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Best of 08: Dr Tanya Byron

The author of the videogames ratings review explains her decisions

One of the most anticipated moments for the UK games industry in 2008 was the release of the Byron Report, the government review into - among other things - the way that videogames are rated.

Lumped in with children's internet security, somewhat unhelpfully, the report was expected to favour a single form of ratings system - either Pegi or the BBFC - but in fact it concluded that a mixture of the two be used, pending a public consultation period.

Shortly after the results were published the author of the report, Dr Tanya Byron spoke to and explained her thinking on some of the key issues. 24 hours on, what's your view on how the review's been received both by those involved and by the media?
Tanya Byron

I think I'm still digesting that, really. I think my general feeling is that it's been received generally positively. Certainly I've been taking a look and following the press and they seem to feel that it reflects a very balanced view.

For me, the reporting of it is always a challenge. When the papers first started they were saying things that were completely wrong - the health-scare warnings from one paper were wrong - but as the coverage continued throughout the day, people were getting it much more accurately as they were getting the report and reading it.

For me, I did nearly 50 media [interviews] yesterday, television, radio and press, and it gave me the opportunity to put the balance back into videogames - let's stop blaming industry for things industry isn't responsible for, that's number one. Number two, the industry has worked really positively with me. I do believe this industry does not intend to corrupt young people. Number three, I think there's a positive that adult games are created with adult content for adults to play. The industry has never had any other view about that and is very clear about that - it's a very small percentage of the total retail market.

I've been saying since I started this review that I've played games at home with my kids, particularly my youngest, my son - there are a lot of really good videogames. I think games are very positive for children, they engage with them through thinking as well as playing. Play is part of child development, this is how children play. We need to stop panicking, get a grip, move on in the debate and just be sensible about who plays what at what age, and what's appropriate. And that for me is fundamental, and I think that's what people are hearing and I'm glad that that's come out of the Review. The Government, publicly, has made the right noises and says it fully supports the Review. You appeared yesterday on television with the Prime Minister, who backed it. At the briefing yesterday morning you pressed the ministers quite hard into voicing their support. Are you confident that privately the support is also there?
Tanya Byron

Absolutely. And privately they've expressed it to me. I did, didn't I? I think I said to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, 'is that a yes, then?'. For me, reviews are really important, and I think it's great that the government commissioned this review and funded it. And I feel really privileged to have done it, to be honest with you, and I've enjoyed it. But I don't want this review to be something that looks good but is never implemented.

I have put timelines in and I'm going to come back... well, not me, I don't know who exactly - I don't know if I have the energy to come back and do it again! But there's a very clear re-review of how the government implements the recommendations across the board. So now the Review is out, do you move on, or are you going to stay involved in the process through the initial stages of the timetable this autumn?
Tanya Byron

I have to say, I'm thinking about that a lot at the moment. It's been an intense six months, if you think about what I've been looking at in terms of the games industry. And then of course there's the whole Internet side of things. It's been an incredibly intense six months; it's been great and I've really enjoyed it a lot. And as I say, the videogames industry - good companies, nice people.

Sometimes the debate gets serious, sometimes the debate is polarised, and sometimes people get upset about things. I've never had an issue with that, because I do really respect that the videogames industry has to deal with the kind of finger-pointing and the 'you're responsible for all the ills of society' that seems to be going on. It's a complete load of nonsense as far as I'm concerned and we just need to move on from that debate.

As far as that's concerned, I've loved it. What do I do next? At the moment, I've delivered, I've done my job. Fundamentally I think the games industry is fine with my recommendations. I think they are concerned about the BBFC and I understand that, and I saw Paul Jackson yesterday and we talked about it. The reason I phrased my recommendation in the way that I did is that I emphasised a period of public consultation, and I emphasised a lot in the media that during that period the industry very much needs to be talking about how these recommendations can be implemented in a way that works for the industry as well, because that's really important.

I think I'm going step back and see what happens. I've got other things that I do anyway, and I've got children in my life! I feel quite excited by the positive response and I have no plans to launch in head first and make it all happen. I think that's for industry and government. You're voicing the common sense view, that the industry welcomes, in terms of it not being responsible for the problems lazily attributed to it by the press and politicians. Really, the Review's recommendations themselves are relatively modest in that they build upon existing foundations - so the system already in place was already effective?
Tanya Byron

It was very effective in terms of classification. I've said that all along and I said that yesterday. Also, just to say, if you think about it, classification wasn't even part of the original remit. The original remit was just very broad, on harmful and inappropriate material. And literally within the first week of starting the review, this whole classification thing dropped in my lap. At first, although I was an independent reviewer, I did go back to ministers and say, look, I don't think I should be making this decision or making recommendations about it. But there was a real sense that this was a good opportunity, and certainly the industry was saying we've just got to sort this out, we've got to discuss this and come to some kind of decision about it. So I have.

I think the classification system used by the industry has not worked with parents. Parents are buying games for children the children shouldn't be playing. And I'm clear that we can't just isolate videogames as being responsible for the ills of society. I am really clear from the child development literature that there are some games that kids shouldn't play and it could have a really, really negative impact on them if they do play them.

But my instinct is that the videogames industry is completely next to me on that one, because again, yes there are adult games and adult material that people can read and look at. No-one's ever said that there shouldn't be a classification system.

People have been saying: 'Tanya Byron recommends a classification system for the videogames industry'. Well, actually there is one. So for me it's been frightening that so many commentators haven't even picked up that there was one already. That has really stuck out from many of the reports - that if you weren't familiar with the games industry, you would just assume that the BBFC had never rated games before. So the awareness and ignorance issue is paramount. But among the concerns voiced by the industry is that, while they accept this, they've already gone to great lengths to be above the board, have games internally and externally regulated. So do you feel it's appropriate that the burden of funding for a public awareness campaign should be shouldered by the games industry rather than something the government would back?
Tanya Byron

I'm not going to comment on that as it was never a remit of my review to make suggestions about funding. There was a moment, a flurry during the conference yesterday, when [Culture minister] Andy Burnham was asked about that and seemed to be saying that it's not up to the government to fund it.

I haven't got an opinion on it in terms of who funds it. It just needs to happen. Certainly when I've had discussions with the industry, and certainly when there has been the possibility that it could have completely been the PEGI system, in some areas of the industry there was the suggestion that there would be a willingness to fund an information campaign. So I suppose on one level I'd be disappointed if there was a preparedness, but because I didn't quite deliver on the system I was hoping for, that that is not going to happen. Fundamentally - who does it? - it just has to be done.

And I hope the Review, not only my statements about industry, my impression of this industry - which I hope you've heard and seen I've been positive about - I hope my Review gives the industry an opportunity to PR itself positively, which obviously needs to happen, because I understand that as an industry you do get attacked a huge amount. So an information campaign is one way of doing that - it's up to the industry to decide how much, if any, they want to be involved in funding that. On the ratings issue, you've said that because the BBFC system is already well recognised then that should be pushed further, and that consumers didn't really understand the PEGI system, finding it confusing. Yet you still recommended a "hybrid" ratings plan incorporating both. Won't that still leave room for confusion? Does PEGI need to change at all?
Tanya Byron

I very strongly support PEGI, and I was at pains yesterday to keep saying that, but I wanted the industry to hear me saying, I made this decision, it was a difficult decision to make. And it's a recommendation that I made on a narrow remit - the remit is child safety. But there are other considerations, and that's what the public consultation is for. I've said all that very clearly.

But what I've also said is that when I made the decision, I also made it because I really did not want PEGI to be substantially affected by any decision. Because I knew that if PEGI had no involvement in classifying games in the UK it could have a major impact on the existence of PEGI in Europe. I respect the work that PEGI does and the industry that set it up. It was about being above board and all the things that you said [in your question].

So for me it was really important that PEGI was involved, and the BBFC has accepted that. Fundamentally, PEGI will still rate 50 per cent of games releases, but BBFC logos will go on the front so consumers get it and understand it - [ignorance] is a big problem in terms of people buying these games.

That's quite a big thing for the BBFC to accept, so I felt really positive about that. I think in the UK - and I'm sure gamers will hugely disagree with me, but I'm thinking about parents and kids really - in the UK people who are stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide, the generational divide, they do want some idea of context. And I think detailed content descriptions with an idea of context are really important. And PEGI isn't about context, so that was one of things as well as the trusted logo. You've reviewed a large body of research and literature on the effects of gaming on children, both positive and negative. In terms of how the BBFC rates games, when it also rates movies, do you think it's appropriate given the differences between an interactive and a passive medium, that they are rated in the same way?
Tanya Byron

I do think there are differences in the way the BBFC rates games. I did spend a lot of time looking at the ways that games are rated with both systems. I did feel that the way the games were rated was appropriate in terms of the question I was asked to consider, which is content in relation to children.

And I did look at the research. The research is highly contested, incredibly polarised. You've got the researchers in the States saying, yes, we can prove from studies that short-term affects on aggressive behaviour follow from playing these games, and therefore we can conclude they cause problems.

Then, in the UK and Europe, they take an ethnographic approach, saying, hold on a second, lab studies aren't the real world, and generalisations from short-terms effect to long-term effects are a pretty big stretch.

Where did I fit in with that? I sat back and thought, fundamentally, what you'd need to do to really answer this question, is take a load of kids at a really young age, stick them in front of loads of inappropriate games that are for adults and older kids, and let them play them over a sustained period of time, and controlling all other lifestyle factors, then seeing what happens. That's ludicrous, it's unethical, it should never happen. The methodology that is needed you just couldn't do. From all that you've looked at - you've said at the very least there is a correlation at some level between aggression and playing violent videogames - is there anything that you've seen to suggest that playing games is any worse than the effects of watching a violent movie?
Tanya Byron

The research around the interactivity... the jury is still out. But, I don't know whether you got through the psychology part of my report, where I talked about neuro-statistical learning in the mirror neuron system. There is very, very new research that looks at how children learn at a neural level. Children respond to actions, young children do. Action-related experiences can be important in the laying down, at a neural level, of the way we behave.

I didn't want to add to the speculation and the polarisation of the debate and then say, 'therefore it is really clear'. Because it isn't really clear, because we're just thinking about these different kinds of neural networks involved in learning, and I'm not going to jump the gun and say things that we don't know yet. But I think at a level of brain function, if you look at the way that children set their expectations of people's behaviour at the neural level, if you look at things like the mirror neuron system where action can actually have an impact on the way neural networks are set out, and that has an impact on behaviour.

And if you look at what we do know about child development that can't be refuted, that is the development of the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that in involved in physical evaluation, decision making, behaviour self-regulation, and the fact that in young children the neural networks are still connecting up, never mind connecting to other bits of the brain, and you put all that together... To me the most sensible and rational conclusion is, don't put something in front of a brain that at a neural level might be affected, and at a cortex level cannot differentiate and make decisions about that content in a way that's going to be helpful for them.

Now, we've always had this [issue] in the way that we have a classification system around film. So for me it's a no-brainer really. Let's just play it at that level, at the level children think and learn, and find a system supports the industry, supports the rights of adults so there are adult content games should they want them, but also really make sure that children are playing the games that do [help them].

I'm really enthusiastic about games, I play loads of them with my children, and I've also recommended to the government that they look at the education benefits of gaming, because it's a way of engaging children in learning. So for me it's about looking at what we know about child development and linking back in with what children are doing, rather than making great claims about the effects of games. Ultimately, doesn't this really all boil down to responsible parenting?
Tanya Byron

Responsible parenting, but it also boils down to responsible, clear classification and labelling - there are responsibilities for retailers and they need to be supportive of that. It's also for the industry about responsible marketing. I have made recommendations around the advertising of games and that needs to be thought about, and certainly in the online space there's a lot that needs to be sorted out.

So fundamentally let's say this: we've got all these new technologies that bring with them a new culture of responsibility for everybody, and I just hope that my recommendations allow people to work collaboratively, to respect each other's points of view, to reduce the anxiety and the polarisation of the debate, and get on with making sure that young people - and children have the right to enjoy these technologies - enjoy them in a way that's safe and appropriate for them. Which games are most popular in the Byron household?
Tanya Byron

I'm not going to say! I have a real blanket policy. Suffice to say it's probably the games that are popular in most households. I have talked about the fact we play Nintendo Wii with our kids, and we have all sorts of consoles in the house. And my husband and I, at the end of the day, quite like trying to play tennis on the Wii with our mates who've had a few drinks.

We like games in our house, videogames are fun, it's what children do. Kids need a balanced media diet, and they need, you know, not to be spending too much time gaming and not doing other things. But fundamentally, you need to celebrate it and empower and enable them to do it safely. So we can take it that the last six months hasn't been enough to put you off games for good?
Tanya Byron

No, absolutely not! And it hasn't made me have any bad feelings about the games industry either. If anything it's reassured me that it's a really responsible industry that wants to do the right thing for kids and young people. And I hope that there's a commitment to see these recommendations through.

It's also about reassuring the adult gaming community that this isn't about stopping you doing what you're doing. You have a right to do what you do. In some ways actually I think the better we make it at the bottom end, the more people at the top end can just get on with enjoying what they enjoy, because there will be less anxiety about these issues.

Dr Tanya Byron is a child psychologist, journalist and broadcaster. Interview by Johnny Minkley. Originally published in two parts in March 2008.

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