Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Tenth Report

6  Classification of video games

187.  Many video games—particularly those which are console based or which are supplied on DVD or other similar formats—fall within the definition of "video work" in the Video Recordings Act 1984,[340] in which case their sale and distribution will be subject to controls under the Act if the game depicts:

  • human sexual activity or acts of force or restraint associated with such activity;
  • mutilation or torture of, or other acts of gross violence towards, humans or animals;
  • human genital organs or human urinary or excretory functions

or if it is designed to stimulate or encourage either of the first two types of activity. Games which include clips from films will automatically be subject to classification. Online games, where the software is hosted on a website rather than on a consumer device, and which are played via a live Internet link, are not covered under the Act.[341]

188.  It is illegal to supply any non-exempt video game[342] without a classification or in breach of a classification. Non-exempt games are therefore submitted to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), as the authority designated by the Secretary of State; once classified, a video game may be marketed within the constraints imposed by the BBFC's classification.

189.  Most video games do not require classification. In 2007, 101 out of the 1231 video games released into the UK market were submitted to the BBFC for classification either because they were judged by the games' publishers to be non-exempt under the 1984 Act or because they contained film clips. Of these 101 games, 29 were classified as being suitable only for players aged 18 or above, 19 games were classified as being suitable only for players aged 15 and above, and 2 games were classified as being suitable only for players aged 12 and above. Only 2.4% of the 1231 games released in 2007, therefore, received an "18" certificate.

190.  Up to twelve examiners employed by the BBFC may be called upon to examine video games submitted for classification. Examiners play the games, typically for around five hours, although some games may take less time to examine and others more: Manhunt 2, for example, took a total of more than 100 examining hours.[343] The BBFC currently classifies around 250 video games each year and envisages "an increase of 300-500 games per year" initially. Currently, the BBFC classifies a game within ten days.[344] The classifications awarded are the same as those for films.

The PEGI system

191.  The video games industry in the UK has operated its own ratings system for video games since 1994. Since 2003, the ratings used have been those of the PEGI (Pan-European Game Information) system, established by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, and now used in 28 European countries.[345] PEGI ratings are awarded in the UK by the Video Standards Council (VSC), a non-profit making body established in 1989 at the request of the Government "to develop and oversee a code of practice designed to promote high standards within the video and video games industries".[346]

192.  PEGI is a voluntary age rating system, based on self assessment by games publishers, who complete an online questionnaire giving "yes" or "no" answers to a "series of carefully worded questions relating to the content of the game".[347] The PEGI system then specifies a provisional age rating. If a game is assessed as being suitable only for players over 16 or over 18, it is submitted to the Video Standards Council, whose examiners will play the game for an average of two to three hours to assess whether the publisher's assessment is correct. A game's PEGI rating may be displayed on its packaging, as may a pictogram further outlining the nature of the game's content. There are seven pictograms symbolising violence, sex/nudity, drugs, bad language, gambling, material which may be "scary for young children" or "material which may encourage discrimination".[348]

Online games

193.  Over time it is likely that more and more games will be distributed on-line. Although it is not a legal requirement, the BBFC now offers online distributors the opportunity to have their games classified by The scheme offers members online classifications where a work has been granted a Video Recordings Act certificate with point of sale information using the recognised BBFC branding. Many games are classified by "PEGI Online", an offshoot of the PEGI system. The same process of self-assessment and (if necessary) verification by the Video Standards Council is followed; and the same ratings system is used. Games publishers which submit games to PEGI Online for classification may display the PEGI Online label on their websites. We note that mass-market games consoles, such as Xbox, Playstation and Wii, only permit access to games sites that have been approved by PEGI Online. Consumers may also use filtering software to block access to games on websites not approved by PEGI; but we were told that some filters could not currently discriminate between sites approved by PEGI and those that are not. More sophisticated filtering software is being developed.[349]

The hybrid system proposed by Dr Byron

194.  For many video games available for sale in the UK, therefore, two classification systems are running side by side. It was suggested to us that the dual system was confusing for parents and retailers,[350] and Dr Byron considered the issue in her Review. She recommended that the two classification systems should be streamlined into one hybrid system, which should be extended to require classification of all games containing content which would presently receive a 12+ PEGI rating, to be underpinned by the statutory controls on supply established under the Video Recordings Act 1984. Under Dr Byron's proposed hybrid system, BBFC logos and classification codes would be on the front of all games packaging, and PEGI would continue to award ratings to games with content suitable for children aged under 12.

195.  Dr Byron envisaged that the BBFC and PEGI would need to work together to align the criteria underlying such games for which, in effect, classification would be undertaken by PEGI using BBFC symbols. This proposal has provoked some anxiety in the BBFC. The Board's Director, David Cooke, said in evidence that "we are always nervous about the idea of putting our symbols to a methodology that we are not ourselves operating".[351] However, the BBFC has indicated that it would be willing to accept the proposal provided that it is able to check the classification methods used.

196.  The Government has pledged to implement all of Dr Byron's recommendations, although it has recognised the controversy generated by her proposals for games classification and has agreed to consult on them with the games industry and parents. The Byron Review Action Plan, published in June 2008, announced that the Government would launch a four month consultation on reforming the classification system for video games in July 2008 and would publish proposals for reform by early 2009. A full assessment of the costs to the industry of reform will also be carried out.[352]

197.  We held oral evidence sessions with games developers, games publishers and bodies with a role in games classification, in each case after the publication of Dr Byron's Report; and we questioned witnesses on whether Dr Byron's proposed hybrid system for video game classification would be any clearer than the current system, given that there would still be two different logos for certain games—a BBFC rating on the front and a PEGI rating on the back. The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, accepted that this was a "perfectly legitimate concern, which is why we are going to have a period of consultation": she added that "a system which parents can easily understand is the most important objective that we must bear in mind and we will just have to test it".[353] Ofcom took a very similar view, arguing that the critical test is whether people understand and trust ratings.[354]

The relative strengths of the PEGI and the BBFC systems

198.  No-one appeared to believe that the proposed hybrid system was a perfect solution. Witnesses representing the games industry generally favoured the PEGI system and they set out its strengths. Mr Darby, Operations Manager of the Video Standards Council, said that "the hybrid system would not have been a road that we would have suggested going down in the first place and … we would have preferred a single system. However, if the hybrid system is the one that is recommended PEGI will certainly work towards achieving that."[355] Paul Jackson, Director General of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), argued that only a self-regulatory system would be able to keep up with the expected dramatic increase in the number of games and games components (such as new features added to existing games), reaching possibly "100,000 game elements" in five years' time.[356] He questioned whether the BBFC would have the necessary resources and pointed out that PEGI was a "scaleable resource": the number of games publishers/developers would always equal the number of regulators.[357]

199.  Microsoft pointed out that the PEGI system is more informative than the BBFC age classification, in that it gives parents both an age rating and a content rating for a game. Both Microsoft and ELSPA observed that PEGI was a self-regulatory system which was applied consistently across Europe.[358] Mr Ramsdale, Vice-President of EA Games, a games publisher, told us that "from our perspective, a multinational European system makes life a lot easier for a multinational publisher and retailer,"[359] and we can see the benefits and the convenience for the industry of a single assessment for authority to distribute a game across Europe. We note, however, that film distributors may face a similar obstacle but nonetheless accept the requirement for individual assessment for distribution in each country .

200.  Mr Jackson, Director General of ELSPA, proposed that the controls on supply under the Video Recordings Act 1984 should be afforded to the PEGI system in the UK: "We would then have one legal system that went from the shelf through to online and there would be the clearest possible world within which consumers could operate."[360] Mr Ramsdale described the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) system in the US, which imposes fines and product recalls and suspends future rating services if publishers do not comply with the rules: "We should look at the US model. […] That is a self-regulatory system with teeth and it works".[361] We were told that the ESRB system had "become the norm" in the United States and that retailers would not sell games without ESRB classifications; nor would console manufacturers develop consoles which would accept games without ESRB classifications.[362]

201.  Despite the industry's doubts, the BBFC classification system has significant benefits. BBFC classifications are already recognised in statute; and, significantly, the BBFC logos are already understood and recognised by consumers, including parents who may not be familiar with games content but who can relate the logos to classification of film content. The Entertainment Retailers Association argued that the BBFC system would require considerably less consumer education to make it effective for games and concluded that "whilst neither the BBFC system nor PEGI meet all our requirements, we believe the BBFC system requires less work than PEGI to meet consumer needs".[363] The evidence on the relative familiarity of BBFC and PEGI symbols is contradictory: research commissioned by the BBFC suggested that the public would prefer to buy games from a website if it was clear that it was part of a BBFC scheme,[364] but the games industry presented research commissioned through YouGov, suggesting that the public did not perceive one system as being preferable to the other.[365]

202.  The Government maintains that the BBFC method of classification is more thorough and rigorous than PEGI and believes that it "commands greater confidence".[366] The BBFC is confident that it would be able to absorb the extra work produced by the proposed new system: "We are certainly clear that it is a workable package and we do not have any difficulty at all with the resource implications."[367]

203.  We recognise the concerns that the hybrid system for games classification proposed by Dr Byron may not command confidence in the games industry and would not provide significantly greater clarity for consumers. We believe that, ideally, a single classification system should be adopted. While either of the systems operated by the BBFC and by PEGI would be workable in principle, we believe that the widespread recognition of the BBFC's classification categories in the UK and their statutory backing offer significant advantages which the PEGI system lacks. We therefore agree that the BBFC should continue to rate games with adult content and should have responsibility for rating games with content appropriate only for players aged 12 or above, and that these ratings should appear prominently. Online distributors should be encouraged to take advantage of the scheme which should be promoted as offering greater confidence to parents about the nature of the game. While we hope that PEGI will work with the BBFC to develop a single system, distributors are of course free to continue to use PEGI ratings in addition, as they do at present.

340   Any series of visual images (with or without sound) produced electronically by the use of information contained on any disc or magnetic tape and shown as a moving picture. Back

341   BBFC Ev 294 Back

342   Any game depicting activities or characteristics listed in paragraph 187 Back

343   Ev 338 Back

344   Information supplied by BBFC Back

345   A trade body Back

346   Ev 323 Back

347   Ev 324 Back

348 Back

349   Ev 337 Back

350   British Board of Film Classification Ev 301, Entertainment Retailers Association Ev 365 Back

351   Q 543 Back

352   Q 581. See also Byron Review Action Plan, page 20 Back

353   Q 587 Back

354   Q 531 Back

355   Q 543 Back

356   Q 462 Back

357   Q 465  Back

358   Ev 35 and Q 85 Back

359   Q 464 Back

360   Q 464 Back

361   Q 466 Back

362   Information supplied to the Committee in the US by EA Games Back

363   Ev 400 Back

364   Ev 315 Back

365   Ev 400 Back

366   Q 582 Back

367   Q 543 Back

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