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.

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Latest comments (8)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Perhaps Keith Vaz can now campaign to have age ratings introduced for books. They contain far more violence than video games and, amazingly, there is no protection for our children from this evil.

The reality here is that age ratings have a limited effect. Sensible parenting is far more important. When adults buy GTA for kids you know there is a problem.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany9 years ago
PEGI is more strict than BBFC, true.

but PEGI never forced a game to be censored, this only happened when the studio wanted to (Twisted Metal) or when the EU law demanded it by law it (Agarest: Generations of War 2).

If they need to be ashamed about something, is of all that movies that still nowadays are ridiculously censored in UK.

So thanks and goodbye BBFC
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 9 years ago
I noticed last night Mass Effect 3 is a 15 BBFC but a 18 PEGI
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Christopher Garratty Associate Counsel, Activision Blizzard9 years ago
Firstly you are comparing apples to oranges. A sentence saying "He was eviscerated." is nothing like as graphic as showing a scene of evisceration. Reading requires a level of knowledge from the reader. Watch a foreign horror film. Then read a foreign horror novel. Assuming you don't know the language, I can guess which will have more of an impact on you.

Secondly, one of the reasons for the PEGI logos is exactly that, it's so that parents can parent sensibly. A universal system will allow a parent to look at the box and make an assessment as to whether or not the 18 rated product with bad language, sexual references and drug use is suitable for their child, no matter what age they are.

Finally, if an adult buys GTA for their kid knowing what it is, and how mature their child is, then there really isn't a problem. There's only a problem when adults don't understand what they are buying for their children. PEGI seeks to address that lack of understanding.
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Tommy Thompson Lecturer in BSc (Hons) Computer Games Programming., University of Derby9 years ago
@Andrew: You can see the rating on the PEGI website:

While it's not gore or horror driven, the plot of the game is pretty much fighting back against galactic genocide. The tone of the language, violence and plot is in keeping with its audience. While I do think 18 is excessive, I can certainly see their point of view.
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Chris Berry Producer, Microsoft Studios9 years ago
As far as I understand it, the key difference with how the BBFC and PEGI rate material is that the BBFC strives to put everything in context, whereas PEGI intentionally remove all context.

While doing film at college, a member of the BBFC came in to speak about how they work. He was very insistent on the importance of context, and showed an example of a Simpsons episode. In it, Homer walks into a video store and watches, on their TV, a trailer for the McBain film - containing McBain's partner being brutally murdered: (sorry for the lack of English version available).
Given the fact we're watching a film within a TV show through the eyes of a cartoon character, the content is far enough removed from the viewer that people aren't going to be able to even remotely believe it as real. This lesson stuck with me.

Chatting with PEGI a few years ago, I found this coming to mind, as they discussed how a large part of their pitch for why they should take over from BBFC was based on Mass Effect 1 having a violent impaling death. BBFC gave the game a 12, as it's a few seconds in a 30 hour game, and there is some context for the death. PEGI grabbed the clip, removed all context and showed it to MPs to say - "Would you rate this violent clip a 12 certificate? No? Then we're your men; we'd have given it an 18." The fact it's in a cutscene and out of your control, (IIRC it was an accident) and is something that could never be imitated in real life didn't concern them.

Eurogamer had a good article a while ago on how PEGI's approach can lead to 'odd' decisions (Castle Crashers being a 16, for example):

Viewing things in context leads to open discussions about meaning, intent and viewer/player's emotions at that time. To me these are all very important things, and has meant that the BBFC has gained a very good reputation for films in recent years. Ignoring every surrounding aspect and concentrating on just that instance means PEGIs ratings are prone fall out of line with what moral questioning would have us believe true.
A one-off violent act by a character whom then has an epiphany, a breakdown for what he's done and a redemption, is reduced to just an act of violence. Personally, I think context is everything.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Chris Berry on 26th June 2012 5:04pm

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Sam Maxted Journalist / Community / Support 9 years ago

Regarding books, A Game of Thrones is a good example. Violent, with depictions of paedophilia (one female character is much younger in the book than in the TV series), incest & rape.

The PEGI ratings are fine. It's parents who think "it's only a game and games are for kids" that are the problem. Just because it's playable on a console doesn't mean it's suitable for children - just as South Park isn't suitable for them just because it's animated.
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Christopher Garratty Associate Counsel, Activision Blizzard9 years ago
That's a massive logical fallacy. "Mass Effect 3 is rated PEGI 18 + Mass Effect 3 is probably ok for my kid to play = Everything 18 is ok for my kid to play." I'm not sure just how uninformed this particular mum is supposed to be, but if we gear all our systems toward the most stupid people in the world then we're going to need pretty big boxes so that we can spell out everything to them (and we'll alienate the people with a double digit or better IQ). I think that we have to presume a certain level of intelligence and engagement from parents, even though we know some (many?) fall below that standard. PEGI's task now is to make sure that as many people as possible are familiar with and understand the system.

As to devaluing the 18 rating by overusing it, it's not like PEGI hand out 18 ratings to all titles. In fact, as you can see from PEGI's annual report just under 1 in 10 titles were rated 18 (fewer than any other rating) and less than 1/4 of all titles rated were given a 16 or higher rating, whereas 3 ratings were far and away the most numerous. So I don't really think that your argument holds water when compared to the facts.
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