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Keith Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right and I agree with everything that he said. I hope later in my speech to point out what can be done.

Most games are harmless entertainment, but in many amazingly lifelike popular titles, children are acting out violent experiences on their screens. According to the Video Standards Council, 97 per cent. of all games are suitable for everyone. The few that qualify for careful scrutiny contain the following material. Players in "Grand Theft Auto 3" earn points by carjacking and stealing drugs from street people and pushers. In "Carmageddon", players are rewarded for mowing down pedestrians—sounds of cracking bones add to the realistic effect. The first-person shooter in "Duke Nukem" hones his skills by using pornographic posters of women for target practice, and earns bonus points for shooting naked and bound prostitutes and strippers who beg, "Kill me." In the game "Postal", players act out the part of the postal dude, who earns points by randomly shooting everyone who appears, including people walking out of church and members of a high school band. Postal dude is programmed to say, "Only my gun understands me."

Unlike films and television, which are passively watched, the game lets the player feel the sensation of committing violent acts. Those playing the game are in the game, but there is no pain or aftermath, so children never learn the real-life consequences. The main concern is that children, unlike adults—and rightly so—have a problem in separating fantasy from reality. When young children play those violent video games, they are becoming more and more vulnerable to those violent messages.

Following a public outcry, I convened a meeting with a few parliamentarians and the members of the video games industry to highlight the ambiguities in the current system. Towards the end of last year, in a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the House, Mrs. Pakeerah and I urged him to tackle the menace of violent video games by examining the existing law governing the classification of video games—in particular, their labelling—and requesting the governing board to take a more cautious approach. My right hon. Friend made it clear at the meeting that he was looking at ways to strengthen legislation in the area to protect children. He listened with great care and attention to Mrs. Pakeerah and I am most grateful to him for his real concern about the issue.

I wish to make it clear that the campaign is not about stopping adults doing anything: it is about protecting our children. Following the firm commitment by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to protect children and to review the law governing video games, I value the opportunity to debate the issue in this House.

Over the years, there have been more than 3,000 research studies into the effects of screen violence, encompassing film, television, video and, more recently,
 
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computer and video games. However, little research has been carried out on interactive entertainment as it was originally perceived as a harmless and enjoyable pastime. Nevertheless, with the ever-increasing interest and participation of young children in that activity, much concern has been expressed about the effects of such games on them. At the centre of the debate is the question of whether they are detrimental to a young person's healthy development. There are specific concerns about the implications for aggression, addiction, criminal activity and reduced academic achievement.

I understand that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is commissioning a review of existing research to determine whether there is a link between playing violent video games and real-world behaviour. The last such Government study was carried out by the Home Office in 2001, and the results were inconclusive. Research into the effects of long-term exposure to computer games on subsequent behaviour is noticeably lacking and at present remains speculative. Studies to examine the effects of computer games on children's aggressive behaviour and self-esteem only involve measurement of the possible short-term aggressive consequences, so I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to fill that question vacuum and commission new research into the long-term effects of playing such interactive games.

Last week, accompanied by Mrs. Pakeerah, I visited the third largest interactive publisher in the UK, Activision based in Slough, to see how publishers classify video games. Activision is a leading international publisher of video games, with 6 per cent. of the market share; its European headquarters is in the United Kingdom. Its profits for last year are estimated at just over £100 million. Some of its games include "Doom 3", "X-Men" and "Spider-Man".From my visit, I learned that violence in over-18 video games is a staple of the video game industry. It takes between 20 and 60 people to develop an idea for a game and between 12 and 18 months to create it. The entire investment period can take up to three years. During that time, the board responsible for classifying the video game is called in to give expertise about the rating to be given to the game and about its target audience.

At the early stages in the creation of the video, the publisher foresees, using guidelines set out by the video games classification board, which rating the game should receive. Once the creation of the game is complete, using the pan-European game information system, the ratings are carried out by members of the games industry using a self-assessment form. After examining a game, the in-house coder uses an existing set of answers and the game is rated automatically on that basis. An age is established for each content category, based on the answers on the assessment form.

The method may sound fair but in action, as I witnessed when I visited Activision, the game does not end up with the British Board of Film Classification until after it has been produced. Thus, using the Video Standards Council and PEGI guidelines, the publisher will resort to reviewing the game again if it has been rejected. I urge the British Board of Film Classification to take a much more cautious approach in reviewing those games, and also to provide publishers with much more stringent and unambiguous guidelines and
 
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detailed feedback about why a video game has failed to qualify for a particular rating. With advances in the technology to create those games, it is only sensible that the guidelines for publishers be updated.

Ten years ago, the average game cost £200,000 to develop, whereas now the average budget is more than £1 million. The level of violence in the gaming habits of young people is disturbingly high, and 65 per cent. of the market is made up of boys aged between 13 and 16 years. On 1 November, the ITV programme "Tonight with Trevor McDonald" revealed from a nationwide survey of 223 children aged between 11 and 14 that computer games featuring drugs, sex and violence are being bought by boys as young as 12 in supermarkets and high street shops. More than two thirds of young people aged between 11 and 14 admitted that they had played games certified 18 plus. Boys aged 12 to 14 were seen in the programme buying adult games from Tesco, Virgin, Dixons, John Lewis, Sainsbury and Asda. The programme highlighted the problem that it is so easy for children to get hold of those games. Something needs to change.

Any shopkeeper who supplies a game in breach of the law can be sent to jail for six months, fined £5,000, or both. The law needs to be better enforced. To date, the retailers caught on the Trevor McDonald programme have not been prosecuted. According to the Video Standards Council, which also represents a large number of the UK retailers shown in the film, because the action was recorded for television, people should not be liable to prosecution. I therefore urge Minister to ask the Attorney-General to review that absurdity and prosecute those retailers for their actions, so that, in future, retailers can fully appreciate the consequence of selling adult-rating video games to children. We need to make an example of one to make the rest take this seriously.

Parents are becoming very concerned about the messages that their children are receiving while playing such games. Parents need to be made more aware that video games are much more difficult and more ingenious than ping-pong and that they contain such violent activity. An interesting approach was launched in Canada last year, ahead of the Christmas shopping period, entitled "Commitment to Parents". A voluntary code was provided whereby parents entered into a dialogue with the retailers, thus enabling progress to be made to the benefit of parents and young children.

Video and computer games will continue to be an exciting and growing part of children's media diets. As long as children have easy access to those games, policy debates will continue. There is much that is pernicious, banal and crude in popular culture. We must question what kind of society allows, if not encourages, youngsters to immerse themselves in such brutal fantasy games. Makers of the more violent games are pushing the outer limits of savagery and depravity, and current provisions have been widely criticised as ineffectual and confusing, so they need to be changed.

I urge the Minister to do a number of things, and I seek her commitment on them. More research is needed into the long-term effects of playing such interactive games and their effect on children. Better regulation is needed, with much more clear and stringent guidelines,
 
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including transparent responsibility between the BBFC, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association and PEGI. The current voluntary arrangements are too cosy. A more instructive and uniform labelling system is needed for parents to comprehend. Parents need to be educated, so that they become more aware of the content of games. The law must be better enforced. Retailers must be made aware of their responsibilities and prosecuted when they break the law.

The tragic death of Stefan Pakeerah will be with his parents, family and friends for ever. I hope that this debate can shed light into the current ambiguities and prevent further callous attacks from happening again.

10.47 pm


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