Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Video Standards Council

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

    —  The VSC was established in 1989. It is a standards body representing all segments of the video and games industries.

    —  From 1994 until 2003 the VSC administered the UK ELSPA system of age rating for video games. From 2003 the VSC has been jointly responsible for administering the PEGI system of age rating applying in the UK and 27 other countries of Europe. Both systems represent effective non statutory means of control and giving information.

    —  PEGI is a unique achievement and is a robust and dynamic system of age rating which has the flexibility to both meet European demands and national requirements and sensitivities.

    —  A small minority of games (less than 3%) have to be submitted to the BBFC for legal classification in the UK because of extreme content (usually gross violence or sexual content) and receive the same BBFC classifications as are used for films. This causes confusion.

    —  There is a clear need to distinguish between video games and films. They are very different products. Watching a film is a passive experience. Playing a game is an interactive experience. The PEGI system fulfils this requirement.

    —  The methodology used for age rating films is inappropriate for video games. The single use of a sexual expletive or depiction of gross violence in a film may be justified at a lower age level in a film because of context. There is a different requirement for games as the expletive or violence may be heard or seen many times over as the games player endeavours to progress through the game. The PEGI methodology fulfils this requirement.

    —  BBFC classifications are mandatory and enforceable. The same force of law should be given to PEGI age ratings.

    —  Games with extreme content (those having a PEGI 18+) should continue to be referred to the BBFC who should retain the right to effectively ban such games in the UK because of potential harm risks. If the BBFC do not exercise such right then such games to retain the PEGI 18+ for the UK.

    —  A UK or any other national approach to the Internet and online gaming will have only limited impact.

    —  The combination of PEGI, PEGI Online and parental control software presents an opportunity to empower parents, in their role as guardians, to control the content they want their children to be exposed to.

    —  Education is the key.

  1.  The Video Standards Council (VSC) was established in 1989 at the request of Government and is a non-profit making body set up to develop and oversee a Code of Practice designed to promote high standards within the video and video games industries.

  2.  The VSC is managed by a Committee made up of representatives from all segments of the video and games industries overseen by the President (Baroness Shephard) and Vice-President (Iain Muspratt). Day to day management is undertaken by a Secretary-General (Laurie Hall) and Operations Manager (Peter Darby).

  3.  Most games are exempt from statutory classification in the UK under the Video Recordings Act with less than 3% of games being legally classified by the BBFC because of extreme content (usually gross violence or sexual content). In view of this the industry introduced a system of age rating which is effectively mandatory for all major games platforms.

  4.  From 1994 until 2003 the VSC was solely responsible for the administration of the ELSPA voluntary age-suitability rating system for video games in the UK. Had it not been for the steps taken by the VSC and the games industry trade body (The Entertainment Leisure Software Publishers Association)) there would have been no age rating system in the UK for the 90% or more of games that did not need to be legally classified under the law.

  5.  From 2003 to the present the VSC has been jointly responsible for the administration of the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) system of age rating that operates in the UK and 27 other countries of Europe. The PEGI system superseded the ELSPA system in the UK.

  6.  The PEGI system is owned by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) and is jointly administered by the VSC and the Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audiovisual Media (NICAM).

  7.  Consumers see a PEGI games content age-suitability logo on the front of games packaging. Games will be rated at five different levels: 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+.

  8.  On the back of the packaging consumers see content pictograms indicating the main reason/s why the game has been rated at a particular level. Pictograms are used instead of text as the PEGI system is pan-European. There are seven content pictograms for violence, sex/nudity, discrimination, drugs, bad language, fear and gambling.

  9.  The system relates to the content of a game only and takes no account of the degree of difficulty in playing the game.

  10.  The PEGI system of voluntary self-regulation provides parents across Europe with an indication of the age ranges for which a game is suitable. With the use of the pictograms it will also give them a good idea of the content of the game. It will also enable staff in games shops to be more helpful to customers when asked whether a game is suitable for a child or young teenager of a particular age.

  11.  Parents and others having responsibility for the young are naturally concerned that children should not be exposed to anything unsuitable. Parents today have themselves grown up in an age of films, television and video and are probably fully capable of deciding what their children should watch. They have not grown up in an age of video games and sometimes it is very difficult for them to check for themselves what exactly is contained in a game. This causes anxiety. The PEGI system endeavours to reduce this anxiety and give parents the confidence to decide whether a game is suitable for their children, whilst at the same time acknowledging that games and videos/DVDs are very different products.

  12.  Under the PEGI system a games publisher enters into an agreement with ISFE and agrees to comply with a code of conduct designed to ensure that the publisher uses the system responsibly. The publisher has then to register at least one "coder" who will be responsible for rating games on the PEGI on-line registration site.

  13.  Age rating is carried out by the coder on-line. The on-line rating procedure is comprehensive and straightforward. The coder is asked to give yes/no answers to a series of carefully worded questions relating to the content of the game. For each question a help page is provided to assist the coder to answer each question correctly. NICAM and the VSC are always available to any coder who is in doubt or needs assistance. Once the answers are given the system specifies the provisional age rating for the game and the descriptor/s to be used on packaging.

  14.  Games applying for a provisional PEGI 18+, 16+ or 12+ require examination before being granted a PEGI license. 18+ and 16+ games are examined by the VSC and 12+ games are examined by NICAM. At present games given a 3+ or 7+ rating are examined by NICAM on a sample basis but plans are in hand to introduce the pre-examination of 7+ games.

  15.  If the VSC or NICAM consider that a game has been incorrectly rated it will inform the coder of this and usually the game is then re-rated by the VSC or NICAM. In the event that the coder disagrees with the decision there is a right of appeal to an independent appeals body. Experience so far has shown that the large majority of games are correctly rated by coders. Incorrect ratings have arisen from mistakes, misunderstandings and incorrect interpretations. They have not arisen from any deliberate misuse of the system.

  16.  Games at the 16+ and 18+ levels are examined by the VSC to ensure correct rating under the PEGI system and to deal with the UK legal situation set out in 3 above. Under UK law some games must be legally classified by a Government appointed body (the British Board of Film Classification) and there are severe penalties for breach of the law. The VSC ensures that no game enters the PEGI system for the UK if it should be legally classified.

  17.  Under UK law (Video Recordings Act 1984 as amended) games are generally exempt from legal classification by the BBFC. However exemption can sometimes be lost because of the content of the game (usually gross violence or sexual content). A game can also lose exemption if it contains video footage that is not an integral part of the game (eg trailers, advertisements, "making of" features). Both the VSC and the BBFC have taken legal advice to establish the dividing line between exempt and non-exempt games. The VSC regularly consults with the BBFC.

  18.  The VSC errs on the side of caution and if there is any doubt as to whether a game is exempt the VSC always ensures that the game is submitted to the BBFC. As a further step towards ensuring that no mistakes are made games that are given a PEGI 18+ for other countries are always submitted to the BBFC for UK release. The PEGI 18+ is not used in the UK.

  19.  Historically less than 3% of games have been submitted to the BBFC because of extreme content. A further 3% have been submitted because of video footage (usually non-controversial).

  20.  Games referred to the BBFC are classified under the law in the same way as videos and DVDs. They are given the age-restricted classifications 12, 15 or 18 or non age-restricted classifications PG, U or Uc. For games given an age-restricted classification it is illegal for a shopkeeper to supply to anyone below the specified age.

  21.  The majority of games referred to the BBFC because of extreme content receive a 15 classification from the BBFC even if they have a PEGI 18+ for other countries. Very few games are given an 18 classification by the BBFC. This is because the system used by the BBFC adopts a different approach to extreme content than the PEGI system. Extreme content can be permitted at 15 by the BBFC if it can be justified by context. This is not the case under the PEGI system.

  22.  There is a belief that games should be considered in the same way as films on video and DVD. This is certainly not true. Games are a very different product. Watching films is a passive activity. The viewer watches the film from beginning to end and probably never watches the film again. Games are interactive (playing a game is not a passive experience). Games present a challenge to the player which requires a degree of skill and intelligence to overcome. In an endeavour to progress from one level of a game to the next the player will confront characters and scenarios more than once (sometimes many times over). Each time the player enters a level of a game the characters and scenarios may be slightly different requiring the player to confront situations in a different manner.

  23.  There is a clear need to differentiate between films and games and the use of the PEGI system achieves this by providing a very distinct and different age rating system which is there for retailers and the public (particularly parents) to see.

  24.  There is also a clear need to adopt a different and more appropriate method of age rating for games. The methodology used for films does not work for games. Justifying more extreme content at a lower age level on the grounds of context does not apply. A sexual expletive heard once in a film may be justified by context at a 12 legal classification level. If the same word is used once in a game then it may be heard many times over as the player endeavours to progress through the level in the game concerned (the game will receive a PEGI 16+). Likewise a single act of gross violence in a film may be justified by context at the 15 legal classification level. This act of gross violence in a game may be seen time and time again and each time it may be slightly different if different techniques or weapons are used (the game will receive a PEGI 18+).

  25.  A single system for the age rating of games in the UK is desirable but it needs to be separate and distinct from that used for the age rating of films in order to recognise that games are very different products and to avoid any possible confusion. The PEGI system fulfils these needs.

  26.  The use of the PEGI system for all games would be generally supported by UK retailers. The PEGI system has been accepted by retailers but the fact that some games still carry a BBFC classification symbol does tend to cause some confusion. Adopting PEGI across the board would remove this confusion and at the same time preserve the Europe-wide approach which the VSC believes is essential to form the basis of a meaningful means of control for online gaming.

  27.  The easy option would be to apply BBFC classifications to all games but this would be avoiding the present need for a separate system and ignoring the future when games move out of high street stores to online supply. It should noted that the fact that the Video Recordings Act 1984 covers games was almost accidental as games as they exist today could not have been contemplated at that time. It should also be noted that BBFC classifications cover only a minority of screen based entertainment (video) and that most mainstream entertainment (television, cable, satellite) does not come within their remit.

  28.  Until the early nineties almost no games were legally classified by the BBFC. Since this time the BBFC have legally classified only a small minority of games with well over 90% of games being rated under the ELSPA system between 1994 and 2003 and under the PEGI system since then. The VSC administered the rating of games under the ELSPA system and jointly administers the PEGI system. The 13 years of experience of those involved with the ELSPA system and now the PEGI system should not be underestimated.

  29.  Age-restricted classifications given by the BBFC are mandatory and enforceable. It is illegal to supply a game given an age-restricted classification to someone below the specified age. It would be relatively straightforward to apply the same force of law to PEGI age ratings.

  30.  It is recognised that the need for UK national sensitivities to be addressed is important. At present the BBFC have the power under the law to ban a game from sale in the UK if they consider that the potential harm risks are unacceptable. If PEGI became mandatory and enforceable there would be a need for this power to be retained. Currently all PEGI 18+ games are submitted to the BBFC. This procedure should continue with the BBFC deciding whether any games should be excluded from sale in the UK. If the BBFC decide that a game should not be excluded then the game should retain its PEGI age rating. A similar approach has been adopted in other European countries to deal with national sensitivities.

  31.  The need for a separate and distinct system for the age rating of all games is clear and the VSC would commend the PEGI system. When it comes to control of Internet gaming (games played or downloaded from the Internet) an international viewpoint must be adopted as any UK or other national approach to this matter will have only limited effect. This is because UK legislation can only be enforced where the servers hosting the game are based in the UK. It must be recognised that UK consumers will be accessing games from across Europe.

  32.  In the summer of 2007 ISFE launched PEGI Online. PEGI Online is a system whereby operators of websites and portals through which games can be played or downloaded sign a code of practice designed to provide the safest online environment consistent with game playing. It is aimed at giving information to parents about the inherent dangers of playing online. Such dangers include chat rooms, bad language, bullying and requests for personal details.

  33.  Website operators signed up to PEGI Online will only make available games that have been age rated for Europe under the PEGI system or other established European rating agency.

  34.  The strength of PEGI Online is in the fact that website operators sign an agreement to a stringent Code of Practice. Those agreeing to the Code are granted the right to display a PEGI Online label. These are individually numbered to prevent fraudulent use. Prior to their use being permitted each website is checked by the PEGI administrators (VSC and NICAM) to ensure compliance. This Code of Practice lays out the minimum safety measures that must be complied with to protect minors.

  35.  The PEGI Online label also contains a hyperlink to the PEGI Online web page which contains details of the generic risks attached to online game playing. This is an endeavour to further educate parents to potential online harm and methods of avoidance.

  36.  Negotiations are being held between ISFE and Netnanny for the provision of a parental control filtering system for Europe. This will be similar to those available on Microsoft Vista and so called "next gen" consoles which have a provision for filtering physical product. Once this system is installed on a home computer it will enable a parent to ensure that children can only access games websites registered with PEGI Online and to restrict access to games below a certain age level. It is anticipated that this filtering software will be available in 2008.

  37.  The introduction of such a filtering software system has been deemed economically viable on an international basis. If business models have to be revisited, it is very unlikely that any such system will make economic sense on a national basis.

  38.  PEGI and PEGI Online represent a unique achievement to the extent that they have established a common set of standards for the age rating of games and website approval, acceptable across most of Europe.

  39.  They also represent the future. Any system of age rating and controlling games (and indeed films) on a national (UK) basis is already outdated and will rapidly become redundant with the advent of more diverse means of delivery to the consumer. The supply of games is moving out of the high street shops and on to the Internet. The Internet cannot be controlled on a national basis.

  40.  In contrast, the combination of PEGI, PEGI Online and parental control software presents an opportunity to empower parents, in their role as guardians, to control the content they want their children to be exposed to. The software will restrict access to approved PEGI Online websites and restrict access to games up to an age level pre-set by parents. Although this software could theoretically be developed to accommodate all national rating systems such diversity and complexity is more likely to act as a deterrent to most parents using parental control.

  41.  Without a European rating system and appropriate parental control there will be no practical and effective means of securing the safety of minors when they play online games. The UK consumer (parent) will be confronted with hundreds (if not thousands) of online games websites originating from anywhere in the world. There would be no ability to establish whether they are legitimate or whether the games have been age rated. It would be perfectly feasible for dubious websites, posing as game sites, to provide links to pornography, gambling etc (without parental knowledge). Parents would have no ability to control what games their children play and at best will have to rely upon a US model based on ESRB ratings and American culture. This would be particularly noticeable with games containing violence.

  42.  PEGI Online is dependent on the continuing operation of PEGI as without the underlying PEGI system PEGI Online will become dysfunctional. Rejection of PEGI by the UK is likely to lead to a domino effect amongst other countries and could possibly bring about the collapse of PEGI. The PEGI age rating logos and descriptors will be seen online and if the UK consumer has not met them previously through retail the propensity for further confusion is great. It is very important that the UK and other European countries recognise this.

  43.  Public awareness of PEGI has grown rapidly since its launch. From a zero base in 2003 familiarity with PEGI in the UK, at 43%, is the highest in Europe (Nielson Survey 2007).

  44.  Although it is acknowledged that work remains to be done to reach the same level of awareness as that of the BBFC classifications that awareness only applies to the film watching public who are not necessarily games players. The level of PEGI awareness amongst games players and parents of games players is nonetheless a major achievement in such a short period of time.

  45.  However there is a gap to fill during the intervening period. In this respect the VSC has played its part through its retailer membership. The VSC represents most of the major retailers of games. They are supplied with display and staff training materials as well as a staff training DVD all of which feature the PEGI system.

  46.  Industry efforts could be greatly helped by Government assistance to access schools and other educational establishments in order to accelerate awareness and understanding of the PEGI system.

  47.  Education and greater awareness is the key. In the end it is parents and other guardians who decide what children watch or play. The law can only go so far. If parents and other guardians are made more aware of the PEGI and PEGI Online systems then they will be in a better position to make more informed choices for children.

  48.  Having a law to prevent the supply of age-restricted products to children and young teenagers is one thing. The practice is another. To the extent that the Video Recordings Act is being enforced it is being selectively enforced. Trading standards authorities tend to concentrate their efforts and test purchase campaigns at high street retailers (the very retailers who are making an effort). Little or no effort is made to enforce the law where the real problem is in secondary outlets and in particular car boot sales and markets. In these locations children and young teenagers can obtain almost anything they want free of restriction.

  49.  Visiting car boot sales and markets is a major UK leisure time activity but these places are "hotbeds" of criminal activity where amongst other things illegal and counterfeit videos, DVDs and games are sold. This activity is having a devastating effect on the legitimate industries. It is no wonder that the enforcement of age restrictions tends to be overlooked.

  50.  Some games do contain violence but the extent of this is very often overstated. It is extreme violence that causes public anxiety and Government concern. There is a great difference between the cartoon violence (Tom & Jerry) permitted at the PEGI 3+ level and the gross violence at the PEGI 18+ level.

  51.  All games containing gross violence are submitted to the BBFC for UK release and the PEGI 18+ is not currently used in the UK. For countries outside the UK the PEGI 18+ is used. However it should be noted that only 5% of games have been given a PEGI 18+.

  52.  Research is divided as to identifying any causal link between playing violent games and physical aggression. Some researchers in Japan and the USA believe they have established this link. Professor Sakamoto: "Videogames play promotes aggressive behaviour. Influence was the strongest when games had both high rewards and realistic qualities". By contrast Professor Kassis from the University of Basle takes a different view: `There is no linear combination between violent games and the violence of teenagers in reality.

  53.  It is also worth noting that most European researchers consider that findings based on laboratory research are flawed.

  54.  Notwithstanding the lack of any reliable link between violent games and violence in real life the games industry in Europe took the responsible step of introducing PEGI and PEGI Online. They are essentially information systems enabling adults to make up their own minds as to the games they wish to play. They are also systems enabling parents and other guardians to decide what games children and young teenagers are permitted to play and with the aid of filtering software to restrict access to approved games.

January 2008


 
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