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Board Games

Senior examiner Gianni Zamo on the BBFC's videogames ratings system.

Earlier this year, the issue of violence in videogames hit the headlines once again as controversy erupted over Bully, a new Rockstar game which was later retitled Canis Canem Edit for its European release.

MP Keith Vaz raised a question in the House of Commons asking if the Government would step should the British Board of Film Classification failed to "take action" over the game - but the board opted to go ahead and award the game a 15 certificate.

GamesIndustry.biz took the opportunity to talk to one of the BBFC's senior examiners, Gianni Zamo, to learn more about the thinking behind the decision and how the BBFC works.

Read on to find out why the UK uses a two-track ratings system, what would cause a game to be banned and what the BBFC thinks about the argument that videogames can cause violent behaviour.


GamesIndustry.biz: Can you explain how the BBFC's system for rating videogames works?

Gianni Zamo: We work under a piece of legislation that's been around since 1984 called the Video Recordings Act. It was created to deal with "video nasties", but at the same time there was some recognition that computer games were still fairly simple things.

It was incoporated almost accidentally in the legislation because it talks about classifying material that's on tape or magnetic disk - though most games at that stage were exempt from the BBFC because they featured, by and large, quite simple, blocky, pixellated characters that didn't do an awful lot.

It's that which has become the 'way in' to classification for games. Clearly as they've become more sophisticated and realistic over the years, it's become increasingly difficult - particularly for the more violent and hardcore games - to claim exemption, which is why they end up coming our way.

What's the difference between the BBFC's ratings system and PEGI's ratings system?

Theirs is a completely self-regulatory program whereas the BBFC's system is a statutory one; it's defined by law. It gives us the potential to be rather intrusive if we need to be - for example, we have the power to ban a game or to cut it if necessary.

The PEGI system doesn't have that power available; it purely relies on the honesty and integrity of the game developer to ensure that the game's okay. It's probably fair to say that PEGI deals with the less strong material, the Marios and Sonics of this world - the fairly straightforward material. We tend to get what we loosely call the 'hardcore and violent games' - Doom, 25 To Life, that kind of thing.

Ultimately the decision is with publishers to decide if they send the game into us or not. We can't ring up a distributor and say, 'You've got to send that game to us because we think it's lost its exemption' - that would be an abuse of our position.

Under what circumstances would the BBFC ban a game?

I can't, at this moment in time, envisage a situation where we would do that. The legislation is specific about what it deems to be potentially harmful material.

If, for example, someone created a game that was dominantly based on some form of sexual violence, or a game that was particularly sadistic, it's quite likely something like that could be banned - depending on its context, of course. It would have to be fairly serious, heavy duty weird stuff before we started getting into that kind of arena.

How well do think the British system compares with that in the US, where many states have been considering introducing new laws about violence in videogames recently?

It's a confusing situation over there because each state is often able to act quite independently from the senate as a whole - so it can be quite muddlesome at times. I'm not particularly familiar with the way the ESRB operates, so it's a bit difficult to make an assement of how effective it is or not.

Campaigners against violence in videogames often argue that they can't be viewed from the same perspective as films because they're interactive - and therefore could have more impact. Is that a view that you subscribe to at the BBFC?

I would only say it's a consideration. It's one of those elements that perhaps separates it from the moving image media, because generally when you go to the cinema or you watch a video, you tend to be a fairly passive member of that audience.

Whereas with a game, obviously you're much more tied into a mechanical action of pressing buttons or flicking joysticks. I don't entirely subscribe to the idea that somehow because you're actively engaged in performing a particular action, or doing a particular task, that therefore it must have some sort of negative effect on you as an individual.

There's really not been any research we've come across which proves that one way or the other - the jury's still very much out.

What about the idea that games can actually cause violent behaviour in players? As was suggested two years ago, when the murder of a British teenager was linked to Rockstar's Manhunt...

If people took the trouble to look at the facts behind the case, the police didn't cite the game at all in their evidence, and it turned out to be an issue between those two individuals on a much more personal level.

It reminds me a bit of the old concerns that used to go around about videos like Child's Play 3. They tend to be a convenient scapegoat when you can't find answers as to why someone commits a dreadful and violent action against someone else; we all take a look around and try to find something solid to get hold of and perhaps lay the blame on.

Again though, I think the jury's still out on that. There's not been a massive amount of research done in this area, but what there is, when you test it quite stringently, a lot of it is flawed.

More recently there's been controversy over another Rockstar title, Bully - or Canis Canem Edit, as it was renamed in Europe...

Yes, a bit of a storm in a teacup, I think.

The BBFC awarded Canis Canem Edit a 15 certificate, which some critics said was inappropriate. What's your view?

You can understand the concerns of a subject that hits the headlines fairly frequently in this country. Often the truth is far less dramatic than the myth that's put around it.

Certainly Canis Canem Edit is not the monster, demon game that's going to turn our children into horrific and violent individuals. It's much more considered in its approach, I would say, and quite carefully balanced in terms of what you can get away with as this character and the consequences of anything you might do.

It's not just a free-for-all, go out and kick the living daylights out of everybody - there are penalties for engaging in anti-social behaviour, so I think Rockstar has been careful to balance it out in that respect.

Finally - do you think the system would be improved, as some have suggested, if every game had to have a BBFC rating?

It would be a nightmare from our point of view, frankly! I don't think it's entirely necessary, no. The danger is you create this one big organisation that ends up rating stuff which, in a lot of instances, really doesn't need that level of security behind it.

Things that would be a U or PG level in terms of film or video really wouldn't benefit greatly from BBFC logos being slapped on. I tend to think that the twin-track scheme - PEGI dealing with the lower end of the section and us dealing with the upper end - works quite well.

Gianni Zamo is senior examiner for the British Board of Film Classification. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.

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