Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)


29 APRIL 2008

  Q460  Chairman: But it must frustrate you that you come to us to tell us of the huge benefits that electronic games can bring and yet all the publicity focuses on what is a fairly small number of games but ones that are probably less beneficial.

  Mr Kingsley: Anecdotally, in preparing to come here I went into some shops and watched people's purchasing. The particular thing that frustrates me is that clearly you see a 12-year-old child picking up an unsuitable game, going up to the counter and being told by somebody, who is probably on or close to the minimum wage and who is obeying the law, that it cannot be purchased; the guardian comes up and just buys it. That disappoints me because the labelling is very clear but it appears that parents are perhaps not taking responsibility in the way they should. That is perhaps something for wider society rather than any one sector of the media.

  Q461  Chairman: Does ELSPA take a similar view?

  Mr Jackson: Yes. It is very frustrating that a lot of the media coverage we get is so negative. That seems to be the narrative that has been worked out over the past few years. We are very keen that a lot of the work Dr Byron has done will help us start to lose that coverage. She was very open and accessible; she came to us without prejudice, and I think she talked intelligently and clearly about how positive the video games industry is for youngsters in Britain. It is the start of a more sensible discussion upon which we hope the tabloids will pick up. We will see.

  Q462  Chairman: Let us move on to Dr Byron's recommendations. Obviously, in your area the principal one is a streamlined system of classification of games with BBFC taking the lead in over-12 ratings. You did not appear to give that recommendation 100% enthusiastic endorsement. What is your current view?

  Mr Jackson: We agree with the vast majority of her recommendations and worked very closely with her through the process. You will know that this is a very important matter for us. We have always been incredibly concerned to make sure that only youngsters of an appropriate age play appropriate material. We very much approve of greater parental involvement and understanding of the games that children play and are keen to help improve parental control systems and awareness of the age of 18 and what it means. We are very happy to work on improving the classification systems and have them backed up by law. However, the priority of our members is the protection of children and due to the dramatic changes in the sale of computer games and the shape of the industry going forward we are concerned about the hybrid system that she produces. We are concerned as to whether that will give to consumers the right clarity both online and offline, and we are concerned with the BBFC's methodology when it comes to an industry that is moving rapidly online. When you talked earlier to the online companies you referred to self-regulation. We honestly believe that as we move into this online space self-regulation is the only way legitimately to classify all of the product that will be coming on stream. Those are the current issues which fundamentally are predicated on the substantial changes in the industry that we see over the next few years. We see our products being much more and consistently digitally distributed and as that happens those business models will change, with products fragmenting and becoming multiple products. At the moment in the UK we are classifying 1,750 games a year and the BBFC at the top end is involved in, I think, about 100 games. At face value it looks as though these proposals will increase that load to 500 games. We would have some concerns about how the BBFC would rate another 500 games, but fundamentally that is not the issue. The issue is how it will rate 100,000 game elements in five years' time. That is our real concern, because if we do not get it right now the problem is that we will end up with a muddle and in five years' time we will not be protecting children very well again and that will just be appalling.

  Mr Ramsdale: From our perspective as publishers we concur. We are now making content on Sims and Burnout where you have bought a game and disk. You put in the disk which carries perhaps a BBFC rating and you have the opportunity to buy stuff online in hundreds of thousands of quantities which then carry a PEGI online self-regulated rating system. That is just confusing. Looking at what analysts say about the industry, the growth will come from online content and not just from having a disk and buying additional content down the pipe. It is about going onto the pipe and playing one to one. You may choose to pay £2 and play a football game against a guy sitting at home in Japan. There is nothing there about BBFC and packaged goods. Therefore, the analysts are looking at this and saying that potentially in five years' time there could be as much online game playing as there is disk-based game playing. From our perspective we just feel that this suggestion goes down the wrong route.

  Dr Wilson: Specifically on the classification system, it is important to emphasise from a games development point of view that our members make games that are sold all over the world. Therefore, the classification systems of other countries are also important. The games developers I have spoken to so far believe that they can operate perfectly well within the existing classification system. The ones I have spoken to since the publication of Dr Byron's report seemed to indicate that they could operate under the hybrid system that she also proposes.

  Mr Kingsley: As a games developer that makes games for a worldwide market, we already have to take into account different cultures and different things. We have to do different things in Germany, for example. As long as it is clear what we have to do, the rules are the same for everybody and the timing is appropriate in terms of getting the classification sorted out well in advance of submitting the game to the hardware manufacturers, because that is another approval process that game developers must go through, we are fine with pretty much everything as long as we can give it a time zone. If it takes a couple of weeks that is all right.

  Q463  Chairman: Referring to your point about the parent who basically ignores the rating and buys the game for the child, that happens with BBFC-rated games where at least there is some legal force. Surely, one of the attractions of BBFC's system is that it carries legal force and we can therefore require age ratings and classifications at 12, 15 as well as 18 if we adopt the BBFC proposal.

  Mr Kingsley: From my perspective I do not have a problem with that. I think it is quite shocking it is not already the case that it is illegal to supply certain games to those in a particular age group. I was quite surprised to find that it was only at the 18 point that there were legal ramifications in such supply.

  Q464  Chairman: So, you would prefer a BBFC-type system?

  Mr Kingsley: From an individual perspective, I would prefer to have legal sanctions in place for that kind of thing, whether or not it is through PEGI. This is where we differ from our colleagues in publishing.

  Mr Jackson: In our evidence to Dr Byron and to you we said we believed that the legal protections under the Video Recordings Act 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. I would stress the fact that as we move into the online future and products fragment essentially it is the publisher who is responsible for classification. That is why I believe that the publishing community is so concerned to get this right. We will work with our internal development resources and external independent developer friends to get that right, but fundamentally it is our job and we must make sure we get it right.

  Mr Ramsdale: You asked Bebo and Fox about whether one could possibly look to the US for any other ways to do it. The ESRB in the US is a self-regulatory system that has quite sharp teeth against publishers on compliance. From our perspective a multinational European system makes life a lot easier for a multinational publisher and retailer from the point of view of complexity. My personal view and that of my company is that we should support a European system like PEGI. I believe that self-regulation has proven to work in the US with ESRB and so far here with PEGI, but some involvement is needed with the PEGI system. I do not say that today it is perfect, and we shall spend some time talking to ISPI and PEGI about what they would need to do to step PEGI out, but a sharp set of teeth is an important part of what PEGI needs.

  Q465  Chairman: Referring to your point about what will happen in five years' time when there will be an explosion in material available for digital download, the difficulty of classifying that will be the same whether it is the BBFC or PEGI presumably?

  Mr Jackson: The task is the same, but we cannot see how the methodology will work. Whereas PEGI is classic self-regulation and the people concerned with making the content and the publishing community self-regulate it through that system and there are checks and balances to ensure that that regulation works well—Dr Byron said she thought that the processes worked equally well and was happy with both regulatory systems—that is quite different because it is a scaleable resource. As you have more products you have more people making them and so you have more people self-regulating them. It is the classic self-regulation mode. With the BBFC, as I understand it, the model was developed in the 1950s when I guess it was looking at linear films. It reviews everything from scratch and then develops its view of what the rating should be. The issue is that if you are rating 100,000 game elements you need a very big office block full of censors to do that. We just do not see how that will happen; indeed, I have not seen that proposed in the online space for things like YouTube and so on. At the moment to some extent as an industry we appear to be like the film or music industry, but we are very quickly transforming into something that looks like a cross between us and iTunes, YouTube and goodness knows what else. We do not see at the moment how that model can be dealt with under the BBFC's methodology.

  Mr Kingsley: There may have to be an element of self-regulation in BBFC because games are so big that the concept that they can play every aspect of every game is not possible. There may well have to be an element where the publisher or developer says that the BBFC is looking at representative content. I have only just thought about it, but one will need a kind of hybrid anyway.

  Mr Jackson: That is right, and if the BBFC needs to turn into PEGI to do the job properly that is a bit crazy.

  Q466  Chairman: It is difficult to see how you can expect a games developer, who has spent a lot of money developing a game, to turn round and say that it believes it should be rated 18 so that no one below that age can buy it. Surely, they have a vested interest in making it available.

  Mr Ramsdale: I would argue that we should look at the US model. The US is the largest territory in the world for video games, so pretty much every major publisher has a role to play in the US. That is a self-regulatory system with teeth and it works. The BBFC has done a decent job for us. We are not here to say that the BBFC has been rubbish, but it is a film specialist which is a very linear media. To go back to Grand Theft Auto, one or two days ago a Times journalist, I believe, talked about how two players could have two fundamentally different experiences in that game. To have someone who is able to classify that just feels like a step too far.

  Q467  Chairman: BBFC would argue that they have been looking at video games ever since the Video Recordings Act, which is now quite a long time, and so it has probably built up more experience than PEGI. That would be their submission to us.

  Mr Jackson: I think there is a fundamental difference between reviewing products for sex and violence at the very top end of the stream—it has looked at about 100 products a year in recent times—and the full context of what we put onto the market. The reality is that in the history of PEGI we could not find a single complaint about the age rating given to a product. We have had some complaints when a product has come in with an 18 rating and has been given a lower rating by the BBFC. There is consistent history that the BBFC rates more lightly than the PEGI system. I do not say that in any sense as a complaint but merely to show it definitely proves that the industry-backed self-regulatory system is not driving classification lower but quite the reverse.

  Q468  Alan Keen: Let us move away from legislation and law enforcement for the moment and go to what is almost a philosophical point of view. When I first came to London I can remember the court case over Lady Chatterley's Lover and the Lord Chancellor still in charge of what could go on the stage. Mr Gamble who is probably the most experienced law enforcement officer said in evidence—we were then talking more about the Internet than games—said that what was illegal in real life should be illegal on the Internet. Is there a difference between watching films where baddies do really awful things to good people and other baddies and becoming a character in a video game where you are doing illegal things: drinking and driving, which has been mentioned, chopping people into little bits and pieces with blood coming out, rape and all sorts of things? From a philosophical point of view is there a difference between watching other people do it and becoming a character that does it? Just be very open about it.

  Mr Kingsley: With great respect, I do not know of a single game where you can rape somebody.

  Q469  Alan Keen: You can chop people into little bits.

  Mr Kingsley: You can kill dragons as well. There are lots of abstracts in game playing.

  Q470  Alan Keen: What about killing people or chopping them up?

  Mr Kingsley: Is it different from real life?

  Q471  Alan Keen: Mr Gamble said that things illegal in real life should be illegal on the Internet. Should we be able to become characters and do illegal things to people? Is there a difference between watching and doing?

  Mr Jackson: This is a complex matter and you are probably not talking to the right people. Dr Byron is the right person to answer that question. Fundamentally, she said there was a difference between doing something that really hurt people and something that absolutely did not. All through time we have played games and entertained ourselves. When in chess you kill a pawn nobody asks any questions about it. The clarity of the vision in some of our games is so good that we need to make sure youngsters are protected, and we have spent 15 years trying to do that. I am not sure that we are really the right people to talk to about that kind of philosophical side of things. Personally, I do not see that if you can do something in real life that is illegal it should be illegal to do it in a video game. That would be like making it illegal to watch in a film what you read about in a book and that takes you into some incredibly scary country.

  Q472  Alan Keen: To explain, I am not being antagonistic towards any of these games. I know you do not believe what MPs say, but in this job we do not get time to play. I play the odd game of Sudoku plus football, but I do not have time to play games which I believe are a bit of a luxury. I hope I will be able to do so when I retire. I am not asking you in an accusatory way; I am just trying to get an understanding of it.

  Dr Wilson: With all due respect to Mr Jackson, I think everyone is perfectly capable of having a point or view about whether or not it is moral to play certain games or to watch particular films. As it happens, most of the games I play are rated for 12 because I like strategy games, which says a lot about me, but it does not mean that when you play a game that re-enacts Caesar's legions in the course of next day you will sign up with some far right organisation; it does not work like that. I think that generally—Dr Byron stressed this point—people can differentiate between fantasy and fact; there can be differentiation. In many ways some of the things you see on films are more shocking. Although the graphics and technology have improved enormously in games, in films we see real human beings doing things to other human beings which must have a greater impact on people, if only it is being scared by it. One sees some very realistic horror films, for example. We are all capable of making decisions about this.

  Q473  Alan Keen: But is there a difference between watching people doing horrible things to other people and becoming a character and doing those horrible things ourselves to other people?

  Mr Kingsley: Within a computer game as opposed to just watching it passively? In some ways a game playing experience can be very intense, but if it is the right kind of movie it can be an incredibly intense experience as well. I have had them described to me as "sit forward and sit back" experiences; that is, you sit forward and play a computer game and then sit back and watch a movie. I have watched movies which frankly horrify and shock me and I have felt bad about having gone to see them. Recently, in Cloverfield the motion sickness was so awful that I could not watch it. That has a visceral effect on me. But good games give you moral choices; they do not necessarily from a games design point of view drive you down the bad or good route; they give you a set of choices and allow you as a player perhaps to fantasise or decide whether you want to be a holy paladin going on a quest to save a world or to be an evil character who is trying to conquer it. I think that is quite cathartic. If you look at what goes on in the Grimm brothers' fairytales some are quite horrifying. Sometimes an audience needs that kind of cathartic aspect to it.

  Q474  Mr Hall: I want to explore the area of parental control. It is said that now there are devices on most games that allow parents in the home to control what their kids get up to. Is there any evidence to show that parents implement these devices on computers and they control access to these more violent activities online?

  Mr Jackson: We do not have any research at the moment about how parents use online parental controls. One of the recommendations made by Dr Byron was that we increase the awareness of parental controls and work to make sure that those controls are easy to use and implement and we have accepted that wholeheartedly and will be working with manufacturers going forward to make sure that happens. Parental controls are fundamentally a technological issue. I do not have all the facts on this, but we see parental controls particularly through bespoke systems like the Sony PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii as being a very solid future for us in terms of helping to protect youngsters, because we think that the parental controls can eventually work online. They often do already but the different machines need to be brought into line and there needs to be clarity as to what they are and how parents can implement them when the machine comes into the home. That can be done in a number of ways.

  Q475  Mr Hall: So, they will be a lot clearer for parents to be able to understand them?

  Mr Jackson: Dr Byron had differing viewpoints. She said to us that the Microsoft Xbox 360 system was the gold standard, so we need to look at that and see how that might flow out across the other hardware platforms. Obviously, this is quite time-constraining. The industry will look at new hardware platforms as they are designed to some extent, but there might also be software solutions to it.

  Mr Ramsdale: If you look back just three or four years, we used to make games for three formats: Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo platforms. Now we make games on 11 formats which include Apple iPods and any mobile phone. You can imagine the number of SKUs for different products that we have to make for all the different mobile phones out there. Therefore, one thing to consider is parental control on those devices as well because children have the hardware and are downloading applications on to them. I would also make that point in relation to the debate about PEGI and BBFC. Is it realistic for BBFC to rate 11 different formats including an iPod which by rights it should do?

  Q476  Mr Hall: The point you make is that children now have access to laptops and mobile phones. There are a number of ways of getting access outside the home and therefore beyond parental supervision. That puts into context that parental supervision is not the be all and end all in terms of protecting children and preventing them from accessing harmful content?

  Mr Ramsdale: I think that is right. We can do some education. We see the future ahead of us and think how we can deal with it so we are really looking out for children. You can probably hear from us that we are dedicated to that thought. It is more difficult than just saying that there is a parental control and parents switch it on or off as they choose.

  Q477  Mr Hall: One then has the issue of parental supervision which is probably far more important than parental control. If parents took a greater interest in what their children did online or in the games they played rather than just relying on a device on the computer that gave some protection that would be a much better way to deal with this part of the concern.

  Mr Kingsley: In a way, perhaps parental controls have the opposite effect; parents may think it is completely safe to leave their children to do anything.

  Q478  Mr Hall: That is why I say there is a difference between supervision and control.

  Dr Wilson: Ultimately, parents must take responsibility. All the technological devices in the world are valueless if parents do not use them or encourage their children to take advantage of them.

  Mr Ramsdale: Again, that is talking to a system that works across every format, that is, one age rating system that parents understand, whether it is a mobile phone, iPod, laptop or console.

  Mr Jackson: That is a key part of what we talked about earlier. The fewer systems we need our technologies to interact with and understand what the age rating system is telling you the better shot we have at protecting children in future because we can get the systems to talk together. I am sure we will try to do that with 27 different systems across Europe but the reality is that we are unlikely to do very well.

  Q479  Mr Hall: It would be better to have one?

  Mr Jackson: We would be much more likely to succeed in protecting children. That is the key. It is not that we would not try, but with 27 systems as opposed to one the chances of failing are much higher.

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