Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)


29 APRIL 2008

  Q480  Helen Southworth: You make a very strong case for a self-regulated industry and parental responsibility being the ultimate responsibility. As organisations and businesses how are you progressing those things? What contribution is each of your industries making to the education of users and parents, and what sort of budget are you allocating to that? What kind of results are you getting from it?

  Mr Ramsdale: From our perspective, we are really at the cusp. If one looks back at the education we have done, there is a healthy awareness among people who play games on PEGI: more than 80% of game players recognise and understand it but PEGI and BBFC work in tandem. Looking backwards we have good recognition. Looking forward it is clear that as the industry becomes more casual-based—the average age of game players at the moment is 28 or 29, so they are not children—our job is to increase awareness of age ratings. I think that we have a part to play in that. Part of our ELSPA board work is to talk about how we would fund that, that is, what elements we need to fund, for what elements we would look to government for help and what we can do that is relatively cheap and easy. As an example, in the US at the end of every advert there is a flash with the ESRB age rating. Can we do that in Europe? Potentially we could. I think we are now at a point when we need to consider much more robustly education going forward. The Byron report has been a catalyst for that. Indeed, next week we have a meeting with the European trade body ISPI. We shall be talking to them about that very subject.

  Q481  Helen Southworth: In terms of describing the five years ahead that is a very short period of time.

  Mr Ramsdale: It is long in our world.

  Q482  Helen Southworth: The whole problem is that two worlds which clash: one moves so fast that you can barely see it; as for the other two years is a very short period in which to achieve anything. We have to get those two things working effectively together. But in that five-year world one will see a very radical shift in the age range?

  Mr Ramsdale: Yes.

  Q483  Helen Southworth: Describe to us what you are expecting from that radical shift. I know what I am expecting; let us see if they are the same.

  Mr Ramsdale: I think it will go younger and older, frankly. Some of the work that Nintendo has done has really changed our industry in a very short space of time. If any of the Members have children or grandchildren I am sure they have seen them play NDS. That works very well for a younger audience. Just a few years ago we would not have considered some of the games they play to be viable even in content let alone market potential. As one goes up the age range, Wii offers a family experience. For example, my dad plays bowling with my four year-old daughter on the Wii. What else can they do together when they are on equal terms? It is a fabulous thing. One then has the Internet and how it will develop in this phase, the mobile phones, iPods and whatever other device there is that has not even been thought of. What it will look like in five years' time is a tough question. What we are certain of is that the average age will be higher but the bottom and top ends will also expand outwards; and our primary concern is that because some of the players are getting younger we adequately protect those under 18.

  Q484  Helen Southworth: We are describing the same thing which is that there will be a huge increase in the number of younger people and therefore by definition more vulnerable people being able to access systems very quickly?

  Mr Ramsdale: As to "a huge increase", a lot of children play already. I think that the huge increase is at the other end of the scale.

  Mr Jackson: We did some research on that. We do not go below eight. The research shows that currently for the eight to 11 year-olds about 100% play video games; between 11 and 15 it is 97%, but we do not have anything below eight.

  Q485  Helen Southworth: But over the next few years the difference will be access to online games?

  Mr Jackson: Yes.

  Q486  Helen Southworth: That is why I say there will be a huge increase in online access to games by the under-18s?

  Mr Jackson: Yes. That is why it is critical we get right the decisions about the classification system and future-proofed now so we end up with systems where we can protect kids as best we can.

  Q487  Chairman: Perhaps I may raise with you a problem of online gaming. In many online games, particularly World of Warcraft, it is possible to communicate by voice with other players who may be anywhere. It was drawn to my attention by a national newspaper that in one particular game extreme racist remarks and highly offensive language were used by players against other players. Is any responsibility taken by the games industry that creates these online spaces where people can communicate to prevent that kind of abuse, or is there anything that can be done about it?

  Mr Kingsley: I do not think anything can be done. I imagine that people have pretty horrible conversations over telephones. I do not know to what extent they are tracked or not, but I do not think much can be done about that kind of thing. It is a mechanism for communication. I have been in situations where I have played online games and, frankly, I have wanted to switch it off because it is just horrible. It appears to be the younger male voice, particularly American, that conveys the particular abuse. I do not know that there is anything we can do. We could just disable that feature.

  Q488  Chairman: In particular if they are young people they may be exposed to bullying in that space and it could be quite harmful to them, but you do not believe there is anything that the industry can do to prevent that?

  Mr Kingsley: It is the same situation in schools.

  Q489  Chairman: Quite a lot is being done to try to deal with it in schools.

  Mr Ramsdale: For my part, I think prevention is difficult. The point is: how do you take these people to task? Like the conversation we have just had, certainly as a publisher we have a big customer service operation and escalation points for complaints go into that group. Those complaints could be about someone not playing fairly or cheating in the game or that the person is being abusive. You have the opportunity to complain very quickly and easily, but it is tough to prevent it because you are dealing with humans.

  Q490  Chairman: Would you ever bar somebody from playing online?

  Mr Ramsdale: Yes.

  Q491  Chairman: You would say that is unacceptable behaviour?

  Mr Ramsdale: And we have proof of having done so.

  Q492  Helen Southworth: You just said that one had the opportunity to complain very quickly. How fast does the response come back? We are talking specifically perhaps about exploitation and vulnerability. How do you sort that out from all the other general stuff?

  Mr Kingsley: I was talking mainly about people swearing at each other or using inappropriate language online rather than the exploitation of children.

  Q493  Helen Southworth: We are also saying that there is the potential perhaps for bullying or activity that is exploitative?

  Mr Kingsley: You would not necessarily know at whom you were swearing online.

  Mr Jackson: As our industry develops these new business models and entertainment products we are moving into the same world and the people we are addressing. Dr Byron looked at that. We shall need to address the issues that she identified on the Internet side in a lot of the work we are doing. Currently, we do that under the PEGI code of conduct for video games. We have the mechanisms in place and those need to be amended and improved in the light of Dr Byron's report. We need to work very closely with all the elements involved in the report to make sure we are at the cutting edge of that kind of protection. We are rapidly taking on board all of the recommendations made by Dr Byron who looked at these areas. In that part of our business we are, like MySpace and Facebook, moving into the same space but in a different way. We need to look at the specifics of that for our codes of conduct, but the video games industry has already signed up to the fact that it must address it. It is already addressing it and it will work on it going forward.

  Mr Ramsdale: To answer your direct question about how long it takes, for us it is really a matter of minutes. We use an outsourced agency that we run cum bonum. I would guess that is a relevant point. The complaint can be escalated via email or even telephone call and the response time is within minutes potentially. We do not get the numbers that the other witnesses referred to, but for that group we receive a few thousand calls a week.

  Q494  Helen Southworth: We have been looking at various examples of issues and problems. One issue that emerges is vulnerable young people, or even older people, who are particularly affected by something, for example bullying, and can make a response to it leading to fast intervention. Are you putting in place mechanisms? For example, if you receive a report from someone who says, "This has happened to me. I feel really bad about it. I have been harming myself and I am going to do something more", do you believe you will be able to achieve fast interaction in that case?

  Mr Ramsdale: Without being evasive, I do not think I can answer that specific scenario. If someone makes a complaint it will go to our team who will investigate it and potentially will take the person out of the game and impose a ban. We come back to your point about whether we can ban people. Yes, and we do so actively.

  Q495  Helen Southworth: But do you have a mechanism for directing support to a person who reports a crisis to you?

  Mr Ramsdale: To professional support for that person?

  Q496  Helen Southworth: Yes.

  Mr Ramsdale: I would need to check that; I do not know.

  Mr Kingsley: Is it not a bit different? You are talking about people who make up characters online and then role play them. It is not themselves; they are not pictures of themselves, and they are not talking about themselves as 12 year-olds at school or anything. They are not necessarily communicating to people as people; they are communicating within the context of a game. You can ban certain users or ISPs but you would not necessarily know whether the person was a 47 year-old man or a 12 year-old girl playing the game. They may adopt different roles in those games. Whilst superficially it sounds similar it is actually quite different.

  Q497  Helen Southworth: But in terms of reporting concern or abuse, the whole point is that one must be able to differentiate those things and have mechanisms that can deal with the world into which one is entering?

  Mr Kingsley: The difference is that you are not talking about an individual personality. When you talk about social networks as I understand it you are talking about a real person with a MySpace page who is being bullied directly. If you are playing World of Warcraft or any of the other online games you might be a mighty barbarian warrior who is being sworn at by another such warrior. It is not necessarily directed at you, the person who happens to work in Marks & Spencer but who becomes a barbarian warrior at weekends; it is directed against his or her character. You might complain that there has been cheating and that the language used is inappropriate, but it distances itself from the very direct form of personality bullying that one might have with online social networking spaces.

  Mr Jackson: Having said that, we are keen to protect youngsters in this space and we will make sure that our codes of conduct work with the regulations to make sure they do.

  Mr Ramsdale: Currently, the PEGI online symbol is shown. For any online games content you must meet certain criteria like escalation points and panic buttons. [19]That can become more robust but I do not think it is bad for where we are at.

  Q498 Chairman: As I understand it, the economics of your industry require that if you are to get a return on considerable investment in the development of a game it must probably be obtained in the first month of release. We are anticipating Grand Theft Auto 4. The forecast is that it will take over $200 million in the space of the first week of release. To achieve that there is already massive advertising. If the advertising tells people that this takes gaming to a new dimension and offers graphics and experiences never seen before are you not creating a huge demand among people who it is hoped will not be able to buy the game because they will be under the age at which it is rated?

  Mr Jackson: Twelve or 13 years ago I chaired a meeting when the industry signed up to the ASA code of conduct and guidelines. That is an article of membership. You are thrown out of all the associations and you cannot operate unless you sign up to the ASA codes. There are not many industries that do that. I am absolutely sure that the advertising has been managed appropriately. At the end of the day, we have to be able to represent these incredible cutting edge products that we make honestly and sensibly within the code. By and large I think we are doing that.

  Q499  Chairman: But the advertising will not say that this is an 18 game and if you are under 18 you should not even think about it?

  Mr Jackson: I think it does flag up the age rating of the game, which is the current BBFC age rating. We need to make sure that we do ever more work in that direction and we are already discussing that. It needs to be clear on every product as it is advertised what its age rating is.

19   Note by witness: An escalation point/panic button is a mechanism allowing a consumer to report inappropriate activity from another user during online gameplay. Back

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