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How seriously does the UK Government take child safety?

How seriously does the UK Government take child safety?

Tue 10 Apr 2012 7:09am GMT / 3:09am EDT / 12:09am PDT
PoliticsPublishing

Years after the new PEGI system was agreed upon the age ratings game is still stuck on pause. Johnny Minkley asks what has gone wrong.

The games industry loves an anniversary. In the past month alone here in the UK we've had 10 years of Xbox and PlayStation 3's fifth birthday to toast, wallowing in the nostalgia of it all while marveling at how far things have moved on.

There's two other anniversaries reached in the past fortnight you won't have heard much about: on March 27th it was four years since the publication of the Byron Review, which included sweeping recommendations for the overhaul of video game age ratings in Britain; meanwhile April 7th marked two years since the Digital Economy Bill was passed by Parliament, of which the implementation of PEGI as the statutory ratings system was a part.

And yet here we are, still waiting for the new system to be adopted. Still using the same dual PEGI/BBFC ratings on game boxes. Still noting the same confusion and ignorance among parents. And still sighing at the same old stories appearing in the press calling for more legislation against violent games. Precisely the sorts of things, in other words, the change in law was meant to deal with head on. What on earth is going on?

Despite the general excellence and importance of her report, Dr. Byron recommended a hybrid system that suited no-one. There's no need to reheat the bitter war of words between PEGI and the BBFC (the current statutory ratings body) that ensued: suffice it to say, after a fractious period of lobbying, PEGI won official backing in June 2009 as the single, all-encompassing ratings system, ultimately bundled into the Digital Economy Act a year later.

There's no need to reheat the bitter war of words between PEGI and the BBFC.

At that point, we were all led to believe, it was just a small matter of regulatory formalities. A few months maybe, but no more than that. After all, this was a serious issue with child safety at its heart - not something with which any industry or government would trifle.

In June 2010, the Video Standards Council, administrator of PEGI in the UK, told me its "best guess" for implementation was "early autumn, possibly September" that year. As that date neared, publishers began to worry that it wouldn't be ready in time to label products correctly for the all-important festive season. Ho ho ho.

Christmas came and went, and winter turned to spring. Nothing. Finally, in July, the VSC revealed that the Government had given a "definite date for implementation" of April 1, 2011 - a full year after the Digital Economy Act.

As time rolled on I was made aware of complex wrangling in the background over phenomenally dull but legally critical specifics of packaging and exactly what, if anything, the BBFC would be required to continue assessing.

"There's been some technical delays to iron out a few kinks - nothing fundamental, nothing serious. Nothing to worry about".

Ed Vaizey, UK minister for Culture, Media and Sport.

In January 2011, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey admitted to me that the joke was on us - April 1 was off: "There's been some technical delays to iron out a few kinks - nothing fundamental, nothing serious. Nothing to worry about".

The industry did not agree, to say the least. And frustration at this farce behind the scenes finally spilled over into the public domain in November of last year, when UKIE chairman Andy Payne blasted Government inaction on the issue.

"We have received repeated assurances from Government that the process is in hand, yet PEGI is still no closer to implementation," he fumed in a press release.

"It is also disappointing that a Government constantly - and quite rightly - pressuring industry to put measures in place to protect children - can't seem to deliver on its side of the bargain."

It's now five months since the last official word on the matter. So where are we today? I asked UKIE and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for an update.

"It is also disappointing that a Government constantly - and quite rightly - pressuring industry to put measures in place to protect children - can't seem to deliver on its side of the bargain."

Andy Payne, UKIE Chariman

UKIE forwarded me a statement from CEO Dr. Jo Twist. "The PEGI regulations are currently sitting for approval in Europe," she said. "We are not expecting any problems and the latest estimated implementation date is this July. We are already working with the industry to prepare a national campaign that will raise awareness of all the tools available to help people play games safely and sensibly, including age ratings and parental controls systems."

As for the DCMS: "This has been a complex process with varying requirements to balance - from parents, consumers, retailers, regulators, enforcement agencies and the industry. Government is entirely committed to implementing the changes to the regulatory regime for video games and it was important to make sure that when we do implement the new system, it works. We hope to complete the necessary legislative process to bring the regulations into law this summer."

So, the industry says July and the Government says summer. Hopefully. Well let's hope so, though you will understand if I don't race to the nearest bookies' to slap a large bet on it.

I don't for one moment underestimate the sheer, brain-addling torture or importance of getting the fine print right on this. Too much time, money and effort has already been expended for it not to be nailed to everyone's satisfaction at the first attempt.

But that cannot excuse the geologically slow progress. The Government may claim to treat the issue of child safety with the utmost seriousness, but the embarrassing reality of the PEGI pantomime sadly suggests otherwise.

Notwithstanding this depressing state of affairs, it is important to state that the existing ratings system in use is highly robust and mostly excellently observed across all sections of the industry, very much to everyone's credit.

As Dr. Byron established four years ago, and which remains true today, too many parents simply do not treat age ratings on games in the same way they would a movie.

The problem has always been consumer - specifically parental - awareness. Laws and squares on boxes alone will not stop young kids from playing Call of Duty, very often with their parents' blessing.

The law can stop a child buying an 18-rated game, but it can't stop a parent buying one for them. If a parent understands the nature of a game like Call of Duty and is happy with their kids playing it, that's entirely up to them.

But when PEGI MD Simon Little comments, in his introduction to the body's 2011 annual report, "We have almost reached the point where PEGI is only unknown to parents if they deliberately choose to ignore video games entirely", I'm afraid I have to say: nonsense.

As Dr. Byron established four years ago, and which remains true today, too many parents simply do not treat age ratings on games in the same way they would a movie, seeing a "game" as something inherently harmless, a virtual babysitter they need pay little attention to.

On the issue of adult content and violent games, the industry's house has long been in good order, a necessity borne of being the target of so many media witch hunts.

But it clearly cannot move forward with the no less important job of raising awareness until a ratings system years in the making emerges from this absurd and scandalous limbo.

3 Comments

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

735 430 0.6
I think this is just something about generational differences. I agree with your assessment that the main problem is with parents and specifically their perceptions of what games are (not all, of course, but a significant amount). The same thing used to happen with movies and also with music. Now that the kids who were exposed to inappropriate movies and music have all grown up to have kids of their own they advise their offspring appropriately and the same will happen/is happening with games.

The unfortunate truth of it all (as i advised the Byron review/government in their consultation) was that the existing system was good enough - it was perfect and spanned multiple sectors in symbolism (alcohol, films and games are the ones i'm aware of) - and thus the move to the new system and its complicated symbolism and caveats was unnessary and expensive for all parties concerned. The very changes enacted to the PEGI symbols that have made them more similar to BBFCs symbols would support this as well.

I don't know if it's true or not but I was always given the impression that the push for PEGI came mainly from the games industry itself - with a unified rating structure (and with PEGIs laxer testing and self-assessment methodology) the rating process would be quicker and cheaper. No idea about whether any friction between BBFC and the government played a part as well though...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 10th April 2012 9:56am

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Jas Purewal
Solicitor

35 0 0.0
Great article, Johnny.

It's worth bearing in mind too that the Byron Review went beyond the PEGI/BBFC/games classification debate (although that was an important part of her work). For example, back in March 2010 (she said this in a Progress Review report): "I recommend that the UKCCIS executive board commission the video games working group to examine and report back by September 2010 on whether a code of conduct supported by independent review for online and casual gaming is needed".

She also made recommendations about investigating whether there should be minimum standards for parental controls as well as child mobile safety.

As far as I'm aware, none of this has been actioned yet either.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jas Purewal on 10th April 2012 10:38am

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Tony Johns

520 12 0.0
The problem has always been consumer - specifically parental - awareness. Laws and squares on boxes alone will not stop young kids from playing Call of Duty, very often with their parents' blessing.

The law can stop a child buying an 18-rated game, but it can't stop a parent buying one for them. If a parent understands the nature of a game like Call of Duty and is happy with their kids playing it, that's entirely up to them.


That that is the problem that will never be solved.

You know, we should all take these rating systems with a bit of a further understanding.

content rating systems are only there to let the parents know as a recommendation of what age group this game is targeted for.

But no law, or any sort of ranting system by law, can ever chance a parent's additude of thinking what is the best way to raise their kids.

If you are horrified at a parent allowing their kid to play Call of Duty, then think of the horror that these kids would face when many parents blissfully allow their children to be exposed to the horrors on real life violence on the news each night when they sit down for dinner.

Posted:2 years ago

#3

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