As traffic lights replace PEGI, where next for Britain's rating debate?
At last, there may be some light at the end of the dark and depressing tunnel that is the British games industry's ongoing feud with the BBFC - the body responsible for age-rating content in the UK.
Ever since the (remarkably balanced and non-political) Byron Report was launched earlier this year, its recommendation that BBFC logos be carried on the front of all packaging has been ruffling feathers among industry bosses. They would rather see the PEGI system, a pan-European rating system operated by the publishers themselves, taking precedence - preferably with the BBFC butting out of the process entirely.
There are rather a lot of problems with the industry's view on this matter, but the one which has been raised most often is simply that PEGI's logos are unfamiliar and seem to be largely unrecognised even by gamers, let alone by parents.
The rating system relies on a single recommended age box, along with a number of smaller boxes indicating what types of potentially objectionable content you may find in the game. These smaller boxes simply confuse matters - not least because the task of expressing an abstract concept like "horror" in a tiny black and white picture is the kind of thing you expect to find in a lateral-thinking puzzle game, not a sober attempt at implementing a rating system.
PEGI is lumbered with countless other problems. For a start, it's pan-European - a factor stated as a positive by some in the industry, although I've yet to hear a reasonable justification for this. There are vast cultural differences across Europe in terms of what's deemed acceptable in media. At various extremes, you have severe attitudes on videogame violence in Germany, rules on the depiction of Nazi symbols in several countries on the continent, and various taboo individuals in a number of societies (such as the Royal Family in Spain).
Less significant but arguably more crucial to content classification are the wider cultural differences that spread across the region. In the southern and eastern areas of the continent, Christianity (and especially Catholicism) have a firmer grip, which deeply affects what is considered passable. Britain, by comparison, is very permissive - while some other states in northern Europe, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian nations, are arguably more permissive still. So by whose standards, exactly, should a pan-European rating be set?
After months of bitterly opposing the BBFC's further involvement in game rating, however, Britain's publishers seem to have changed tack. This week, UK publisher association ELSPA tacitly acknowledged flaws in the PEGI system - and instead proposed a new "traffic lights" system, which would be much clearer for consumers, not to mention more visually striking.
In fact, what's most visually striking about the new logos is how much like the BBFC's they are. The rating system is admittedly different, but ELSPA's new traffic lights really do bear a superficial resemblance to the BBFC's own rating stamps. They even boast the explanatory text box on the right, replacing PEGI's utterly awful content icons.
These logos are, in short, a step in the right direction - simply because they suggest a willingness to compromise on the part of the games business (although of course, the government may prove unwilling to reciprocate). On the surface, they suggest that the industry is coming around to the idea of a BBFC-style system, but just wants to discuss the details of how it's going to be handled.
Unfortunately, it's in those details that the real problems may lie. In a sense, the argument about whether PEGI ratings are actually any good is entirely superficial. It would be naive to accept that publishing executives have ever really given a hoot about PEGI logos and icons. What the business wants isn't this icon or that icon on its boxes - it wants the body setting the icons to be under its control. PEGI is. ELSPA is. The BBFC is not.
That matter remains utterly unsettled, and we've yet to see even the framework of a compromise emerging. However, if this week's shift away from the PEGI dogma is an indication that the industry is willing to think through its options and change its approach, then there's a piece of nasty politics which I think it's worth raising.
Quite simply, I don't see how the present government (or, for that matter, the next government) can possibly hand control of game ratings to the industry without an extraordinary amount of preparation work and close cooperation between industry and ministers. The harsh reality is that in Britain today, a vicious and virulent tabloid journalism culture has manufactured a narrative of a "broken" society (in absolute opposition to the clear downward trends in actual crime), and videogames are one of several things which are used as regular scapegoats and whipping boys.
As such, for a government to hand control of age ratings to the publishers themselves would be an utter PR disaster. In a slow news week, a clever hack could make a front page story out of it and kick off a firestorm - bear in mind that most of Britain's papers have led on the mind-numbingly ridiculous story of two comedians annoying a third comedian for the past few days, leading to resignations and a statement from the Prime Minister. Compared with that, videogames publishers being given the right to self-classify would be a legitimate front page splash.
Even if that didn't happen - the next time a spurious link from a crime to videogames was made, the leaders are obvious. "This heinous crime comes only weeks after Gordon Brown bowed to pressure from videogame companies to stop the government from putting age ratings on game boxes. Now THEY decide what age you should be to play these violent games..."
If you're a politician, why on earth would you risk that? What possible reason would you have for going like a lamb to the tabloids' "soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime" slaughter? Just about everyone reading this knows that there's simply no evidence of a casual link between videogames and crime, but that's not what matters. With an election on the way, what matters is that "deregulating" videogames is something no politician is about to do without a bloody good reason.
So why not give them a bloody good reason? It's as simple as this - if the industry wants the BBFC out of the loop, it needs to prove that it can do the job better than the BBFC can. It needs to lay out a clear strategy for establishing a wholly independent body that will be responsible for ratings, whose higher ratings would be given the same legal blessing that the BBFC's are, and moreover, which would have sharp teeth (fines and compulsory recalls, say) with which to deal with publishers who cross the line (by failing to disclose elements relevant to rating, for example).
What I'm describing isn't a million miles from the ESRB, of course. That's not entirely unreasonable given that I suspect one of the main reasons the industry in Europe likes the PEGI idea is because it's jealous of the ESRB setup in the USA.
Why would this help? Simple - because the message with which it's sold could be radically different. This isn't "deregulation", it's handing control to a "tough, independent new body". This new body would be more powerful than the BBFC, but would still essentially be the industry-backed ratings body which publishers so desperately desire. So, the games industry gets what it wants - and the government gets to sell the whole story as a "crack-down" on videogames, with "tough new measures" being given to an independent body with "real teeth", which will be "working closely with the industry to ensure that every game bears a suitable rating".
This won't work with half-measures. There's no way ELSPA, or any other body essentially made up of publishers, could run the ratings system - the media and the public would see through it in a flash. It would have to be a genuinely independent body, operating with a dual mandate from government and industry. Moreover, the industry would need to grit its teeth and put up with negative press stories about a crackdown on game ratings.
This week's change of tack shows that compromise itself, at least, is on the table. If the industry is serious about changing the ratings status quo, it will have to steel itself for many more compromises.