Spot On: British game-ratings changes broken down

Restrictions to be harsher--and legally binding--under just-adopted PEGI system; new body being set up to focus on selecting which games will be banned in the UK.

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When the British government presented its thoughts on how to keep Britain at the cutting edge in the digital age, gaming got its fair share of attention. As well as a number of issues around game development, the most important thing for UK gamers was the conclusion to the long-running UK ratings saga.

Currently, every game released in the European Union receives a rating under the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) system. However, not all games reach UK shelves with a PEGI rating attached. Depending on a game's content, UK law requires some to instead carry a rating from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) that is then legally binding. (PEGI ratings are considered advisory labels only.) Under the proposals outlined in the report, PEGI will now be the only source for UK ratings, and those ratings will now carry legal weight.

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The old BBFC ratings (above) and new PEGI ratings (below).
The old BBFC ratings (above) and new PEGI ratings (below).

Previously legally binding ratings, BBFC ratings were only needed for a minority of games that either had significant non-game content, were tied into film releases, or if they depicted or encouraged any of the following: human sexual activity or acts of force or restraint associated with such activity; mutilation or torture of, or other acts of gross violence toward, humans or animals; human genital organs or human urinary or excretory functions; techniques likely to be useful in the commission of criminal offences. These provisions were laid out in the Video Recordings Act 1984, which forms the legal basis for both criminalising underage sale of rated "video works," and criminalising the sale of such works that were refused classification.

The power to ban games by refusing UK classification will now pass to the Video Standards Council, a UK body that jointly administers the PEGI system with the Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audiovisual Media. Also, every single game on UK store shelves intended for anyone over the age of 12 will now have a legally binding age rating on it, with stiff penalties in place for any businesses that sell games to those who are underage.

The single most significant change for UK gamers is likely to stem from the fact that PEGI has a history of rating games more conservatively than the BBFC. According to the VSC, since 2003, approximately 50 percent of PEGI 18+ games have received more lenient ratings from the BBFC. As of the end of last year, according to a PEGI statement at the time, 24 of 50 titles rated 18+ by PEGI had had their ratings reduced by the BBFC. Two of these--Mass Effect and PSP game SWAT - Target Liberty--were released in the UK with 12 ratings from the BBFC, but with a PEGI 18+ in the rest of Europe. The other 22 received 15 ratings in the UK--among them, big games, such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill 3, and the original God of War.

A number of 16+ PEGI games were also downgraded, including Call of Duty 3, Tomb Raider Anniversary, and Soul Calibur IV, which were all released in the UK with a 12 rating. Whether or not young teens will still be able to buy games with split ratings, such as Mass Effect and SWAT, remains to be seen and is a matter the VSC has told GameSpot it will be taking up with government.

The fate of Mass Effect is in the balance.
The fate of Mass Effect is in the balance.

There are a number of reasons for these increased ratings; the first of these is the use of sexual expletives in a game. Such language automatically results in the application of a PEGI 16+ rating--which may then be upgraded, depending on other factors. However, under the BBFC's guidelines, occasional use of "the strongest language" only results in a 12 rating.

"A single act of violence in a film will be seen once," a VSC representative told GameSpot. "The single use of a sexual expletive in a film will be heard once. This being the case, it is entirely legitimate to put the act of violence or sexual expletive into the context of the overall film. This is not the case for games."

He went on to explain that while each instance of violence and vulgarity occurs once during the course of a film, players might be made to replay cutscenes and fights complete with all their objectionable content numerous times before advancing in a game.

"This being the case, it is not appropriate to put the act of violence or sexual expletive into context," the VSC representative concluded. "Once the act of violence or sexual expletive is there, it will attract the PEGI rating attributable to it."

The one other change that will be made is in respect to banning games. While the criteria for the refusal of UK classification will remain the same as it did when the BBFC was administering the process, the VSC has said it is to set up an advisory panel to which it will refer all games that it fears may need to be banned. Under the act, any game "likely to cause harm" to those viewing it, with special consideration being given to criminal behaviour; illegal drugs; violent behaviour or incidents; horrific behaviour or incidents; or human sexual activity would be referred. This does only apply in the UK, however, so a banned game in the UK would almost certainly still be released in the rest of Europe with a PEGI 18+ rating.

Because the key point is the likelihood to cause harm, the advisory council is to contain a senior clinical psychologist and a senior media psychologist, as well as a senior media lawyer. According to the VSC, the panel will not make the final decision to ban a game, with the VSC only saying its advice "will be taken into account." This will, the VSC hopes, mean that if it does elect to ban a game, the decision will not be reversed on appeal.

It should be noted that the legal weight of classifications is only relevant when the supply of a video work is "for reward" or "in the course of furtherance of a business," and so games bought by others then given as gifts would not fall foul of the legislation, as they did not before.

It is currently unclear as to when the new system will come into force, as Parliament needs to approve some of the changes. The VSC confirmed to GameSpot that it plans to meet with appropriate members of government in the near future to work out a timetable.

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