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Chasing Ratings

Is the games industry doing a good enough job of regulating its products?

Every so often the topic of the censoring and rating of computer games in Britain is raised. This is usually because of tabloid media pressure and relates to a criminal case. The most recent example is the furore around Manhunt, a game that was linked to the tragic death of a Leicester teenager in 2004.

This means that the topic is never discussed sensibly. Everybody is always either too busy defending themselves or trying to be seen to doing something to actually engage with any of the issues at even the most shallow level. As this is - at time of writing anyway - a quiet time for the issue, it seems a good opportunity to look at some aspects of the topic from a calm perspective.

Manhunt is still occasionally linked to that specific crime. This is despite the fact that the game was not referred to as any kind of motivating factor during the criminal trial or conviction of the killer (he received a life sentence). And despite the fact that the police categorically stated there was no link between the game and the murder - that robbery was the motive for the killing, and that the killer didn't actually own a copy of Manhunt.

The suggestion that he'd ever played Manhunt came from media speculation and third hand comments. This case offers the clearest example of an instance of a particular game being linked with a particular crime in Britain - and it's been categorically established that there's absolutely no link at all.

Parallel lines

Let's move outside the games industry and look at parallel examples, ones where there is an indisputable link between entertainment and crime.

Mark Chapman quoted from The Catcher in the Rye after being arrested for killing John Lennon. He has directly stated on a number of occasions that elements of the novel inspired his actions. John Hinckley, Jr was inspired to try and assassinate Ronald Reagan by certain elements of the Scorsese movie Taxi Driver. No one has ever seriously contemplated arguing that these items should be banned or that they inherently drive otherwise non-violent people towards shooting a prominent public figure.

Indeed, anyone who did so would be regarded as inherently ridiculous. The facts are that these two works of arts probably exerted a malign influence on certain people, but it was because both men were mentally ill. The works they were exposed to were not responsible for their actions; the men's illnesses were.

Now, The Catcher in the Rye and Taxi Driver are great works of art and Manhunt is, at best, a not very good game - but no one has ever provided a shred of evidence that it is going to provoke anything more violent than a few terse words over the counter at GAME as you demand your money back. (Presumably you coldly repeating that you have statutory rights, that the collision detection is appalling and the background music really annoying.)

The more important point is that even very bad art has a right to exist. Should there ever be (God forbid) a clear cut case of a disturbed adult being inspired to commit a crime by a computer game, then the fault will still ultimately lie with the adult criminal - not the game.

Age concern

Of course, matters change slightly when matters such as this involve children. Adults have a personal responsibility to themselves but children need to be protected. No one would argue otherwise. This is also why a comprehensive system for rating the content of games already exists.

The British Board of Film Classification doesn't rate all videogames in Britain in the same way that they rate all cinema and DVD releases. Instead most games on in the UK are rated by PEGI, a pan-European age-rating system which also applies in every EU country except Germany. PEGI's age rating systems provides consumers and parents with clear, easily understandable divisions of age suitability and content warning.

The BBFC only looks at games that are submitted to it by developers. This is something they usually do because the game has a large amount of video footage rather than because of anything related to its content. This is why there are occasionally BBFC PG or even U rated games; it's about the amount of watchable, non-interactive material, not interactive gameplay.

What is particularly ironic is that PEGI's own code of conduct and list of regulations and âred lines' (freely available from their website) is exhaustive and in many ways far more restrictive than the BBFC's own. Many games have higher PEGI ratings (retained for other countries when the game is BBFC rated in the UK) than BBFC ones. The current system actually prevents some games being sold to more age-groups than the implementation of wholesale BBFC certification would.

Minor issues

The argument that an 18 rating doesn't prevent someone under that age from playing it is routinely trotted out at this point. The rebuttal is simple: it should. The system is in place. Ratings on games genuinely could not be clearer (or indeed bigger; have you seen the size of BBFC logos these days?). If a child plays an 18 rated game then it is a parental failure, not a systemic one.

Now, as you might have noticed I've actually discussed two separate but linked topics above: adult responsibility and child protection. These are often confused when this issue is discussed. This is easy to do and it's a result of the simple assumption that computer games are inherently for children. The idea of computer games for adults seems to those who only hear about such things when there's a scandal on to be an inherent contradiction - and more confusion results.

After being questioned in the Commons, Tony Blair was quoted as saying that violent computer games are "wholly unsuitable for children". Of course they're unsuitable for children. That's why they're specifically only available to adults, are marketed and targeted at them and can only be bought by them.

There are times when I think the whole industry's dignity in the face of ludicrous and ill-informed pressure from groups who are primarily interested in getting their faces seen - or of pushing an agenda which is often totally unrelated to the games industry itself - is quite impressive.

The games industry has flaws. Not being able to regulate itself or its content is simply not one of them, and no number of ill-informed witch-hunts will ever change that fact.