The BBFC has been classifying games for twenty years. With the recent Digital Britain report by the UK Government, that is all set to change. As has been well documented on many gaming sites, the report has recommended that Pan European Gaming Information (PEGI) take over this duty. What kind of legacy has the BBFC left behind?
Under the Video Recordings Act, created in the 1980s, most video games are exempt from BBFC classification. However, they may lose this exemption and therefore require a formal classification, if they depict: “gross violence against humans or animals, human sexual activity, human urinary or excretory functions or genital organs”.
On older consoles, such was the low quality of graphics that many of these depictions would be very hard to make out, thus few games ever received ratings. As the visual fidelity of games accelerated ever faster, more and more titles had to be rated. The BBFC also states that it rates all media under three main guidelines.
- Is the material in conflict with the law?
- Is the material, at the age group concerned, likely to be harmful?
- Is the material, at the age group concerned, clearly unacceptable to broad public opinion?
The second guideline is one that sits most uncomfortably with game developers and players alike. If a game is rated as 18+, just what could be harmful to a player to participate in? Given quality of film special effects when it comes to violence, how could a game depict anything like the detail present, especially with the new dawn of High Definition video. It is this question that has seen many studies into the effects of violent content on players and how best to manage this. Although as we move ever closer to photo-realistic graphics, this argumaent may raise its head again.
As the BBFC website states: “Much research has been done worldwide into the effects of violent video games on behaviour and attitudes of players, but none has yet proved an incontrovertible link between aggression acted out within the context of a game, and harmful behaviour in real life.” If this is so, then why was there a need to refuse Manhunt 2 classification on these shores?
“The BBFC is saddled with legislation posited on a highly dubious notion of ‘harm’, which forces unfortunate staff to spend countless hours trying to figure out if self evidently adults-only material is infringing a thoroughly ill-conceived law”, said Julian Petley, professor of Screen Media and Journalism in the School of Arts at Brunel University.
With its ratings guidelines based on legislation created in the 1980s, it is no wonder there was difficulty with the classification process. For years industry experts have argued that the system was antiquated, out of touch and only fit for movies, not digital media. Bravely the BBFC fought on but the emergence of the PEGI was to finally end its reign.
The PEGI states that its role is “to help European parents make informed decisions on buying computer games“. The organization is endorsed by the ‘big three’ console makers: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. The PEGI ratings process was created through consultation with games publishers and the International Software Federation of Europe (ISFE). The PEGI uses a system of basic graphics to denote specific content within a game, from drug taking to racism are all displayed in supposedly simple to comprehend icons read at the back of the game’s box. While they were not mandatory like the BBFC, the PEGI ratings still appear on every European games release.
The simple icon-based ratings structure of the PEGI will soon be changing however after being roundly criticised by the BBFC and experts in the media world. You only need to have a look through some of the blogs on this very site to read ridicule at what are very vague icons when not accompanied by an explanatory leaflet or poster. At the time of the Byron Report, a report into child safety in the digital world and online, recommended “we need to improve on the systems already in place to help parents”.
A recommendation that many saw as an endorsement of the BBFC system. That was why so many were surprised at the findings of the Digital Britain report to give the PEGI control over ratings, it seemed almost certain a reform of the BBFC would be in place before giving control to what is a European institution, as opposed to our BRITISH Board of Film Classification.
Perhaps the report felt that changing the icons present in the PEGI system was an easier undertaking than changing the structure of the antiquated BBFC. The PEGI will be working closely with the Government on a new system for ratings, one that will no doubt be supported with a massive advertising campaign and awareness drive.
Mark Rawlinson, Director General of the European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), commented before the Digital Britain report: “Gamers no longer just play with their mates but play online, and we need a system that reflects this situation and protects their interests. The independently administered PEGI system is the right solution for child safety.” Rawlinson also added that his organisation would be more than willing to help fund the PEGI if it were to take control, he said: “Naturally we will support the system with a multi million pound campaign that helps parents understand that the right choice for real protection of their children is PEGI”.
When asked for my opinion on the whole “BBFC vesrus PEGI” debate back in November 2008, I wrote:
“It may be that neither the BBFC or PEGI have the solution. A combination of both systems may be the way forward. The PEGI is, an industry body and has very close ties to developers and publishers, those who know the medium best. The BBFC lacks this industry perspective, something that cannot be over-estimated in importance. What it does have is a widely recognized system of ratings that parents immediately recognise.”
Now Rawlinson, along with others in the industry, will be glad to see that the future of games classification in this country is with an organisation that has the endorsement of the three major console manufacturers and every games software publisher. As do I, with the right planning, the PEGI can finally bring video game ratings in the UK into the 21st century.