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1 July 2008 : Column 225WH—continued

We have hitherto been relatively risk-free because of the regulations that have been in place for many years in Britain. Those regulations have stood the test of time in
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this country and variations on them have been taken up by many other countries. Britain was the leader on this issue—it set the tone and the pace—and many countries have, in their own different ways, followed Britain’s example. However, an important caveat is that we are running a double standard, because although we have a system that works well for TV broadcasters, the regulations do not apply to computer games.

I am sure that all hon. Members know that the number of computer games and the incidence of computer gaming has exploded in this country over the past decade or two. It is far more common now, obviously, than when the TV regulations were first put in place. When the original regulations were drafted, I doubt that anybody had ever heard of computer games, which, even if people had heard of them, would have been slow and clunky and at nothing like the level of both ubiquity and sophistication of modern games.

To give an idea of the scale of the problem, 335 million computer and video games have been bought in the UK over the past decade alone. Some 20.8 million current generation games consoles and handhelds are in UK homes. I suspect, in all probability, that those numbers are rapidly becoming out of date as the popularity of gaming increases. I suspect that it is also true that, compared with the number of TVs that were originally around when the UK’s regulations were first passed, the level of gaming activity in the UK is probably rising rapidly towards the same level that TV watching was at when the regulations were first introduced. In other words, this is a major problem. We are running a double standard because those regulations apply only to TV broadcasters, not to computer games.

What do computer games do? A voluntary code currently requires warnings to be put either on the packaging of computer games or, as many of them have, on an opening screen before getting to the main game. However, anybody who has seen a 10 or 13-year-old scrambling to get into the package containing their new game on Christmas day will know that the warnings are never read and that, when a warning flashes up on the screen in front of them, there is an irritated, “Tsk”, and they hit whatever button they need to in order to get past it and into the game itself. Nevertheless, the computer games industry has adopted that approach voluntarily to attempt, rightly, to be responsible and look after its customers. One can only say that they are starting from the right principle in doing so.

The problem with the warning approach, though, is twofold. First, as I have said, a large number of people are latent photosensitives—people who are at risk, but who have never had an epileptic seizure as a result of watching TV, because they have not encountered the particular set of triggers that will set off an attack. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that our existing regulatory environment works quite well and has reduced the total amount of risk in British society for many years. However, those people who are photosensitive—we are talking about a genetic predisposition—are still at risk when they start playing a computer game. The danger is that, because they do not know that they are photosensitive, the warning does not work because they do not know that it is intended for them. In all honesty and conscience, they start playing, saying, “No, that doesn’t apply to me.” If they bother to read the warning,
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they say, “No, I’m not photosensitive”, and on they go, discovering that they are photosensitive only when it is too late, when they have suffered an attack.

It is worth pausing just to say that the consequences of suffering an epileptic attack can be severe. As anybody with any of the different forms of epilepsy will say—there are many kinds other than photosensitive epilepsy—it can be extremely severe and can occasionally, in some sad cases, result in death. However, even for people for whom that is not true, it can be a major crimp on their lifestyle and can mean that they are unable to do many things that some people regard as normal. Many people find it hard to drive, for instance, and find their ability to drive restricted. Undertaking other activities such as swimming can be a problem for some. As well as additional costs, such as insurance premiums, there is, of course, in public policy terms, the ongoing medical burden of providing them potentially with a lifetime’s treatment.

The problem with photosensitive epilepsy is that, once it has been triggered, for three quarters of sufferers it is a lifetime affliction. A small number, roughly a quarter, grow out of it, but for everybody else it is a problem for which there is no known cure and they are subjected to treatment at whatever level is necessary, depending on the severity of their level of suffering, for the remainder of their life. It is clearly sensible for any Government to adopt a precautionary approach, but the double standard of one system for TV regulation and another for computer games is not sensible.

The first problem is latency. People do not know that the warnings may be relevant to them. Secondly, the warning approach does not adopt the same precautionary principle that the Government have sensibly and correctly adopted for many years of trying to prevent attacks before they take place, because if someone has an attack, all sorts of negative consequences follow for the sufferer, their family and society as a whole because of the medical implications. Those are two fundamental flaws in the current approach to computer games, which is why the approach that this country has always taken with TV broadcasters is far superior.

One would think that the simple and straightforward answer is to take the existing successful, tried-and-tested and well-proven regulations that apply to TV broadcasters and, because they were invented at a time when computer games were unthought of, unheard of and were not even a glimmer in the eye of a silicon valley geek or venture capitalist, bring them up to date. One would also think that because it was unintentional—because no one realised—that they excluded a huge and growing section of screen-based activity in modern society, they could be extended from TV broadcasters to include computer games.

A couple of games-makers, notably Ubisoft, with which I have been in contact, have decided voluntarily and admirably to apply the sort of screening that I am suggesting to their games. That is an excellent example, which I am sure all hon. Members applaud, and I hope that many other games manufacturers will follow their example. The point is that some games manufacturers may decide to do that, but there is a huge number of games-makers and manufacturers throughout the world. Some are large and responsible, such as Ubisoft, but as in any industry, there is a large number of manufacturers who are relatively tiny, and although some may be responsible, we cannot be sure. The problem is that the
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risk of developing photosensitive epilepsy and having an attack triggered is at its height between the ages of seven and 19. The risk is approximately 1.1 incidents per 100,000 people in the population per year, but for people between the ages of seven and 19, it is more than five times higher. We are talking about the health and safety or public health of a key group of society: Great Britain’s young people.

It is all right to talk about a voluntary code, but we cannot be sure that that voluntary code, even if it is extended from responsible players such as Ubisoft, will be applied to all games sold in the UK, so anything less than proper regulation, which has been applied for some time to TV broadcasters, is likely to be unsatisfactory and inadequate.

The double standard that we are operating is not logically supportable. If regulation is right for TV broadcasters, it should be right for games manufacturers. The risks of watching a screen in either case should not be different and the worrying combination of flickering lights, colours and patterns is the same whether it is on a TV or a computer screen. It is not logical to support treating the two differently. The difference at the moment is unsafe, and I urge the Minister if necessary to liaise with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, who are responsible for health and safety, and in the Department of Health, as the problem is also one of public health. The matter is also a problem because the double standard is old fashioned and out of date. No one would argue that the regulations were intended to apply to only part of today’s screen-based society, because clearly they should apply to all parts of society.

Another point is that not only are the regulations well understood and well proven, they are relatively straightforward and cheap. The technology that is and has been applied by TV broadcasters for many years is based on a series of competing software programmes that quickly and relatively cheaply pre-screen anything that is put out. Those programmes have already been developed and have been modified, based on the same principles for TV, by companies such as Ubisoft, to apply also to games. We are not talking about something that is expensive, difficult to understand, groundbreaking or even cutting edge. This is old technology, which is well understood and could be implemented simply and straightforwardly. It would cost the Government nothing, and it would cost the industry a tiny fraction of the costs that they already incur in developing their computer games. The Minister would be able to look not just me but anyone else in the eye and say that her Government had done the right thing, the safe thing and the modern thing.

I launched this campaign with my constituent, Gaye Herford, supported by Professor Harding, who is the world expert in this area and was an original Government adviser on the first set of regulations for TV broadcasters. Since doing so, there has been an enormous amount of interest on the web and on blogs all over the place from people around the world. The problem is not confined to the UK. We have had interest from many countries, from people who suffer from PSE and their families, from the scientific community, and probably from a fair few lawyers in some countries, depending on whether they are litigious.

I do not want to sound over-dramatic because I am sure that the eyes of the entire world are not on us here this afternoon, but there is a great deal of interest in the
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matter, and Britain has an opportunity to do again what it did when the first set of regulations was established: to take a lead and to set an example that the rest of the world will follow. I am not pressurising the Minister, but I look forward to her response.

1.47 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this debate on what is an important issue. It is a shame that more hon. Members are not here. I know that he feels strongly about the topic, and he and I have corresponded about it. I welcome his contribution to the agenda. His actions have led to significant progress since he first raised it in 2007. He should take credit for that. I acknowledge that I received a letter from his constituent, Gaye Herford, and read that when preparing my response.

The hon. Gentleman calls on the Government to make it a legal requirement for computer games publishers to test their products before publication, and to remove scenes that could trigger a photosensitive epileptic seizure. He is right to acknowledge that more and more people play computer games, although a fact that surprised me may interest him. The average age of those who play computer games is 28, so they are not played just by children. They are increasingly being played by adults, and the gender balance is changing because they used to be played by men, but are now played increasingly by women.

The hon. Gentleman is thinking about computer games in relation to television broadcasting, and as we get closer to convergence, different issues will arise. As the net becomes more powerful, our ability to regulate it nationally will become more constrained, although we shall continue to try to protect UK citizens.

No one would argue that we should not do all that we reasonably can to prevent people experiencing epileptic attacks, but we also have—I know that the hon. Gentleman and his party strongly advocate this—better regulation principles that demand that we always strike a balance between protection and regulatory intervention. I shall deal with that first.

We must ensure that the safeguards in place are proportionate to the level of risk. To assess the proportionality, we have to review both the risk and the existing safeguards, and if the hon. Gentleman bears with me I will do that.

First, I shall explain what we mean when we refer to photosensitive epilepsy. It is a particular variant of epilepsy—I know the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the condition, but others might not be. PSE, as it is commonly known, is triggered by flashing or flicking lights or by certain shapes and sizes. Both natural and artificial light can trigger seizures and different types of seizures can be triggered by flickering light. If a seizure happens because of PSE, it will normally happen immediately. It is commonly believed that everyone who suffers from epilepsy is photosensitive. In fact, only five in every 100—5 per cent.—of people with epilepsy have that condition. In terms of the general population, we
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are talking about two people in every 10,000, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman can now understand the proportionality argument.

Most people with PSE will not have a problem playing video games, although seizures can sometimes happen by chance. Tiredness is important and excitement when playing computer games can also be a factor. Some of the research that I looked at found that only in 29 per cent. of patients with partial occipital epilepsy were video games associated with seizures. Even with those who have seizures, it is difficult to find the correlation in all instances between watching video games and having seizures.

It is also important to recognise the distinction that computer games do not cause either epilepsy or PSE—I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that—although computer games might trigger a seizure in those already prone to PSE, whether already diagnosed or not. That does not diminish the importance of the issue, but is an important clarification.

Let me now turn to the safeguards that already exist. On the statutory safeguards, the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 make it compulsory for producers to place warnings and instructions on all consumer products, including video games. The Department of Health advises if there is anything further that we need to do in relation to PSE seizure warnings. To date, I have not received such advice and that might be an avenue that the hon. Gentleman wishes to explore. The 2005 regulations also place a duty on producers to investigate complaints concerning the safety of their products and to inform trading standards if they become aware that they have placed an unsafe product on the market.

On the Ofcom rules, there are rules about what is allowed, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there is still an element of editorial judgment. PSE triggers are not entirely banned. I shall quote from the rules. They state, for example:

Of course, if someone has a latent PSE condition, that will not be enough. However, I wanted to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that the Ofcom rules are not as complete as he may wish them to be.

As I said to the hon. Gentleman in my letter to him of July last year, there is no legal provision that requires games publishers to offer warnings about the specific risk of a PSE-related seizure. However, it is a responsible industry and I acknowledge that much work has been done—particularly by the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association and many of the bigger games publishers in the UK. Mainly, warnings are offered in instruction manuals, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that for those with latent photosensitivity, those warnings will not be enough. He is right. However, I repeat that we have to consider whether new legislation or codes of conduct are a proportionate response. It must be recognised that we are talking about a very small number of people.

I would like to take the issue away from today’s debate and meet with ELSPA—the trade body that represents the industry—to see what progress can be
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made on a voluntary code of conduct. I accept that that will not necessarily cover all games producers, but it might give the hon. Gentleman and his constituents comfort that we are taking action. Of course, if I am unsuccessful in extending voluntary agreement for a voluntary code of conduct or if we find that it is insufficient, we can always return to the matter at a later stage.

As a responsible industry, the games industry continuously considers the implications of all health issues that are raised with it. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a couple of examples of proactive initiatives. He talked about Ubisoft and acknowledged the work that it had done. It is now using the harding flash and pattern analyser as standard. That is an example on which I hope we can build. ELSPA, which acts on behalf of the majority of video games publishers in the UK, also responded positively. It is actively exploring the issue to ensure that it adopts a sensible and responsible approach. I will engage in discussions with the association and write to him about the outcome of that.

In addition, ELSPA maintains a website——that gives a lot of information. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has visited it. The website gives all sorts of information about playing games safely and is designed to help those who are unfamiliar with video games—often parents—to understand what is involved so that they can be sure that their children are playing safely.

John Penrose: I appreciate the spirit in which the Minister is responding and thank her for what she has said so far. Her pledge to take the issue away and speak to the people she has mentioned is a valuable step in the right direction. While she is having those conversations, I urge her to bear in mind that, if a voluntary code is the right thing to do for the computer games industry, why is what is in place for TV broadcasters different? I am still concerned that we will end up with a double standard and that there will be regulation for one part of an industry and a voluntary code for another. I am not sure that I understand—I urge the Minister to push for clarification on this—why it is acceptable and logically supportable to have two different approaches for two industries that are converging, as she said earlier.

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Margaret Hodge: To some extent, the answer is that it is historic. Our desire to constrain ourselves from introducing more regulation is stronger today than it might have been in the past. In addition, television was much more universal in its early days, when those sort of regulations were brought in. I accept that the popularity of games is exploding, but I put it to him that games are only part of the changes to the way in which we communicate.

There are some interesting things and some good advice on the website to which I referred. However, I accept that that is only helpful if one knows that one has a condition. The website says things such as,

I hope that the work on that website demonstrates that the industry is taking the issue seriously.

On broadcasters, they take precautions to maintain a low level of risk to viewers who have PSE. When watching television, I have noted, for example, that every now and again people get a verbal warning not to watch a bit of news in which there might be a lot of flash photography. That is the complementary mechanism that exists in broadcasting.

In summary, if we look across the supply channel, we see what I believe, through my dealings, to be a responsible industry. We have seen what the industry can do to remedy the problem in a proportionate way with instruction manuals. Some publishers already actively screen their games, there is wider industry funding and an information website is maintained. The industry is also actively considering what, if any, further action is needed. On behalf of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, I will undertake to have further discussions with ELSPA and will write to him with the outcome of those discussions. I hope that we can make some progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.

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