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Doing it for the Kids

Tue 25 Mar 2008 8:00am GMT / 4:00am EDT / 1:00am PDT

EA's Keith Ramsdale adds his voice to the pro-PEGI campaign

The Byron Review, looking into the effects on children off violence in videogames and on the internet, will be published on Thursday.

Continuing our build-up looking at the issue the industry faces around age ratings, censorship and the education of parents, GamesIndustry.biz talks to Keith Ramsdale, VP and general manager of Electronic Arts in the UK and Ireland.

Here he explains why he backs PEGI over the BBFC, how the industry can work to change the mainstream view of games, and the importance of putting out a positive message.

Q: GamesIndustry.biz: What do you think the advantages of PEGI are?

Keith Ramsdale: There's a bunch, really. There are some standout points and some supporting points. The standout point first of all is that it's a European system that works in 28 countries. They rate something like 2000 games, compared to the [258] that the BBFC rates - but primarily they're a videogames classification system, and therefore understand it, know it, and can work within the realms of what videogames are doing.

Then we get a far more appropriate outcome for the consumer, and they are a tough bunch. Last year there were something like 42 games that were rated '18 plus' by PEGI, and of those the BBFC decided to down-rate 19 of them to a '15' and two of them down to a '12' - so when it comes to protecting the consumer, PEGI proves to be more robust I think.

Then, another point on the European stance - we're all pretty much European publishers, and if you've got a development studio creating products, understanding the classification rules that work across Europe, rather than them having to understand 28 countries individually, you'll get a much more consistent output.

While that helps the publisher - for sure it makes life easier - the benefit for the consumers is that they can be sure the developers are working towards the right level of content.

Q: Wouldn't you consider the different territories within Europe to have differing viewpoints on what is, and what isn't, acceptable as videogame content, and how does PEGI go about approaching that situation?

I think that's a valid point, and if you look at what's going on in the UK, what's the purpose of the Byron Review? It's fundamentally about protecting children from inappropriate content, and as an industry we thoroughly support it.

I think then that if you looked at the fact that the BBFC gives lower ratings, I think you can argue very strongly there that PEGI is very robust in what it's doing. I just think that if the whole premise of this is about child protection, then I think PEGI is proving to do a better job.

Q: Child protection is the key, undoubtedly - but do you think the industry can objectively self-regulate, or is there a place for an independent body?

I'm not sure it's necessary, and you've only got to look at the ESRB in the US to understand just how well a self-regulatory body can work. If you look at PEGI, it hasn't really put a foot wrong.

What seems to be on offer now in the UK from the Byron Reviewâ¦rather than having PEGI as part of the solution and the BBFC as another part - which as an aside is downright confusing for consumers - PEGI so far has done a great job in Europe with very little controversy at all.

And with the ESRB you've got a body there that does have quite sharp teeth - if a retailer fails to comply and sells a Mature-rated game to a minor, the ESRB will come down on them, as they would with publishers.

Even though it's self-regulatory, even though we can self-classify - if we classify incorrectly, then we will be imposed with significant fines. So I think the ESRB proves that it doesn't have to be legislative, it can be self-regulatory, but there are certain processes that need to be in place to make sure that you've got that.

I would welcome PEGI having those teeth.

Q: Do you think legislation would be a bad thing then?

I don't know if it would be a good or a bad thing, I just don't think it's necessarily, because it we get a self-regulatory body working properly, there's just no need for it.

I think what needs to happen is for the government to give PEGI that power of classification.

Q: Do you think the industry needs to reassure the government on that point?

I don't know - I don't feel that we need to. If you look at the way that ELSPA is engaged with government, and certainly the CMS Select Committee, and the way that the Byron Review is ultimately a conduit to government thinking in our space, I think that's what we're doing just now.

I'm finding - reassuringly - that a lot of the messaging is really consistent, and we have got a 'hair on fire, which way do we turn' scenario. We're all very pragmatic and confident that the feedback and evidence we're being given is leading in a good direction.

So I think that bit's covered. I think ELSPA has stepped up terrifically when it comes to the government-facing side of things. There isn't one of us on the ELSPA board or in the membership that's doing something just to make life easier for ourselves. We want to be seen as a credible industry, which we are.

We've already got a robust system in place - it's confusing because there are two bodies, that needs to be fixed - so we're coming at it from what's best for the consumer, and there isn't anyone that can see another way than the PEGI way.

Q: There's been a concern among some sections of the games industry that government doesn't take the industry very seriously?

I think that was true, perhaps 8-12 months ago. But I can tell you again, in my personal experience as a[n ELSPA] board member, their interest is very high. Obviously it's difficult, because ministers change role, so you're striking up relationships with other ministers.

So there's where the departments come into their own, and particularly our work with the DCMS and DBERR is proving they take us seriously.

So I think the consistency is in the government departments, and now that they realise the benefits of a cultural economy in the UK, which is getting a lot of airtime at the moment, I think they're realising very quickly that the videogame industry is something to be taken seriously.

And I think they're showing it, I honestly do.

Q: Two things that many people are talking to with regard to age ratings are the role of parents, and the role of retail - do you think there are any lingering problems with retail these days?

No, and I think there are three key things that need to happen.

The first is that the publisher needs to be compliant against the classification, so if our content is '18', we put '18' on that box.

The second part is retailers need to make sure they don't inappropriate games to minors, or indeed point out to a parent that it's '18' - and that it's a content-driven rating, not skill-driven.

And the final piece is for us to educate the public. Tanya Byron has said publicly that she wants the industry, and that includes retail, to do its part. And then it's about parental control.

Q: That last part is the hardest, surely? How do we educate parents more?

Well it's in a number of ways, and some work has been started. There are various websites - Askaboutgames, etc - which on their own aren't enough, but are good back-up.

I think retail is a very key part of that, because retail can display information at a correct information point, and every retailer now works with a barcode scanner - it's very simple to have a system that flashes up an 18-rated game, or a 15-rated game and ask if the consumer is of the compliant age.

So I think they can do a lot for us without any great cost, just through in-store practice.

I think if you look again to ELSPA, we're looking as a trade body to have more PR. We're putting more resource to PR, and that will be centred largely around consumer education.

So we don't have to go and spend on multi-million pound TV campaigns on education the public - there are many ways of getting to the public in an effective way, and it's about creating the awareness - I think we can do that.

Q: Do you find some mainstream press agendas disappointing?

I think as an industry we haven't helped ourselves in the last few years, because we haven't gone out with the plethora of positive stories there are about our industry.

Any education expert would concur on the benefits of videogame playing - not least the child development and education benefits. There are many people out there supporting that.

I think additionally, the strength we have as an entertainment form isn't celebrated, and I think as an industry, and one of the debates at the moment is how we continually and positively put out that message.

Because the issue is, we only ever defend negative messages - which are often incorrect. We know they're usually myths that are put out there, then exaggerated and sensationalised.

As this business moves more to a casual audience, and is less reliant - and that isn't to say not reliant - on mature games, it becomes more like the film, music and television industries. Those industries are all about having great content delivered to consumers in an entertaining form, of which some will be adult-themed, and a great part of it will be family- and mass market-themed.

So I think the opportunities ahead of us are much greater than they have been in the past, and I think the work that people like Nintendo have done is part of that, the work that EA is doing - where we do try to bring games as an entertainment form like in Trafalgar Square during last year's London Games Festival - and I think positive, pro-active effort from publishers and from ELSPA to celebrate this wonderful art form and entertainment form we're in.

And I think the Byron Review will be a catalyst, because I think it will be a pragmatic report that I think will on the whole - if not completely - be positive views of the games industry. And from that we can really start to motor.

Q: The London Games Festival can be a good vehicle for that positivity?

Yes, the London Games Festival was a good success last year, and my only desire is to see more publishers come on board. I would love to see every publisher come on board.

The fact that we had the event last year and EA was really the only company making a big splash was good for us as EAâ¦but if everyone had done that, imagine the attention we'd have had around the Festival.

LGF worked last year, but I'm really positive about this year's one.

Keith Ramsdale is VP and general manager for the UK and Ireland at Electronic Arts. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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