Q&A: BBFC examiner Jim Cliff explains UK games ratings

The "man from the BBFC" chats to GameSpot about the ratings system, theoretically discusses Manhunt 2, and explains why movies like <i>Hostel</i> don't get the same treatment.

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The British Board of Film Classification is the ratings body responsible for video games in the UK. The country also uses the Pan European Game Information system, which is used by 29 countries. The difference between the two is that whereas the PEGI ratings system is an information guide only, the BBFC rating is legally binding, and anyone selling games to a child under the age limit is breaking the law. Some countries in Europe have also made the PEGI system statutory, whereas others--for example, Germany--rate games themselves.

The BBFC's Jim Cliff.
The BBFC's Jim Cliff.

Back in June, Rockstar Games' sequel to 2003's Manhunt, action adventure Manhunt 2, was denied a rating, which effectively banned the game in the UK. The game managed the dubious honour of being only one of two games ever banned by the organisation in the UK. The reasons given included the game's "unremitting bleakness and casual sadism." The game was also given an Adults Only rating by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in the US, although after an edited version of the game was submitted, the game was passed with an M for Mature.

However, when an amended version of Manhunt 2 was submitted for review by the BBFC, the appeal was rejected, and the new version of the game was again refused a rating. Rockstar Games is currently in the middle of an appeal against the organisation's decision, with a decision expected to be made in the new year.

Jim Cliff is one of 12 examiners at the BBFC who deal with video games, and GameSpot caught up with him at Nottingham's GameCity event to ask him about Manhunt 2, whether the Wii controller makes a difference, and the "games versus movies" ratings debate.

GameSpot UK: Can you tell us a little about the decision to ban Manhunt 2?

Jim Cliff: This is going to sound like a cop-out, but I can't talk about it because it's under appeal. You know they submitted a modified version, and had that been passed, then obviously I would have been able to, but I can't right now as it stands. Sorry!

GSUK: When is the appeal likely to finish?

JC: Sometime next year. I really don't know specifics unfortunately.

GSUK: Why does it take so long?

JC: There's a lot of people to get involved and talk to and talk about it to.

GSUK: How do you defend the decision when faced with the fact that movies like Hostel have been released with 18 certificates?

JC: If the majority of Hostel was the same as some of the most violent scenes in it, it's entirely possible it could have been banned. But it's not. Most of the running time isn't violence; that's mainly crammed into a few short scenes. Also, in Hostel you are very much required to identify with the victims more than in most games.

GSUK: So I'm just going to ask you some questions about Manhunt 2--you might be able to answer them, you might not. If you can't, just say, "I can't." Everyone's wondering about this phrase, "Casual sadism and unrelenting bleakness." What is that? What does that mean?

JC: Yeah, I can't, sorry.

GSUK: This is only the second game to get banned in the UK, and the other one was overturned on appeal. But is this likely? A lot of people are worried that this is kind of a sign of what's to come as games get more realistic, that more and more are going to get banned. Do you think that's going to happen?

JC: I think the fact that we've only banned two in 21 years of classifying games is a sign that it's not likely to be a problem. You know we very rarely cut games, we extraordinarily rarely ban them, whereas films and videos occasionally get cut--usually to get the specific age category that the company wants. We used to ban and cut a lot more films than we do now. So I don't think there's any worry that we're going to go the other way on games or back the other way on films.

GSUK: So you think it's maybe because it's a younger industry, and in 10 years games like Manhunt 2 might be released without problems?

JC: I think the fact that it's a younger industry means that people are trying out a lot of things that have never been done before. So we're going to see new things all the time and done better and in better--more interesting and more graphic ways. Whereas you could argue that with film it's got to a point where they can pretty much do anything and we've seen most of what we're going to see. Although I expect most filmmakers would disagree.

GSUK: Are there any areas where you think people are becoming more conservative?

JC: Drugs, I think. In the '70s there were films that got a PG that would get a 15 now.

GSUK: How about the Wii controller? Does it make any difference, the fact that you can kind of make gestures to strangle people or stab them?

JC: I think it affects how you see the game, but it would have to be a demonstrably different type of game; for example, the Godfather and Scarface have both been passed on the Wii without a difference in classification. It makes a difference inasmuch as it changes how you approach the game and the impact it has on you. But in order to have a difference to the category, it would need to be a really very borderline decision to start with. So where I can envisage it perhaps making a difference is maybe, say, between 12 and 15, or 15 and 18. Where a game is right there, it could be either, and that is the thing that makes it seem stronger on one console than the other. But outside that context, I really don't think it makes much of a difference.

GSUK: Because games are interactive and movies aren't, does that mean they are treated differently to movies? What does the BBFC think about that?

JC: Well, as I said, our stance is that in terms of harm, they're treated essentially the same, and that there are areas which you could hypothesize people would be more offended by. Like the sex angle, although we've recently passed--it was a fairly widely publicized, the sex scene in Mass Effect which was essentially a 12-level sex scene. The sex itself wasn't interactive but there's a kind of conversation leading up to it which was, and therefore 12-year-olds are leading their character into bed with another character. If the sex itself had been interactive, it wouldn't have been a 12. So that's an area where, yeah, the interactivity makes a difference.

And other areas, from the most mechanical point of view, things like swearing. Where in a film if they say "****" once, it's not going to be a PG, and it depends how many times they say it, to an extent. Although context, again, comes into play with that. But we don't put that word out in PG because people are offended by it, they don't want their kids to hear it.

Now it might be a 12, because it's not said very much or with very much strength or whatever. But in a game, even if [it] only occurs once, if it, say, happens--if it's said on a street corner every time you go past that street corner you might hear it, and so the interactivity there or the nonlinear mechanic of the game means it's unlikely then to be a 12. It would be more likely [to] be a 15 because it's possible that you could hear it a lot, and people don't like that.

GSUK: Since we're talking about sex, I mean is there any difference between, like, homosexual sex and heterosexual sex? Would that still get the same age rating?

JC: Yes. In fact, in Mass Effect there is a lesbian sex scene that you can have if you happen to set up your character as a woman in the first place.

GSUK: Do you think parents understand ratings?

JC: I think it depends on whether they've played games before. They understand ratings on video undeniably. Ninety-seven percent of British parents are familiar with and understand our ratings. When it comes to how they apply to games, I think that the biggest issue is with parents who've never played games and are either not interested in what their kids are playing, or don't feel they would be able to understand, and so they don't take an interest. And I think it's not necessarily that they're not interested in the ratings, it's that they don't know how they would apply to games. They don't know--whereas they might know what a 15 film is like, they've got no clue what a 15 game is like. And so it's much harder for them, and if their kid says that's fine, then they think it's probably fine.

I think we're in flux at the moment. We're in a stage where there are young teenagers with parents who haven't played games, I think we're moving into a time--my kid is just coming up four, people of my generation grew up playing games, and as their children grow, the parents will be much more knowledgeable. And I think it'll be much less of an issue. I know what kind of things I want to show my kid, and as he grows, I will continue to do so.

GSUK: Are you guys going to change the name from the British Board of Film Classification to reflect the fact that you now do video games as well?

JC: Well, we didn't change it in 1984 when we started doing video. We do near to 600 films a year. About 300 in general release. But anyway, we deal in a matter of hundreds of games a year. Whereas video elements are around the kind of 15,000 mark. So that's by far the biggest thing that we do, and people don't tend to complain that we don't call ourselves British Board of Video Classification.

The vast majority of what we do is old TV series or DVD extras or that kind of stuff. I don't think that a name change is going to be the way to go. But I think that people will get more and more of that--more and more games are being classified. They just see them on the shelves and as I said, the symbols are so recognizable to people through film and video that, hopefully, it will start to get through.

GSUK: Are you guys involved in the Byron Report in any way?

JC: Only as much as we've had Tanya Byron in and just explained to her kind of who we are and what we do. I think she was coming from a perspective of starting off blank, certainly with regard to games and just wanting input from everyone who is involved. So we offered our services and explained to her what we do and why. What she does with that is then out of our hands, I think.

GSUK: What does the BBFC think about the report? Are you worried that the rating system's going to be overhauled?

JC: No, I don't--I mean, I can't speak for everyone, but I don't think it's a worry. We're very happy with how the system works. It seems to do a good job. The anecdotal evidence of kids playing Grand Theft Auto and so on is really not borne out by the research in terms of general underage playing of games any more than it is of kids watching videos. Which in the home, they are allowed to do. You know if a parent chooses to allow their child to watch an 18-rated film, we don't advise it, but it's not against the law, and it's the same with games. We are there to essentially give advice and to stop kids from freely getting things without their parents' knowledge or help.

So where parents are complicit, there's only so much we can do. But no, I think inasmuch as what happens with games, both as they come through us and after, I think the system works quite well, so I don't see a lot of change coming, really.

GSUK: In the US, the Nintendo DS game New York Times Crosswords got a teen rating, because it had "adult language" in some of the crossword answers. What do you think of that?

JC: Well, our remit is fairly narrow in that respect and, I mean, plays used to be classified, [though] not by us. The Lord Chancellor's office, I think, used to classify plays. Books, I don't think have ever been done, although obviously some books have been banned. But, you know, it's a public policy in this country that books are for everyone. There is no parental control or general control on plays. Although theatres are completely within their rights to stop under-eighteens getting into certain plays if they want to.

Music, again, you can put the parental-advisory stickers on but there's no one going to stop you buying it when you get to the counter. So I think there's, you know, we have a society where it's deemed that some things need control and others are innocuous enough to be okay. I suspect crosswords would fit into the latter category.

GSUK: You say you were under pressure to give Canis Canem Edit/Bully a higher certificate. Has this kind of outside pressure ever swayed ratings?

JC: No, absolutely not. No, we're an independent body. We're not controlled by the government at all, and we're certainly not controlled by the press. The only thing it did was make us aware that it was going to be a public decision and that whatever--essentially whatever way we went, it was going to get a lot of press and people weren't going to be happy about it. But no, we looked at it on its merits and that was it, really.

GSUK: Are there any other games that you guys have been under a lot of pressure to kind of ban or rate higher than you did?

JC: Not that I can think of.

GSUK: The first Manhunt maybe?

JC: Manhunt didn't get a lot of prepublicity. With films, it happens a lot after the fact. People see films or at least critics see them and think "that's horrendous." But usually after they've been classified, because we get them several months in advance, usually. So they usually know what it's been given and complain if they don't like it. But with films, often there's such a lot of prepublicity and such a lot of clips on the Internet for months before it comes out and so on, that those who get upset about that kind of thing, think that they know what it's going to be like. I mean Jack Thompson's a case in point. He's exactly the kind of person who thinks they know exactly what is going to be in a game before they've even seen it. And before anyone's seen it in many cases, and therefore that he knows what should happen to it. Whereas we think you should probably play it before you make your mind up.

GSUK: Just as a theoretical thing, Manhunt 2 has been rated as an 18 in the US. So if I imported a copy of the 18 version, would I be breaking the law?

JC: No, but if you sold it to anyone, then you would be.

GSUK: Do you play games yourself?

JC: Absolutely, yeah.

GSUK: What are your favourite games?

JC: I have just been playing Black but was a bit annoyed by how not-backwards-compatible it was with PlayStation 3. It was quite buggy, crashed a lot when I was most of the way through a level. It is a hard game. I like driving games, mostly. I played Burnout, and I mean the GTA series I kind of play more as a driving game. I tend to spend quite a lot of the time driving around the city and playing in vigilante mode and trying to get away from the cops or catch bad guys. But yeah, the driving games are the ones I particularly enjoy.

GSUK: Many thanks for your time.

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