Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560-576)


13 MAY 2008

  Q560  Adam Price: Do you already have the elements of a definition through your main activity?

  Mr Cooke: Yes, indeed we do. I imagine there may well be a legislative vehicle resulting from this whole area of work and if that is the case then that could be used.

  Q561  Adam Price: The Committee would be very interested in seeing that, I am sure. Turning to the Video Standards Council, what do you say to the argument that is put to us by some people within the industry that you either have a domestic UK classification system or you have a global classification system and the idea of a European regime actually is neither fish nor fowl and is quite frankly irrelevant?

  Mr Darby: I do not accept that it is irrelevant. The publishers have a job to do which is getting a product to market, getting that product to the consumer. The PEGI system is owned by the European arm of the publishers. A lot of them are US based companies that have a European arm and so the publishers themselves are global but they are publishing within a European market. An example of the international aspect would be a US based company with a European arm with a game that is going to be played in Europe (it does not matter whether it is in the UK or anywhere else in Europe) but it is being posted on a US server. The only way of having any control over that from Europe is with a self-regulatory system by that publisher being responsible and saying that to go into Europe I have one system I can use so I do not mind waiting and then that will apply throughout the whole of Europe exactly the same way as the ESRB applies throughout the whole of North America.

  Mr Hall: I think the alternative of doing a BBFC in the 27 other countries in Europe would just be out of the question.

  Mr Darby: Using what I just said about the US based server, I think that if PEGI was to fail throughout Europe what I personally think is likely to happen is that the ESRB rating—which will have been obtained in the US—will be the one that the consumer throughout Europe will actually see on the product because they will not go through the process of obtaining 27 different ratings when it is online and they are not required to do so.

  Mr Cooke: I still do not really see this because in this context the UK is not like Poland, say, it is like the States or Germany or Japan or Australia, none of whom are members of PEGI and all of whom have systems which do factor in national issues and sensitivities.

  Q562  Mr Evans: I have to admit that I do not play these games at all so I am in completely new territory. In your estimation is it violent people who like to play violent games? Or can the violent games actually make people violent? I completely understand the difference between watching a film for an hour and half or two hours and then playing a violent game over several days where there is a lot of violence and you are the one causing a lot of the violence.

  Mr Cooke: There is pretty good analysis of this in the Byron report because she did get a lot of experts in the field together. The conclusions accord pretty much with our experience as well. Every time a researcher produces a claimed effect another researcher jumps on them and pulls it to pieces. I think what you are left with is some studies that show some kind of link with aggression rather than necessarily causing criminal behaviour which I think no study really demonstrates. The other thing though is a question mark about whether there are particular games and particular personality types and particular situations where the combination is bad and you need to take account of that. I do strongly believe that if you try and base classification just on the behavioural social science research you will come unstuck and you have to look wider than that. To use an old-fashioned word I think you have to look at moral harm as well. You have to look at possible more insidious effects on attitudes. I think that is entirely consistent with national and European law and I do not really know of any classifier in the world who tries to do it just on the basis of the academic social science research; I do not think you can.

  Mr Hall: I would hasten to add that the PEGI system was introduced across Europe with the fundamental objective of protecting children from unsuitable material, almost irrespective of what the evidence is on whether there is any harm effect. Whether there is any harm caused by viewing violence on the screen, we have to go along with the Byron report; there is no conclusive evidence either way.

  Q563  Mr Evans: There is a piece I have just been reading about which I find incredibly ironic about when Grand Theft Auto was released in Croydon there was a queue of people and somebody actually got stabbed randomly. That is what it says here; I do not know whether that is the case.

  Mr Hall: The story is untrue; the person who got stabbed was not in the queue and was a quarter of a mile away.

  Q564  Mr Evans: So that is completely fallacious.

  Mr Hall: Yes.

  Q565  Mr Evans: This is all part of the aura about these games like Grand Theft Auto. Tell me, what is Grand Theft Auto like? You have played it for hours.

  Mr Cooke: I have played several of them.

  Q566  Mr Evans: Did you enjoy it?

  Mr Cooke: It is very much an adult game; it is not suitable for people below 18. It contains material which some people will find a lot of fun and other people will find very offensive and tasteless. It is very different from Manhunt 2; there is a lot of humour in it. It may or may not be your cup of tea but there is irony, there is satire. The difference between something like GTA4 and Manhunt 2 is that the latter just has such a single-minded focus on exploring the kills. Potentially you could have hundreds and hundreds of kills in the game and there is any number of permutations; you could do it with any number of a huge range of weapons. There were three different levels for the kills—white, orange and red or something like that—so there was a tipping point in the game where you very quickly got to the point where you were skilful enough to escape the so-called hunters—these people who are trying to stop you escape—and any competent gamer would quickly get to the point where the real significance of the game was just exploring the kills. GTA4 is not like that at all, it is more of a kind of "Sopranos" theme except that I think they are Eastern European gangsters in something that looks remarkably like New York. Does that give you a flavour of it?

  Q567  Mr Evans: Yes. When you work with the publishers do you say to them, "Listen, we'll give it a certificate but you have to take this out and that out"?

  Mr Cooke: That is the kind of dialogue that happens a lot with film. We always like to give people a choice; we do not particularly like saying, "You must cut this", but what we will say is, "If you are desperate to get to a 12A rather than a 15 then the only way you are going to do that is by reducing certain scenes." That is a bit more difficult with games because of the way in which they are constructed, but in principle the same kind of conversation can happen. It did happen, for instance, with a game that masqueraded for a while under a Latin name of Canis Canem Edit and then reverted to Bully which it was going to be originally I think. We did have a dialogue at a very early stage with the publisher and some changes were made, so it is possible.

  Mr Johnson: It is worth saying as well that we have a reject power, that if we refuse to classify something it cannot be legally sold in the UK. That does give us purchase with the distributors. For instance, a couple of games relating to that, The Punisher for example, had a solarised effect over the worst of the violence in order to make sure that they got an 18 certificate and also in relation to an 18 rated game called Bulletproof: 50 Cent which is based on the supposed life of the US rapper we were able to persuade the publisher to conduct a responsible marketing campaign. We asked to see evidence of that before we classified that work. The fact that we have that reject power gives us a point of purchase.

  Q568  Mr Evans: How often do you reject games?

  Mr Johnson: We have only rejected two games in ten years.

  Q569  Mr Evans: I am just wondering what it needs to take for a game to be rejected. You have just explained Manhunt 2 in vivid detail what the game is all about and if that is not going to be banned what was contained in the games you banned?

  Mr Cooke: Manhunt 2 has probably taken years off my life. You have to do what you think is right and as you probably know our decision was twice overturned by our independent appeals tribunal—the Video Appeals Committee—by the narrowest of margins, four-three, so they clearly found it very difficult. I think the one good thing from our point of view was that we went to the High Court as well as part of this process and we did clarify the definition of harm which is absolutely at the core of these decisions. Rejection is obviously a very strong step and I understand why some people do not like it and why people in the games industry do not like it. Our view is that it does have a significance, as Pete says, that goes beyond the individual titles that you actually reject. The mere fact that you can do it means that you can have dialogue and influence on quite a large number of other games as well. The two examples he gives are very real. I think it is an important power for us to have. Dr Byron I think concluded that it was important and it should be retained. I perfectly understand that it would be a very difficult power for PEGI to equip itself with because there are going to be Member States who will not be comfortable with having that kind of power, but in my view it is essential to retain it.

  Q570  Mr Evans: Do you think in your own mind, after having played some of these violent games, that people could become violent because of them? In your own mind that is, never mind the research that has been done, do you think that if you play that for long enough it could actually turn you?

  Mr Cooke: I doubt it. It depends on the person. I can get a very short term buzz when I play a particular game but obviously we cannot classify for Broadmoor patients. I do also think there is a real issue about duration of play. Addiction is the word that some people use; I think that is quite a strong word, maybe too strong, but there is evidence that people are having sessions that may last more than 24 hours on end—quite substantially more in some cases—so I think there is an issue there too. Of course with the online gaming you are also incentivised to go on playing because you may lose your position or potency or whatever it is if you do not go on playing very regularly.

  Q571  Alan Keen: You mentioned just now that you place a barrier and therefore people will discuss with you because you have the power to reject. First of all, what was the effect of the High Court ruling on people coming to you with further games? Did it have an effect? Did it give them an impetus?

  Mr Cooke: It did, actually. I think there were one or two titles where I sensed that people were either pulling back a bit or at least asking a question. The High Court decision itself—Mr Justice Mitting's judgment—was very helpful because one of the arguments was that we have to demonstrate devastating harm, devastating effect and he said he did not see that this was a reasonable thing to ask a regulator to be able to demonstrate. How can you show that a game is going to have a devastating effect on somebody? That was very helpful. He also said that we needed to look at potential harm and not just actual harm. Clearly if you have a game like Manhunt 2 which is not actually released then it would be almost impossible to demonstrate actual harm when nobody has actually played the thing apart from poor suckers like me. That was a very helpful clarification of the law.

  Mr Hall: I do not think the Manhunt 2 situation and what happened there will have the effect of encouraging more and more games' publishers to chance their arm, if that is the right way of putting it. There is no indication of that. The percentage of games that have had to go to the BBFC over the last ten years or so because of gross violence has consistently run at the two and half to three per cent of the total; it has always been in that region and there are no signs that it will change. There will always be publishers who are knocking the door at the front end and always will be, but I do not think it will increase.

  Q572  Chairman: You have only ever banned two games, one of them you lost in the High Court and is now out on sale.

  Mr Cooke: Both. The first one was a game called Carmageddon and again we lost; this was 10 years ago.

  Q573  Chairman: Does it not rather undermine the credibility of the system if you have only ever tried to ban two games and on each occasion you have failed?

  Mr Cooke: You have a reject power; you have to use it and you have to accept the result that an independent judicial tribunal comes up with. I make no secret of the fact that I regret the decision in the case of Manhunt 2 because I thought that the arguments that we put forward for rejection were cogent; I thought there were real concerns that we had addressed. We had dialogue with the publisher which resulted in modifications to the game. We said that this is an improvement but they needed to go further and at that point the publisher exercised their right not to continue those dialogues so the case went to appeal. I think the fact that it was 4-3 on both occasions was an indication of how fine a balance it was. Yes, it is not frequent that we have used the rejection power but then that is true for DVDs as well. It will usually only be one or two cases a year. We have rejected a DVD quite recently called Murder Set Pieces and it is not something that we like to do because there is a clear presumption that comes through every time we consult the public—we consult on a very large scale, 11,000 the last time we revised the guidelines—that at the adult level people ought to be free to choose their entertainment provided it is not illegal and provided there is not a clear harm argument. We thought there was a clear harm argument in the case of Manhunt 2; we did not win in the end but we win some of our appeals, we lose some of them.

  Mr Johnson: It is worth emphasising that the version of Manhunt 2 that is going to be released now is significantly less graphic in its violence than the version that was originally submitted to us and that is because we have that reject power. We rejected the most violent version of the game; we then also rejected a less violent version of the game and the appeal that we lost was only on the less violent version. The one with the unexpurgated violence remains banned in the UK.

  Mr Darby: It is worth pointing out that what David said is right, that PEGI will not have the ability to actually ban a game but that does not mean that it does not accept what Dr Byron has said, that within the UK that remains a necessity. PEGI itself cannot carry out the banning because of the question of censorship around Europe; some countries sit uncomfortably with any outside body having any form of censorship on any material going into their country. The way PEGI can deal with this is by doing very much as we do now. Any material that we see at that upper level that we think ought to be considered we could either refer to the BBFC or perhaps some independent body who could actually look at the sensitivities within the UK and then make a decision on whether that product was going to be allowed to be released in the UK regardless of whether it had a PEGI rating for the rest of Europe. PEGI cannot carry it out itself because it is made up of so many European bodies.

  Mr Cooke: I like to think we are an independent body.

  Q574  Alan Keen: I am trying to imagine if games could be made even worse. Has anybody attempted to enable the players to upload photographs of well-known people or next door neighbours so they could then pursue or something? I would regard that as absolutely unacceptable, that people playing these violent games would be enabled to produce the characters of people they actually identify.

  Mr Cooke: I think the scope is endless.

  Q575  Alan Keen: Yes, it is; I am really asking what is coming next? What do we need to watch out for?

  Mr Cooke: Something that would bother me a lot would be sexual violence of a kind that might encourage emulation because there is more of a research base for thinking that possibly people might copy that. That would be a worrying development and something that we would scrutinise very closely and we would not hesitate to require cuts or indeed to reject a work. The DVD I mentioned earlier, the Murder Set Pieces, was rejected largely on the grounds of sexual violence so if there were to be a kind of game version of that then it would not have an easy ride from us.

  Q576  Adam Price: Currys have recently said that they are going to have their own classification for games. Before long there will be no room left on the box there will be so many different ratings on it. What do you think of their decision?

  Mr Cooke: My understanding is that retailers would prefer to operate with BBFC symbols, a single system. I am not sure if they have said this to you in evidence or not, but I have certainly seen press releases that indicate that that is the position of the ERA for instance.

  Mr Hall: Retailers do want one system; they would prefer one system and they would prefer it to be mandatory, they would also prefer it to be pan-European.

  Mr Cooke: I am not quite sure that that is what the ERA have said.

  Chairman: We have had a submission from the ERA. I think that is all; thank you very much.

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