disconnect, industry bodies have implemented publicly-facing education programmes, websites and white papers with varying degrees of success. It is hoped that the issue will be clarified in March next year in the results of the Byron Review, spearheaded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport set up to critically examine research on the effects of violent video games.