VSC: "PEGI is stricter than the BBFC. We're not ashamed of that"
With the law set to change next month, the ratings body that will have the power to ban video games explains what it all means
"I can well understand the frustration on the outside," says Laurie Hall, director general of the Video Standards Council, reflecting on the five-year marathon to simplify age ratings for games in the UK. "We were frustrated as well, but I think we had a greater appreciation of what had to be put in place."
Exasperation with an excruciatingly complicated, drawn-out process - that began way back in 2007 when psychologist Dr. Tanya Byron was commissioned to produce a report on child safety in the digital world - is well documented. But now, finally, the end - or, rather, a fresh start - is in sight, with the formerly voluntary PEGI system scheduled to take over legal responsibility for UK games ratings from the British Board of Film Classification [BBFC] next month.
"The percentage of PEGI games at '18' has crept up over recent years, but it's still less than 10 percent [of all games]"
Laurie Hall, VSC
The subject matter may be bone dry and mind-numbingly detail-laden, but the cause is simple and important: to better protect kids from unsuitable, potentially damaging content. And the way to do that is first to fix the ratings system - done! - and second, make sure everyone knows about it. That starts now.
For Hall, whose organisation handles PEGI in the UK, the message is clear: "Not all games are for children". And that's the new mantra adopted by the VSC as it now transforms - for clarity's sake - into the Games Rating Authority: "Games aren't just for kids. Be responsible".
In the wake of E3, with developers and commentators lining up to lambast the extreme violence on show, it's a timely one too. "As I understand it, the average ago of the UK gamer is 34," says Hall. "The percentage of PEGI games at '18' has crept up over recent years, but it's still less than 10 percent [of all games].
"Perhaps that reflects that gamers are getting older. You have to adopt the attitude that adults, particularly 34 year-olds, have to a great extent the right to watch and play what they choose to."
Hall realises, as I wrote last week, the issue isn't that there's too much violence - a misconception.
The real problem is with parents not realising that games content can now be every bit as graphic as anything in a movie. "A lot of parents wouldn't allow their 12-year-old to watch an '18'-rated film," Hall agrees. "But play an '18'-rated game? They're more inclined to. We've got to get the message across."
Previously it was the BBFC's legal responsibility to classify games with adult content. Now PEGI has that power we can expect to see more '18' ratings on UK shelves than ever before.
"A lot of parents wouldn't allow their 12-year-old to watch an '18'-rated film. But play an '18'-rated game? They're more inclined to"
Laurie Hall, VSC
"PEGI is stricter than the BBFC," insists Hall - and the numbers back him up. "We're not ashamed of that at all, because the methodology of rating films is not appropriate for rating games. Games and films are totally different.
"The new law doesn't fundamentally change our processes," he adds. "It formalises what we've been doing since 2003. What's changed is the PEGI ratings themselves now have the full force of the law at '12', '16' and '18'."
The entire point of the exercise was to clear up the consumer-bemusing situation where PEGI and BBFC logos were both slapped on a game box. Now you will only ever see the PEGI rating, except - there was always going to be a "but" - where there's video content on the disc that's not part of the game itself, e.g. a trailer.
"PEGI will rate games, the BBFC will rate films," he clarifies. "The basic rule is the highest rating will go on the box and the disc."
The BBFC will also retain responsibility for the 'R18' rating - hardcore porn, in other words. "I hasten to add," says Hall, "since 2003 we have never come across a game that has content even approaching the 'R18' level. It really is an industry of its own and the BBFC has decades of experience dealing with that."
There's one further big change in the switch from BBFC to PEGI, as Hall explains: "We will have the power to ban a game in the UK." While that sounds menacingly dramatic and is great fodder for mischevious headline writers, the reality is pretty mundane.
"This, if history follows through, will only arise very rarely indeed," says Hall. "No game has been banned under the Video Recordings Act since 1985. There were two attempts by the BBFC - Carmageddon in the '90s and Manhunt 2 in 2007 - but both those decisions were reversed on appeal."
"No game has been banned under the Video Recordings Act since 1985. There were two attempts by the BBFC - Carmageddon and Manhunt 2 - but both those decisions were reversed on appeal"
Laurie Hall, VSC
What matters is having a system in place that is transparent, fair and legally tight - and one which, as a result, required the Government's approval. So, an Appeals Panel has been set-up, chaired by Baroness Kennedy, a barrister. And beyond that, there's the Expert Advisory Panel, comprising Tanya Byron, media violence specialist Dr Guy Cumberbatch, and Geoffrey Roberston QC.
"Why we set up the Expert Advisory Panel is the ability to ban a game under the law is very complex - it's an expert matter," explains Hall. "We can only ban something if it is likely to cause harm to the viewer or society in general. You interpret that!
"The Panel will not be making the decision - what they will do is advise the designated officers of the factors they must consider in reaching their decision. It was put in place to make sure if a banning decision ever was made it was as watertight as it possibly could be."
There's clear relief within the industry that the agonisingly slow regulatory work is done at last and trade body UKIE's "Control.Collaborate.Create" public awareness campaign can begin in earnest.
But there are still serious questions being asked. It's taken years to get here, in which time gaming itself has changed radically, with content now consumed in ways that didn't exist when the process began. Is PEGI being left behind?
"It's a challenge to keep up with the different systems, but I think we are," states Hall. "We've been rating online games for quite a number of years - in exactly the same way as games made available in shops."
The ultimate prize is a universal ratings system for gaming apps distributed globally. "Good luck with that," you might think. But Hall is surprisingly chipper about its prospects.
"It's not insurmountable," he maintains. "But if you're going global it has to be voluntary. If you try and do it globally using the law, it's too stifling and it takes a long time. With a voluntary system, if the spirit is willing, you can achieve a great deal."
And he does, handily enough, have a ready-made example. "Ten years ago if you'd said, can you introduce a ratings system for physical products for 30 countries in Europe, I think most people would have said no. We've done it. It's difficult to keep ahead of the game; it's a question of trying to keep as close to it as you can."
"Ten years ago if you'd said, can you introduce a ratings system for physical products for 30 countries in Europe, I think most people would have said no. We've done it"
But that's for another day - or, possibly, lifetime if the past half-decade is anything to go by. And now the UK's new system is here, what? We've had a robust, carefully observed ratings system for years already. Ah, but people either didn't understand it, know about it, or pay the slightest attention to it.
There's only so much one can do about the latter, of course. And that's why - with all due respect to everyone who has painstakingly negotiated the process to this point - the really hard work begins now.
"We all know what PEGI means," says Hall. "I think it's incumbent on the industry and the VSC and UKIE to keep on putting the message forward in the most effective way and as often as possible."
Over to us, then.