The Average Gamer

Count Pixel and the Byron Report

Count Pixel of the BCS responded to a couple of Times articles referencing the recent Byron Review report “Safer Children in a Digital World”. He points out some misinformation in the Times and is calling for a change to the ratings system.

Count Pixel:

“…parents need to understand games ratings in the same way they needed to learn about film certificates. But it appears the PEGI system is a toothless guide and should be scrapped. Games should have the same BBFC certificates as films so parents and shop staff know where they stand.”

I am getting rather sick of repeatedly pointing out to people that those games with potentially distressing content already have the same BBFC certificates as films. Shop staff know exactly where they stand – my first day of work at Blockbuster Video was spent watching training videos about the Data Protection Act, the Video Standards Council and BBFC ratings. I was then subjected to a repeat of the same principles by the manager on duty and I think there may even have been a test.

Here’s the gist: If I supplied a BBFC-rated video or game to a person below the stated age, the store would be given a hefty fine, both me and the store may be prosecuted and I would probably be booted out the front door. It’s not complicated. We had mystery shoppers, for god’s sake. We knew the risks.

Furthermore, if an adult wishes to purchase a BBFC rated game or video and intends to give it to an under-aged person, they have every right to do so. Shop staff are not there to inflict the BBFC’s moral standards upon the nation’s children. We nod and smile and politely point out that this game contains violence and swearing and adult content, but in the end, it’s the parent’s decision. And that’s the way it should be.

Count Pixel again:

…the current ratings, the PEGI ones, aren’t enforced and games need something else. This is something I agree with. Games can have a 16+ rating, but shops aren’t prevented from selling them to anyone under that age. Unless something is a legally enforceable, what’s the point in having it?

Well, let me think. Guidance and information, maybe? Is knowledge so undervalued these days that we need a black and white code of law before we can make decisions?

The usefulness of the PEGI system is in the way that it doesn’t mollycoddle us. It’s simply a guide to content that can help us decide whether or not a game is likely to be appropriate for someone. When you’re dealing with young teenagers, it’s good to know when topics like racial discrimination or drug usage may come up. When buying for children, it’s useful to know that such topics will definitely NOT appear. Parents don’t have the 15+ hours it takes to play and thoroughly vet a game before letting their kids play it. Removing the PEGI system will just deprive parents and guardians of a valuable shorthand to the games’ content.

The BBFC logo may be familiar, but unlike PEGI or the American ESRB system, it provides no useful guidance as to why the film or game received such a rating. Some adults are open about sex, some are more relaxed about violence, others know their kids are immune to horror scenes. Regressing to BBFC labelling removes that choice.

Regardless of this ideal, it’s clear from the Byron Report (section 7.23 onwards) that understanding of the BBFC and PEGI system is still limited. I agree fully with the recommendation in section 7.32:

“I recommend that the video games industry (developers, publishers, retailers) works with the BBFC and PEGI administrators to develop and deliver a comprehensive, high profile communications campaign about video games. I recommend that this is funded by industry with support from Government on reaching parents through the channels available, such as Parent Know How”

The PEGI content symbols are too open to misinterpretation. Game Contains Spiders? Hospitals? Multiplayer? I firmly believe that they need to be changed. The report goes on to mention making better use of existing resources like Ask About Games. Soon after AAG launched in 2005, I pointed out some problems with, not least of which was the fact that there’s no way to literally ask about games. I checked back in 2007 and little had changed, so I emailed ELSPA’s info address. In return, I got an auto-reply assuring me that the person responsible would reply to all emails upon return. Heard nothing since.

It seems that ELSPA are trying but just don’t know how to teach the non-gaming population. I’ve found a few piles of AskAboutGames flyers in GAME shops over the past couple of years, but little more. Do people often read flyers that sit next to cashiers? I usually assume that they’re advertising and ignore them.

Finally, I disagree with the sections 7.33 and 7.34 of the report

I do not think that only putting ’adult’ games on a statutory footing is sufficient to inform parents of potential risks or to protect children from potential risks. One way to strengthen the current system would be to extend the requirement for statutory classification to games which currently attract a 12+ rating…

…I recommend that future reforms of the classification system should incorporate an extension of the statutory basis to include video games which would otherwise receive a 12+ PEGI rating.

It’s not the principle that I object to – if games can legally be sold to people, they will be. That’s the way profit-driven enterprises work and legal limitations are the only real way to control distribution. It’s the content of 12-rated games that I feel doesn’t need regulation. Most of the criteria for a 12+ rating are things you’re exposed to in everyday life – “mild” swearing (“shit”, “bollocks” “bastard”), gambling and fantasy violence (TV). Here’s a sample of 12+ games from PEGI:

  • Black and White
  • Guitar Hero III
  • Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers
  • Age of Empires
  • Alien Hominid
  • Jumper: Griffin’s Story
  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
  • The Sims 2

Do we really want to criminalise people for selling these games to a 10 year old? Bearing in mind, if anyone younger than 10 is shopping alone in my (hypothetical) games store, I’d be reluctant to serve them at all.