One of the main outcomes of the Byron Report last year was something of an unseemly spat between the British Board of Film Classification and the UK game trade body, ELSPA, which had been lobbying strongly for the current publisher-led pan-European standard, PEGI.
In the House of Commons today, recently appointed Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw announced that PEGI would form the basis of a new rating system in the UK. He also confirmed that under the new system, PEGI ratings would be strengthened with new statutory requirements for those who sell games. The move will make it illegal for games to be sold to those under the stated age rating, as is currently the case with all films and the small number of games rated by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).
Previously, the BBFC would mainly rate ultraviolent games that warranted an 18 rating (18 years and older), most infamously Manhunt 2, though it did occasionally rate games 15 (15 years and over). The new system would extend similar criminal penalties for underage sale to PEGI's three highest ratings: 12+ (12 years and over), 16+ (16 years and over), and 18+ (18 years and over). The two lowest PEGI ratings, 3+ and 7+, will not carry the same criminal penalty.
Explaining the decision in today's Digital Britain report, the government said, "We have selected the Enhanced PEGI system, as it combines the best of a pan-European self regulatory system designed specifically for video games with a strong UK based statutory regulator taking account of the views of the UK public. It will give consumers a single set of clear logos for video games that will apply across most of Europe, providing an international solution for game content regulation. It has the flexibility required to adapt to the challenge of rapidly-evolving technology in the games sector and will be highly effective in the online world."
The statutory weight for PEGI ratings will be supplied by the Video Standards Council, which will "be responsible for ensuring that games comply with PEGI standards before providing licences for them to be sold in the UK." Video Standards Council president Baroness Shephard welcomed the decision, saying, "By making PEGI legally enforceable in the UK, the government has shown that it is determined to protect children, help parents make informed decisions and deliver consistency in games rating."
The VSC is also to get the power to ban games outright in the UK, should it be deemed necessary, following the introduction of legislation in Parliament later in the year. "VSC will exercise this new power independently of the PEGI system, providing a 'fail-safe' for the UK--protecting children through PEGI and addressing UK-specific sensibilities by refusing classification of any game which falls foul of the Video Recordings Act," according to the Baroness.
Speaking to GameSpot, game industry law expert Vincent Scheurer of Sarassin LLP said, "This is great news for the video games industry. If the video games industry is to be treated as a mature creative industry in its own right, it cannot be subject to censorship by a film industry body. However, if PEGI is now going to acquire the right to ban video games, we need to ensure that PEGI’s systems are fair and transparent, and that PEGI does not repeat the mistakes which the BBFC made in relation to Manhunt 2."
The news was welcomed by many others across the industry, with Microsoft and Nintendo joining Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Sega, and others in issuing statements in support of the new PEGI-based system. Michael Rawlinson, ELSPA's director general, echoed their support, saying, "Today’s decision will ensure that games ratings stay relevant and adapt to the changing nature of videogames for many years to come. Retailers will now have clear, legal backing to help them prevent access to unsuitable content by children."
The BBFC, however, was less fulsome in its praise of the decision: "The BBFC has always supported PEGI and wished it well, but it continues to believe that it satisfies these requirements better than PEGI. However, it will cooperate fully in the detailed work needed to give effect to the Government’s decision. And it must be independent in substance as well as appearance, reaching its decisions and providing information on the basis of its own detailed assessments."