Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 543-559)


13 MAY 2008

  Chairman: Good morning. We now move to the second part of this morning's session and I would like to welcome David Cooke, the Director of the British Board of Film Classification and Pete Johnson, the Head of Policy and Business Development; and from the Video Standards Council, Peter Darby, the Operations Manager and Laurie Hall, the Secretary General. Adrian Sanders is going to begin.

  Q543 Mr Sanders: Do you accept the rationale underlying Dr Byron's recommendations on classification of video games?

  Mr Cooke: Yes, obviously subject to the views of this Committee and whatever views you reach yourselves. We certainly think the analysis starts in absolutely the right place. The need is to bring awareness up to the kind of levels we have for film and DVD and that is really the starting place that I think Dr Byron followed. We think it is sensible to have a single set of symbols and obviously our preference coincides with Dr Byron's in that it is sensible to choose the BBFC's because of the degree of trust and recognition that they have and because the way we examine games means that we can provide more content information. We welcome the proposal to get us involved in games from 12 and up. Certainly on the film and DVD side there are problematic issues around the 12 border line so that seems to be a sensible place to start. We also welcome the fact that that proposal is for online games as well as physical games which are obviously going to be very important in the future. So far as online games are concerned, we are very happy to work through the PEGI Online system which is in place at the moment. We have classified some online games ourselves already but PEGI Online recognises BBFC symbols and I think we all recognise that there are extra issues with online games so it seems sensible to pool our resources on that. There are two detailed recommendations which have had some criticism, there is one about having BBFC symbols on the front of boxes and PEGI symbols on the back of boxes; people have expressed views about that. We are quite prepared to do that if people are content with it. I understand the rationale; I know that Dr Byron was keen not to lower the profile of PEGI too much within the UK. Probably the recommendation that causes us the most difficulty in principle is the notion of using BBFC symbols for the 3+ and 7+ games which we would not ourselves examine. We are always nervous about the idea of putting our symbols to a methodology that we are not ourselves operating. I understand that PEGI is intending to introduce testing for 3+ and 7+ games which I think would be very important. Subject to that, then provided that we could agree some kind of a checking system to make sure that our symbols were being used properly, then that would be okay. I think some of this, if it all goes ahead, will require primary legislation, but not all of it so it would be possible to be getting on with some of this in advance of legislation. We are certainly clear that it is a workable package and we do not have any difficulty at all with the resource implications. We estimate that probably between 350 and 500 extra games a year would come to us. We have been used to gearing up to a much greater order of magnitude than that with the expansion of the DVD market from the late 1990s to 2005-06 and we have about 12 examiners who are experienced, qualified, trained games examiners. Our current turnaround times are about ten calendar days. I really do not think there would be a problem there at all.

  Mr Darby: PEGI also welcomes the Byron review. It is quite clear that the rationale behind it is the protection of minors and that is something that PEGI has been working on right from the outset so we certainly welcome that. Dr Byron put forward the view that PEGI is not as well known as it might be and that is something that is fully accepted by PEGI. PEGI have said that they are ready to spend a substantial amount of money in attempting to promote PEGI even further than it has. The BBFC symbols are clearly much better known than the PEGI ones, but BBFC has been in existence for a hundred years and PEGI has only been in existence for five years. The research that Nielson did in 2007 indicates—this was supported by Dr Byron—that probably about 50% of the population in the UK do understand PEGI and in five years we think that is quite an achievement to get that sort of level of recognition within the UK. The suggestions of the hybrid systems would not have been a road that we would have suggested going down in the first place and our evidence was that 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. Maybe there is a possibility of adapting the hybrid system so that it is PEGI that is seen on the front and BBFC symbols seen on the back because one of the things that Dr Byron was suggesting is that the public need to see the BBFC symbols certainly for a few years so that they understand what the symbols that PEGI is using really mean. By using the BBFC symbol on the back of the package perhaps that is a way of educating the public which I think both the BBFC and PEGI think is the biggest achievement that the public should understand; the consumer must understand that some of these games are for adults.

  Q544  Mr Sanders: We live in a really complex world and making things as simple as possible I always think is a good thing. Where the public come across symbols, for example in tourism in looking at accommodation, the tourism industry for decades has been trying to rationalise its symbols into one recognisable set of classifications and they still have not actually achieved it. Do you not think that you really ought to be looking for one set of symbols on a product, not two, and that that set of symbols ought to be the one the parents—who are the people most concerned about this—recognise?

  Mr Cooke: Obviously our ideal would be for the BBFC symbols to be the single ones. I understand the rationale in Dr Byron's recommendation but it is for others to comment on whether that is the best solution or not. If you go back to the starting point of the analysis, the recognition that games classification is clearly, on all the evidence, less well-understood than film and DVD classification, it makes sense prominently to use film classifications to try as part of a series of campaigns to raise that awareness. I know that some argue that games are different from films, sufficiently different that they ought to be regulated completely separately; that is not my position. My view is that with increased photo realism in games, with the number of common franchises—I think about seven or eight current games in the top 20 are actually based on film franchises—it is actually better to be able to look across the content on the different platforms and it is then possible to answer questions more clearly of the sort: what difference does interactivity actually make? Does it mean that the experience is more immersive than watching a film? Does it make it less immersive in some way because you are more detached because you are operating through the controls? We have indeed begun to commission research on those questions ourselves. My argument would be that it is better to look across the piece and to try to raise the awareness of games classification.

  Q545  Mr Sanders: There is a big difference between a game and a film and might you not end up with the situation where you have a film that is classified 18 but the game of the film, because its content is slightly different, would have a lower rating? Would that possibly then confuse the market?

  Mr Darby: I think you have to follow the content where it takes you and if the game version is indeed a lot milder than the film version then you have to give it the right classification based on the analysis.

  Q546  Mr Sanders: Can the game not market the film or vice versa?

  Mr Darby: As a rule it tends to be the other way round. PEGI deals with most of the games below 18 and because most of the games we get that are a sequel or a follow-up to a film the game tends to get a higher rating. That is based on the fact that we consider the game to be different to the film and think it should be rated differently to the film. I have an example of a game that was sent to me where I played through and the publisher said they wanted the same rating as the film but it was one rating higher. I said, "No, I have been able to kill more people five minutes into this game than James Bond killed in all of the films put together". That is where we think there is a difference. The games do allow much more interactivity and a repetition of what is actually happening within the game. The use of sexual expletives is, I think, a very good example. If it is used once when it is put in context and it is in a film, then it might get a lower rating, but what PEGI says quite clearly is, "If you use a sexual expletive in the game just once it will get a 16" and we base that on the fact that to play through a game it is not possible to do it all in one go normally so each level has to be played through several times. Therefore it is not just one sexual expletive; it is the same sexual expletive time and time again as you are going through. We do not think it is right to put that into any form of context. The word is there and it should be rated because the word is there on one occasion.

  Mr Cooke: I also think a more precautionary approach, at least for the time being, is sensible for games, not least just because games are less well understood so you get this phenomenon of the Grand Theft Auto games not being regarded in the same way as an 18 level film. Of course there are more complicated factors as well. There is the one that Peter has mentioned; there is also the possibility that you can play games in lots of different ways. It is possible to play perversely; you can play a shooting/killing game in a way where you deliberately do not kill very many people or you can play it the other way round and you can explore the potential of certain moves over and over again with lots of variations. I, too, think it makes sense to be more cautious.

  Mr Johnson: I think we all agree that the content should be classified on the basis of the content in that particular product. The fact that there may be differences between the film rating and the game rating is really the same as when you get franchises of films where different ones in a series may have different ratings. Of the Mission Impossible films I think one is a PG, one is a 15 and one is a 12 because the content was very different. What becomes important then is to give parents a clear content advice that explains to them why it is different. I think that is where the BBFC system of content advice, which is to use a specific single phrase, is effective: it enables us to grade the content and describe the violence so that we can say whether it is strong, it is frequent, it is bloody, it is sadistic, it is mild, it is fantastic, it is comic. Those subtleties become very important because then the parent can see why the rating is different. I think that is very important and that is why in our research 86% of adults find our consumer advice very useful when they are choosing material—whether it is games or DVDs—for their children to view. It is a very important part of the package; it is not just about classification any more, it is about the clarity of the consumer advice that is provided with it. That is a particular strength of the BBFC system. Because we actually play the games at length we have a very good feel for what the parent needs to know about that game apart from our rating and that is what appears on the back of the pack.

  Mr Cooke: Could I also just mention extended consumer information? This is something which we have recently started doing for new films and for games. The idea is to use the fact of the way we examine to generate a full paragraph's worth of material on the game so there will be the complete rationale for why the age rating is as it is. All the different factors—there may be seven or eight all going on at once—will be picked out. This is the beginning of an attempt to provide parents with more information to take informed decisions.

  Mr Darby: The other issue in respect of what the label should be saying is that we believe the label itself should say that this is a game and not a video, but in addition, in a few years' time when the majority of games are actually coming from the Internet and being played online, it is going to be the PEGI label that is seen. We think that the best way of educating the consumer as to what they are going to see in the future is to be presenting them with those logos at the moment so the educational process has been completed by the time the majority of games are online.

  Mr Hall: We think that there is a clear need to distinguish between films and games. Watching a film is a passive experience; as has been said playing a game is an interactive experience. Watching a film you sit down for two hours, it is finished, that is it. With a game you can spend several hours, several days, several weeks playing it. What you see on the screen is controlled by you and you can vary it. The problem with adopting a film classification approach, putting matters in context, we think it is wrong and does result in lower ratings to be given in this country for a game that is rated by the BBFC than the rating that same game is given in the rest of Europe.

  Mr Cooke: I think this is a genuine point of disagreement between us. We are very attached to the fact that we can look at the context of a film and indeed a game as well—there is an analysis of this in the Byron report—and sometimes it can lead to a lower classification when the BBFC has done the examining, sometimes higher. There may be a game where the content itself is not particularly strong but the tone of the thing is such that you need to take account of that as well. There was a lot of controversy about a game called The Rule of Rose a few months ago. That was a case where the tone of the game was, in our view, a factor as well as the actual material that you saw in the game. I make absolutely no criticism of my PEGI colleagues for not giving such weight to context because that would clearly be a difficult thing to do with 20-odd member countries. I do think that national cultural sensitivity is important here and it is a valuable thing to be able to do.

  Mr Johnson: It is also worth noting that we do not use exactly the same methodology for classifying games as we do films. We watch films at the cinema; we watch DVDs on a DVD player and monitor; we rate games by playing through the game. That enables us to recognise the differences between game playing and watching films. It also enables us to read across where issues and content are similar, and often they are similar as we have seen with seven out of the top 30 games being film franchises. The latest range of DVDs—the Blu-ray discs—actually allow films and games to appear on the same disc. For instance, with the Disney Blu-ray release of Cars you can play Cars and watch it as a film or you can play it with a games application running over the top whereby every time a character appears you press a button and you are rewarded if you get it right with some bonus footage. So there is real convergence and there is a whole range of material like that about to come out on Blu-ray. Alien Vs Predator will probably be a 15 rated Blu-ray disc and that will have the opportunity for you to watch the film or to watch the film with a games application playing and whilst the games application is playing characters appear on screen and you can shoot them. The two come absolutely together. To try to separate those out is a nonsense because the whole point of the technological advance is convergence; it is not divergence, it is convergence and the two come together very much in the Blu-ray world.

  Q547  Chairman: The BBFC's approach seems to me quite straightforward: you sit, play the game, work out what the appropriate age is and stick a label on it. PEGI, you are largely dependent upon the games manufacturer to tell you what they think it is.

  Mr Darby: It is a self-regulatory system whereby the publisher has to fill in a questionnaire which goes into detail about what the game is about. Once that is put into the Online system it then gives a provisional rating. The game is then examined by the administrator along with further details that are provided by the publisher. The job of the administrator is to ensure that the answers that have been given are accurate and that the game then accurately fits in with the provisional rating it has been given.

  Q548  Chairman: So you can overrule.

  Mr Darby: Yes, and we do on a number of occasions. We have probably taken as many games down as we put up because we do not like a game being put in at a higher level when it should be at a lower level, for example a game being given a 16 when it should be 12 because that actually starts to destroy the credibility of the whole system. We move games down as well as up.

  Mr Hall: I think this recognises the fact that games are different. I would say it is almost impossible, without the help of the game manufacturer to view everything that is in a game. It was in the press last week about the new Grand Theft Auto game where one of the press reporters commented that he played through it a dozen times and each time the game was different; if he played through it two dozen times it would be different on two dozen occasions. Who knows the game better than the game developer himself and we rely upon him to start the PEGI process going.

  Q549  Chairman: But BBFC rated Grand Theft Auto IV; how many times did you play it?

  Mr Cooke: We sampled it at all levels for at least five hours. I think in that case it was more like seven or eight hours. That particular game came to me as well because of the profile of the game. We did examine it extremely thoroughly and we are the only regulator I know of who looked, for instance, at the particular issue where prima facie there was a concern about whether you were being given instructional information about how to make the drug crystal meth. We actually took independent advice on the point and eventually were able to satisfy ourselves that some of the crucial ingredients and techniques were missing so it was not a genuine cause for concern. Peter and Laurie are right, that under whatever system you do need the cooperation of the publisher and it is standard practice for the publisher to be told to provide us with all the help they can; normally they are extremely good and they will draw attention to likely category defining elements. They will often provide a DVD play-through which can be a useful tool although it is not a proper substitute for playing the game itself. There is an onus on the publisher too but it is collaborative working. Obviously if they do not tell you important things that you need to know about then you need to revisit the classification.

  Q550  Chairman: Are you confident that you explored every permutation in Grand Theft Auto before reaching your judgment?

  Mr Johnson: It is worth saying that eight hours of our game play is equivalent to significantly more than eight hours by the average gamer, not just because we employ very expert gamers but also because we get the publisher to provide cheat codes so that we can through to various parts of the game much quicker.

  Q551  Chairman: The publisher may not always tell you everything.

  Mr Darby: The PEGI code of conduct which the publisher has to sign up to before they are allowed to use the system anyway has sanctions in it and for a deliberate misleading of the administrator the current sanctions are between 250,000 and 500,000 euros. That is the maximum but if it just negligence it would be significantly below that. There is an enforcement committee that would look at what sanctions should be imposed on any publisher that actually misleads the administrator.

  Q552  Chairman: What happened with regard to the previous edition of Grand Theft Auto, the notorious hot coffee incident?

  Mr Darby: The hot coffee issue was not so much of an issue within Europe as far as PEGI was concerned because it already had an 18. The inclusion of the sexual material which was the issue certainly within the United States could not have raised the ratings any higher. So although we had not seen it, it still had the correct rating.

  Q553  Chairman: You said that if they misled you or failed to provide information, then you would sanction them. In this case they did.

  Mr Darby: In that particular example it was not deliberate; it was an unfortunate mistake.

  Q554  Chairman: I have not seen the hot coffee section but as I understand it it was as close to graphic sex as you can get in a video game and they just forgot to tell you about it.

  Mr Darby: It was not part of the game. My understanding is that it was sealed off within the content of the game so the gamer could not get at it. However, there was a hacker somewhere in Holland or Sweden who was able to find a hack to put into this so that somebody could download this from the Internet, run it alongside the game and open up a bit of the game that was not meant to be available to the consumer. That is where it all went wrong.

  Q555  Chairman: It does beg the question, what was the point of it being there if the consumer was not supposed to see it.

  Mr Darby: That I cannot answer.

  Mr Hall: As I understand it, it was originally meant to be part of the game but they decided it was not going to be but did not take it out properly.

  Q556  Chairman: This does raise the question about whether or not you can rely upon games manufacturers to tell you what you need to know.

  Mr Darby: I would say that since the beginning of PEGI in 2003 and to the extent that the BBFC examined 16s and 18s, we have not had one single example of a publisher deliberately misleading us. We have had mistakes and errors of judgment, but not deliberate intention. If you think about it, why would a publisher join a voluntary PEGI scheme if he intended to abuse it?

  Mr Cooke: I think it is rare. Chairman, your phrase "every permutation" bothers me a little bit. I calculated that we spent over a hundred hours examining the Manhunt 2 game and it feels I was personally involved in every one of those hours. Even then I am not sure we could honestly come to the Committee and say that we knew every permutation. We knew the game extremely well and we knew where all of the category defining elements were. As we have been saying, you just have to recognise that a game is a different entity in lots of respects.

  Q557  Mr Hall: In an earlier answer to Adrian Sanders you said there were about 250 video games being classified at the moment and you have 12 members of staff dealing with that. In evidence to the Committee you said you expect the market to grow by 300 to 500 a year. Is that year on year? Are you saying that in the year 2013 we will have something like 3000 video games a year going onto the market?

  Mr Cooke: Every different industry analyst you talk to gives a slightly different response to this question. I have seen the figure of 100,000 in five years' time that was quoted to you by, I think, the games industry. That is not a figure I recognise and it is not a figure which any industry analyst I have spoken to recognises. I suspect that it probably included things like casual games which might be very brief games; it might well have included things like the mini games you see on a cover mount disc and quite often when we classify one cover mount disc we will be classifying maybe 30 or more mini games within that. When you have an online game you get patches and upgrades submitted and it may also have included those. Obviously online games are different and raise extra issues. I think an important distinction which I would invite you to consider is between publisher generated content and user generated content. I think it is reasonable to operate in a way that means that if a publisher upgrades the content in a way that changes the appropriate age rating then that content in turn should be examined. With user generated content and user behaviour one of the big issues with online games is simply bullying and I think a different model then has to operate and you have to work through publishers maybe with checking mechanisms in place as a backup. These are the kind of approaches which my colleagues have been developing through PEGI Online that I was also involved in. I suspect that all of those different elements were probably in there in the figure that the games industry quoted. I really do not think a tower full of censors—I think that was the phrase—would be necessary to deal with that. I find it a slightly colourful phrase. The other thing I would say is that we have shown with DVDs that we can gear up extremely quickly; because we operate on a basis where we receive no government money and the only thing we do is cover our costs from fees that we charge the industry it is possible to gear up very quickly. I think one difference between us and PEGI is that PEGI probably would need to have a discussion with the industry before recruiting extra staff, we would not.

  Q558  Mr Hall: From your evidence, if the figures are right, you are expecting by 2013 about 3000 new video games a year to come on the market. That is the top end of the figures that you provided. You will have to take on more staff to deal with that and you have just said you will still be self-financing. Is that a correct assumption?

  Mr Cooke: Yes, indeed the greater the volume that you take on, that can have the effect that you are able to reduce fees. That is what we were able to do with the DVD expansion. I think there were between 3000 and 4000 DVDs submitted to us in 1997 and by about 2005 it was getting up to 17,000 or 18,000. That gives you an idea of the kind of orders of magnitude that we have already shown we are able to respond to.

  Mr Darby: If I could come in on those figures, PEGI has actually rated 5,500 games—unique titles—since the system started five years ago. We would anticipate that being a minimum between now and 2013. In addition to that the games market is changing quite a bit. I have actually got a meeting in two days' time which is looking at a totally new concept for a game which is going to be a core game online and maybe once a week a different level or a small mini game is going to be attached to that. All of that content is going to need some sort of examination. It cannot just be put there and say that there is going to be a new level in this standalone game and it may affect the rating. We have to look at a way in which we are going to be able to deal with that. We do not have the answer yet but we have the meetings to deal with it but that is the way the media is actually going.

  Mr Cooke: What I do not see is the industry argument that somehow PEGI is more future-proof than the BBFC. PEGI has 20-plus members but if you look at all the big games markets such as the States, Japan, Germany, they do their own rating and I think these issues that we are talking about come down to questions of enforcement, they come down to questions of resources, taking the right initial decision and then generating good, clear, full content information for parents. I do not myself see that any of that is somehow made more future-proof by a system that has 20-odd countries, some of whom are very small markets it needs to be remembered. I do think myself that there are national cultural differences. You see that with films; you only have to look across the Channel and see the ratings that my French colleagues give to Quentin Tarantino films and consider what would happen to me if I were to attempt to follow suit. I do think that that should not be forgotten about in relation to games as well.

  Q559  Adam Price: You referred to the online context, I think in the BBFC's submission you referred to the pinch points at which you think it is possible to intervene to control potentially harmful content. Could you explain what you mean by these pinch points, what they are and how they would work.

  Mr Cooke: Could I say a very quick word and then hand over to Pete because he has been doing a lot of work on this. We are just about to launch a voluntary scheme called BBFC Online which I think is probably not directly relevant to this particular debate because we do not see it as an instrument for classifying games, as I said before we prefer to work through PEGI Online. However, putting together that scheme—Pete will tell you a bit more about it—has once again brought us back to the question which I think we have discussed in the Committee before: what about the people who will not play in your voluntary scheme and what about the people who simply do not have an incentive responsibly to self-regulate? We have done quite a lot of thinking about that as well and maybe you could cover both those angles, Pete.

  Mr Johnson: I think our experience has been what Ed Richards said earlier about the mainstream industry having incentive to self-regulate. That is right. We have been working very much with household names in the field of content provision, the people who make the content, have the rights to distribute it and in terms of online retailers as well who helped develop the scheme which we are going to launch very soon. That is great for the mainstream. Dr Byron made the point that most children are accessing content through a very small number of Internet portals and Internet sites so if you can get those within the scheme you have done an awful lot of good through the self-regulatory mechanism. We are very aware because we do regulate extreme content on DVD and in many cases have to cut or reject such content in the UK that there is a significant body of material which will not subject itself to self-regulation because no self-respecting self-regulator would pass it. I think a couple of members of the Committee have been to the Board and seen some of the examples that we are talking about. For those we do think that it may be that Parliament decides something does have to be done about that, that we cannot simply leave children and in some cases adults to be exposed to material which is likely to result in harm. The problem that is always cited in respect of material on the Internet is the jurisdictional problem: what do you do about stuff that is outside the UK? Our first response to that is that there is value in doing something anyway. We have not taken the "we cannot do anything" response in relation to indecent images of children. The fact that we cannot stop them being posted in the USA or in Russia has not stopped us adopting a very, very effective means of making sure that indecent images of children do not appear on the UK servers. That is one point, but the other thing is that if you really want to do something about it there are places in which jurisdiction of the UK does bite when you are accessing material online. If you are talking about commercial content, money goes from a UK bank account to the provider of the service. The US a couple of years ago used this route in order to attack the online gambling industry. They decided that online gambling was a threat to the US state of such extremity that it had to be dealt with. What they did was to define payments to an online gambling service as restricted transactions and then they required the payment system—so they required the credit card companies and the banks—to block restricted payments. So they put the onus on the banks to actually identify the services and not provide financial services to them. That pretty well wiped out online gambling in the States overnight. If you want to do something you can do something. You would not necessarily have to put the onus on the banks to identify the services; you could put that onus onto a regulator whose job it was to identify sites which were offering the sort of material that Parliament has decided needed regulation and to identify, if they had not had it regulated, and to construct from that a blacklist which the banks had to block payments to. That is one route. The other route is through the ISPs because you access the Internet through an Internet service provider and the Internet service providers have been very effective in blocking material that the Internet Watch Foundation has identified as being illegal under the Protection of Children Act and that is a route. It would not be popular with the Internet service providers but things can be done because the Internet does not exist completely outside national borders. The money touches down in the UK and the Internet service providers touch down in the UK. The key, I think, is to define a set of material which warrants such intervention because it would be quite significant intervention. That could be defined quite tightly; we are not suggesting that everything on the Internet should be subjected to this, but there is material—abusive pornography, extreme reality material in which collections of people being beheaded in Iraq are edited together for entertainment purposes—which do and which must pose a potential risk of serious harm and which might warrant significant action. I think if you can tightly define that type of material there are these routes available to try to control it.

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