Game Ratings Receive Scrutiny

Stephen Yagielowicz
LOS ANGELES — Videogame companies are facing some of the same issues as adult website operators, as a new round of content rating and labeling restrictions is underway.

In the UK, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is at the center of a controversy over content ratings and age-appropriateness following its granting of an 18 certificate to Rockstar's Manhunt 2.

The game's release comes after a nine-month battle that pitted its developers against the BBFC, and comes at a time when the UK videogame industry is awaiting the fallout of the Byron Review, which will study the impact of technology on children.

Some lawmakers, however, do not need the results of any studies before taking action.

Attempting to "legislate against video nasties," Conservative MP for Canterbury and Whitstable Julian Brazier recently introduced a bill seeking increased government oversight of the BBFC.

"My bill aims to make the British Board of Film Classification accountable to Parliament," Brazier wrote in his blog. "It would give a Parliamentary committee the power to review and veto key appointments and the guidelines the BBFC works to."

This injection of political interference into the bureaucratic process is intended to remedy a perceived one-sided arrangement where lawmakers should be able to override Board rating's decisions.

"The problem is that the Video Appeals Committee needs sorting out," Brazier told the BBC News. "It always sides with the industry and only the industry itself can appeal."

Not everyone agrees, including Margaret Robertson, a games consultant and former Edge magazine editor who feels that a much wider debate over how the BBFC is run is needed.

"Whatever the merits of this specific decision, what's frustrating is that the BBFC's system remains a very robust approach to classifying games, in that it's based on an independent party viewing and playing the game, and taking into account context and tone," Robertson said. "I still feel the BBFC sets a worldwide gold standard of game certification."

While only games that contain sex or violence are reviewed by the BBFC, Robertson feels that the system is preferable to the voluntary Pegi system in use by Europeans.

"Compared to the Pegi system, which is based on a questionnaire filled in by the game publisher, the BBFC system is clearly a more sophisticated and nuanced approach," Robertson said. "As games become more complex and start to tackle more diverse and challenging themes, we need an intelligent, sensitive ratings system which is alert to the fact that games can and do have a subtext to what they portray, just as film and television can."

Head of Frontier Games development David Braben sees self-certification of games by developers as a preferable system to imposed ratings and complex legal requirements.

"We've heard reports that the Byron Review will say that the classification system is not entirely working," Braben said. "The law is a very blunt weapon. The real problem is that games are quite complicated and are a nonlinear media, and are therefore much harder to rate."

"There is strong argument for self ratings. For me, the Pegi system has worked well," Braben said. "Developers intimately know the content — whether its cartoon violence, nasty violence, or has sexual elements — and can apply ratings directly."

Braben opined that an expanded and clarified rating system may help developers better rate their games.

"The issue is almost whether you need something above 18, which Americans have as 'Adults Only,' which is used for porn and cannot be on public display," Braben said. "We need a system that is very clear to all of us."

Tiga Chief Executive Richard Wilson, who represents the interests of developers, also wants to see consistent standards defined for videogames, movies and television.

"The whole ratings system is going to be under review because of the Byron Review," Wilson said. "We feel that the same standards that apply to films and TV should apply to games."

A BBFC spokeswoman stated that the Board continued to operate in accordance with the 1984 Video Recordings Act, and had no information about any changes to its mission as a videogame classifier or to the way in which it operates.

American operators are not free of the problems facing their British counterparts, either: The Massachusetts legislature is now considering House Bill 1423, which attempts to make it illegal to sell violent video games to minors — a first, as no other similar laws are currently in effect that regulate violent video games, movies, music or literature.

HB1423 takes a "games-as-porn" approach, equating violent video games with sexually explicit material as both being equally harmful to minors, while adopting a community-standards and adult entertainment-based "Miller Test" component to the legislation.

If successful, HB1423 will change the legal definition of "harmful to minors" to now include material that "depicts violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors; is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors."

While past attempts to enact similar legislation in other states have been turned down over first amendment issues, the Massachusetts ordinance seems to enjoy strong support.

For adult entertainment website operators, the parallels between videogame rating and labeling requirements and those being called for in the adult web arena are striking, and can serve as an indication of increasing pressures, both for self-regulation as well as legislation, that our industry will face.