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Video games have increasingly life-like graphics and antisocial themes. Their regulation has improved, but it has not gone far enough. The voluntary code must be made statutory and further safeguards put in place to protect our children.
Over the past two years, other hon. Members and I have campaigned to control the sale of video games to young people, following the tragic death of Stefan Pakeeraha 14-year-old Leicester schoolboy who was brutally murdered. Stefan's parents believe that the perpetrator of that savage attack was influenced by the video game "Manhunt". Stefan's mother, Giselle Pakeerah, has been campaigning to ban the sale of the game. I pay tribute to Mrs. Pakeeraha brave and courageous mother who, in her grief, could easily have let matters pass by doing nothing, but who started an impressive campaign on this issue.
Towards the end of 2004, Mrs. Pakeerah and I met the Prime Minister and urged him to tackle the menace of violent video games by examining the existing law governing the classification of such games and, in particular, labelling, and by requesting the British Board of Film Classification to take a more cautious approach. I am most grateful to the Prime Minister for his concern on this issue. Following the meeting, in December 2004, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry met representatives from the video games industry to consider the adequacy of existing provisions. Some new voluntary measures were introduced. New labelling for age restrictions is now twice the size it was a year ago. I welcome the industry's efforts in beginning to take action.
I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), who has responsibility for the creative industries, for meeting me to discuss their Department's continuing willingness to explore ways to strengthen such protection.
The concern about video and computer games is based on the belief that violent games are totally inappropriate for young children. Between the ages of seven and 17, children will play an average of eight hours of video games a week. However, despite recent voluntary steps, this aspect of children's entertainment is highly under-regulated. Moreover, the regulation that does exist is barely enforced.
The video games industry in the United Kingdom is widely and rightly seen as one of our many economic success stories. The latest figures show that the software development and publishing industry in the UK is worth £711 million. Most games on the market are appropriate for young players, but the few games that feature violence, crime and antisocial behaviour have led to concerns being raised. The Bill is not intended to censor
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the industry. However, we must recognise that it is our duty to protect our children from inappropriate influences such as violent video games.
The current trend in video games is for players to be the bad guys and act out criminal fantasies, earning points for attacking and killing innocent bystanders. In the forthcoming Rockstar video game "Bully", players take on the role of Jimmy Hopkins, a school boy at a boarding school. They get points for physically and psychologically tormenting other children. More than 50 Members have signed early-day motion 1172, which calls for the game to be banned.
The 2004 game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" has been among the top 10 best-selling games for the past two years and has sold a total of 12 million copies worldwide, including 1 million copies in the United Kingdom in the first nine days after its release. The game contained a hidden code that could be unlocked by players and which introduced to the game scenes in which characters performed sexually explicit acts. Following campaigns in the United States, the publishers were forced to recall and rewrite the game to remove the hidden code.
Although those games are rated 18 for adult audiences, they are extremely popular among young people. This type of content is wholly inappropriate and unacceptable, but, regrettably, that is the path down which the games are heading. British research into the effects of video games has been inconclusive so far. A number of studies, including research published by DCMS today, have found no conclusive evidence that video games can influence children's behaviour. However, studies into the long-term effects of video games are in their infancy and are at best speculative. Due to ethical difficulties associated with exposing children to adult material, it is difficult to secure conclusive evidence either waydifficult, but not impossible.
On 25 January 2006, during Prime Minister's questions, I raised the findings of new research published by Professor Bruce Bartholow of the university of Missouri-Columbia last year, which shows that people who play violent video games become desensitised to violence and are more likely to commit aggressive acts. It is the first research to show that playing violent video games diminishes brain reactions to violent images. It shows a link between the playing of violent video games and a propensity to commit aggressive acts. Those who believe that violent video games have no effect on the person playing them are ignoring the facts. The link exists and should give us great cause for concern.
The implications of the research, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, are far-reaching. Every precaution should be taken to ensure that children are not exposed to games that will diminish their sensitivity to violence. Children need to be protected from violent games for this reason: although a child's morality continues to grow and mature as they grow older, they are still immature and lack the necessary capabilities to deal with the exposure to violence that these games give them. The warnings offered by the research need to be taken seriously and should urge us all towards cautionary, preventive regulations to protect our children.
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At the moment, regulation is very confusing, as two rating systems are in use: the British Board of Film Classification, which rates about 2 per cent. of games, and the voluntary PEGI, or pan-European game information, system. The director of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, Roger Bennett, concedes that the ratings are not always clear. He states:
"BBFC ratings are on the front of games boxes, while ELSPA's are on the back. If a game does not have a BBFC rating, people sometimes assume it is suitable for children, forgetting to check the back."
Current regulations are often ignored by retailers. An investigation for "Tonight with Trevor McDonald" in November 2004 uncovered the fact that children as young as 12 had managed to buy adult video games. Over two thirds of 11 to 14-year-old boys questioned admitted to playing video games with an 18 certificate. On camera, children between the ages of 12 and 14 were shown buying adult video games from Tesco, Virgin, Dixons, John Lewis, Sainsbury's and Asda.
Other countries have adopted a different approach. In Canada, in the European Union and even in the United States, action has been taken. This Bill will make it a requirement not only to have a larger sign indicating the certificate but to have an accompanying description of the content that led to the game being given that rating.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Keith Vaz, Annette Brooke, Mrs. Betty Williams, Mr. Edward O'Hara, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mrs. Iris Robinson, Jessica Morden, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mr. Mike Hancock, Sir Nicholas Winterton, Mr. Stephen Crabb and Derek Wyatt.
Keith Vaz accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Video Recordings Act 1984 to extend certain provisions of that Act to video games and to make provision about the labelling of video games: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed [Bill 136].
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister and placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. May I also add that the amount of time available to Back Benchers will depend to a great extent on the restraint shown by the three Front-Bench spokesmen?
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