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BBFC's David Cooke

David Cooke explains the BBFC's move into online ratings, Pegi, and its passion for videogames

When Dr Tanya Byron released her Review into the safety of children online and with regard to videogames, one of the headline proposals involved a significant change to the way that games are rated in the UK.

In suggesting that the statutory age rating be lowered to 12, the BBFC will now have to rate around half of all games. This along with the increasing prevalence of online media presents the BBFC with new challenges - some of which it hopes to answer with its new internet rating scheme

Here David Cooke, director of the BBFC, talks about the new scheme, refusing Manhunt 2 a certification, Pegi and BBFC's view on videogames as a medium. You said won't apply to online games like World of Warcraft but will it apply to digital distribution services, like Steam?
David Cooke

There are some complicated demarcations because there are obviously different types of online games.

What we're saying is that this scheme doesn't cover games except where you're talking about the retail of what would otherwise be a physical game.

For online games, as commonly understood, we've already got Pegi Online, which is a different system. It doesn't have the kind of detail or depth of content information that we have. It doesn't, at the moment, have a big aggregator signed up that we're hoping to get in the next few weeks and months.

But we can work through Pegi Online because we were involved in developing Pegi Online and it recognises our symbols, so all of the material that we provide can actually feed into Pegi Online. The BBFC has talked about the resistance it's getting from the games industry, do you believe that has anything to do with the actions you took over Manhunt 2, and in hindsight do you regret taking any of those actions?
David Cooke

I don't think it plays a very big part. I know it has been mentioned in some of the games industry comments on the Byron report, but if you have a set of guidelines for classification you have to follow them where they lead. You have to take the decision you think is right. We certainly thought that it was right to reject the initial submission of Manhunt 2.

We thought that the dialogue needed to go a bit further, the publisher wanted to call a halt and it then went to appeal, but Tanya Byron is very clear in her report that, for the UK and for now, a reject power is needed as a last resort.

The fact is that Pegi would not be able to have a reject power because we know that not all of the member states would agree to that. You have to call the decision as you see it and take what you see as the right decision.

If you've got an independent appeals body, like we have, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and you just have to accept that.

It does have an influence I think that goes wider than the individual titles, because it means that you can have dialogue with publishers about other titles and say, 'well there's a concern here but maybe if the marketing is right and it's very clear that it's not being marketed at under 18s, then you may be able to sort that out'.

It's the fact that you have the reject power, even though you don't use it, which enables that to happen. Wouldn't issues around marketing come down to the ASA rather than the BBFC?
David Cooke

The marketing is not something we've got any direct control over. We can't go out to publishers and say 'you will market in this way and not in that way'. The limit of the control we've got is whether our symbols are being used properly.

But it's clearly a very important factor with a game like GTA IV whether it's being marketed responsibly or not, because we're clear on GTA IV - it's fine at 18 but it's not a game for kids and so it shouldn't be marketed that way.

It's a kind of lever you have in a discussion about issues that may arise when you classify. Do you think Manhunt 2 was aimed at a younger audience?
David Cooke

Manhunt 2 was a very difficult case, because it's quite distinguishable from most of the other strong upper end 18 titles with the just unrelenting focus on it.

There's a tipping point I think in the game, where once you've discovered how to evade the hunters the focus then shifts to exploring the kills on the three levels and with the huge variety of everyday weapons, so it's an unusual game.

But there is certainly a real concern with a game like that - that it will end up being played by younger kids. In the course of all the various hearings over Manhunt 2, examples were given of kids aged 14 or 15 who'd been playing the original Manhunt. Isn't that the same case for movies and TV shows?
David Cooke

It can be but the difference is, and this is one of the main points Tanya Byron was making, that at the moment games and games classifications are less well understood than film and DVD classification.

So there isn't quite the same view taken of San Andreas as there might be of Hostel or Saw, not that I'm trying to compare the two.

Until we can get the levels of awareness up, which I think was one of the thrusts of Byron, then you do have to be a little bit more cautious. Some in the games industry has expressed concerns that as a medium it is being singled out and treated more unfairly than cinema. Could you not appeal to the industry by agreeing not to reject titles?
David Cooke

We won't rule out use of the reject power but it's only in very very exceptional periods. We've only used it twice in the past ten years, so you can easily exaggerate this.

We do reject films as well, we rejected something earlier this year called Murder-Set-Pieces. My view is that Murder-Set-Pieces is several degrees beyond anything in Saw or Hostel.

The point I want to get across about this is - I've got people in this building, about ten examiners who do games, and these are some of the best gamers I've ever come across and these are people who are passionate about games and know a great deal about it.

I know the Pegi testers as well, and I think the people here have a greater expertise and knowledge of games. The thing that's getting lost in this argument is that we actually like games and we're enthusiastic about games and we do buy into the argument that some games are beautiful and aesthetically satisfying. Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus and so on. A recent governmental study in the US found that the videogame ratings were more widely upheld in stores that that of movies. Don't you think that the Pegi system could become more widely regarded if given time?
David Cooke

It's difficult to know. I've got nothing against Pegi, I'm involved in Pegi and I've done various bits of work with them. But every study that's been done here has shown a marked differential, it's not surprising given that we've been around nearly a hundred years and that our symbols are very well known.

I just think that our content information, whether it's the single strap line or the longer stuff that appeals more, but the Pegi pictograms get quite low marks when you test them with the public.

Some of them are confusing, some of them are ambiguous. I don't blame them, they have to do something like that because they've got the language problem but if you are able to arrange the system in a way that means you can use language then I think that's a better route to go.

David Cooke is the director of the BBFC. Interview by James Lee.

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