Later this year PEGI will become the legally enforceable ratings body for games in the UK, completely replacing the BBFC. Wherever creative content is legislated in this way, friction is inevitable. And almost always, controversy arises because a rating is seen to be making it too easy for inappropriate material to reach the jam-stained fingers of our innocent children.
The recent furore over We Dare, Ubisoft's dreary collection of allegedly saucy mini-games, is a good example of what can happen when content and context fail to align.
PEGI rated it as 12 because there was nothing in the game itself, according to their guidelines, that warranted a higher rating. Whatever sexy facade We Dare wore came from its advertising, not what was on the screen.
Over the last few years, however, there has been a curious creep in the opposite direction. Games that seem relatively benign have been rated suitable only for those aged 16 and over.
For me, the parent of a keen gaming 8 year-old increasingly curious about what lies behind those age-related barriers and the editor of Eurogamer's site for kids, Megaton, things weren't adding up.
My curiosity was piqued in 2008 when my son fell in love with Castle Crashers, The Behemoth's deliciously silly scrolling beat-em-up. The game featured a few small spurts of blood and lots of poo jokes, but after playing it from beginning to end, I struggled to see why it had been deemed suitable only for 16 year-olds.
It seemed like a ludicrous decision, especially when the only explanation on the PEGI website was that this highly stylised cartoon game contained "realistic-looking violence".
This stood in stark contrast to Naughty Bear, rated 12, a game so sadistic and violent that the PR responsible for sending me a copy actually made a point of saying that it really wasn't suitable for kids. Looking for clarification, the PEGI rating explained that while Naughty Bear also contained "realistic looking violence", it was aimed at "non-human characters".
The same actions carried out on humans would basically make the game Manhunt 2. Against ironic cuddly toys, the violence was literally child's play. Something felt wrong.
Examples have continued to crop up over the past year, suggesting PEGI was perhaps struggling to bridge the gap between 12 and 16. Iron Man 2 and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, for instance, were rated 16 for 360 and PS3 players - but 12 for Wii owners, despite being virtually identical.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed were rated 16, the same rating dished out to grisly foul-mouthed shooters like Metro 2033 and Crysis 2, despite featuring no sex or bad language and only bloodless violence.
The comic book action of Batman: Arkham Asylum was rated 16, even though its admittedly hard-hitting combat was nowhere near as grisly as the 12A rated Dark Knight movie, with a pencil-in-eyeball gag, cheek-slashing, a man with a bomb sewn under his skin and Harvey Dent's gruesomely realistic facemeat.
The notion that I couldn't cover Batman, Spider-Man and Star Wars games on a website aimed at 12-year-olds seemed daft. It bothered me that it was only because my job involved playing those games, and seeing what they contained, that the discrepancy was obvious. Parents with no gaming experience would be making decisions based on what I saw as skewed information.
Finally, I decided to get in touch with PEGI to find out exactly how some of these ratings were determined and what criteria the organisation uses to reach its decisions.
The way PEGI works is that publishers submit their games along with an assessment form, detailing all content that could affect the final rating. On the form are 50 categories which break down every possible type of violence, profanity or sexual content into different age-restricted bands.
"Depictions of violence that is humorous and is set in a cartoon, slapstick or child-like setting" would result in a rating suitable for 3 year-olds. "Moving images that depict mutilation or torture of human-like or animal-like characters" naturally lead to an 18.
Illegal drugs are inappropriate for a 12 rating, but fine under a 16. Sexual innuendo is OK for a 12 rating, but more explicit sex talk bumps things up to a 16. "Realistic violence" against fantasy characters is allowed for a 12, as is non-realistic violence against human characters.
Reading through the list it's hard to argue with any of the categories, or the sensible and balanced guidance offered on how to interpret each band. There are still some eyebrow-raisers though. The rather quaint "bloody hell" warrants a 12 rating just as much as more forthright swears like "shit", "wanker" and "twat". All racial and homophobic slurs also fall under the 12 rating, interestingly.
Final ratings are then handled two organisations which check the publisher's assessment form against the material that has been flagged. PEGI does not play the games from start to end or attempt to see everything in the game.
Games rated 3 or 7 fall to NICAM in the Netherlands, while the Video Standards Council in London tackles 12, 16 and 18 games. Key to the ratings process is the fact that as a pan-European body, PEGI has no wriggle room for incorporating cultural context into a rating.
"I think there is a problem in that the UK has some difficulty in accepting and possibly understanding that the PEGI games rating system is not like the BBFC film and video rating system", explains Gianni Zamo, communications officer for the Video Standards Council.
"The BBFC operates on a contextually-sensitive basis which gives them a certain amount of freedom in deciding a film category. As an example, The King's Speech was given a 12A certificate even though the film contained a goodly smattering of f-words that would normally get a 15.
"However, the BBFC justifies the 12A by contextualising the use of the bad language stating that it is said in a speech therapy context rather than being used abusively or aggressively.
"I suspect the average German, Italian or Frenchman isn't remotely interested in Anglo-Saxon swearwords and their potential to offend."
"Here in the UK most of us would probably understand and accept that rationale. In mainland Europe however, it's pretty meaningless given that the f-word carries no weight as a swear word and I suspect the average German, Italian or Frenchman isn't remotely interested in Anglo-Saxon swearwords and their potential to offend."
As it turns out, The Kings Speech was given a 7 rating in Switzerland and a PG in Singapore - "Which suggests that the bad language was not an issue as far as these countries were concerned," says Zamo.
"In short, therefore, the use of context is very localised. What might be contextually acceptable in one country may not be so in another, which is why the PEGI system cannot function on this basis, nor would it wish to do so."
So instead PEGI bases its ratings on whether or not the imagery of a game is likely to cause "harm" to a particular age group, a distinction that Zamo admits is the subject of much debate.
"For western Europe at least, there do appear to be some commonly shared values and an understanding of what is considered to be appropriate for each age group.
"As an example, a game featuring strong, explicit sexual violence is unlikely to be considered suitable for anything other than an adult audience. Different degrees of violence will result in nuanced age ratings, depending on how realistic and true-to-life the on-screen representation of a violent act is."
This often isn't the case for film, Zamo says. For instance, French film censors have a reputation for being liberal compared to the UK. 'The Exorcist' was finally awarded an uncut 18 rating for Britain in 1999, "Whereas the French gave it a '-12' (forbidden for under 12s) without a second thought. Go figure, as the Americans would say."
There are also some common misconceptions about what elements impact a PEGI rating. Although online play appears as one of the advisory icons on packaging, it doesn't change the rating.
"Neither the PEGI system nor any other regulatory system can legislate for the behaviour of a user online or any user-generated content which is not a normal part of the game," Zamo explains.
PEGI does uphold the PEGI Online Safety Code, however, which requires publishers to police their own online communities to ensure it remains in line with accepted standards.
Nor does repetition of an action alter a rating. This was one of the assumptions I had made to explain why a game like Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions might be rated 16, on the basis that thousands of punches to the face of hapless goons might have some cumulative effect that wouldn't hold true of a similar one-off action in a movie.
Not so, says Zamo. "One punch or one hundred doesn't make a difference. Repetition of a particular action doesn't constitute a 'harm' in itself." However, the way in which it is presented might, such as the difference between the fantasy, comic fighting of Crash Bandicoot as opposed to the unremitting, brutal violence of Modern Warfare.
So what does this mean for the games whose ratings so baffled me in the first place? I wanted to know if the reason games were getting lower ratings on the Wii than on HD consoles was because the higher resolution made the action more explicit. As it turns out, the distinction was even smaller than that.
The 360 and PS3 versions of Iron Man 2 were rated 16 because the violence was judged to be more "realistic". Realism, in this case, isn't even based on the violence itself, but its aftermath: defeated enemies stay on the ground on the 360 and PS3, but vanish on the Wii. That can be all that's needed to nudge a game from a 12 to a 16.
In the case of Spider-Man, it turns out that the game was actually suitable for a 12 rating, right up until the last scene which was judged violent enough to change the rating.
"This is an example of a game that ultimately found itself sitting on the cusp between one rating and another," says Zamo, having retrieved the original rating documentation for the title.
"It seems that Spider-Man was, indeed, considered to be suitable at 12 save for a final scene involving multiple Spider-Men attacking a villain. Although the scene lacks any visceral element to it, it was felt to be sufficiently brutalising enough, with endless punches rained down on the villain, for it to warrant a shunt into 16."
These cases are obviously the exception rather than the rule, but they do raise important questions if PEGI is truly going to become as ubiquitous and widely understood as the BBFC ratings are for cinema.
Is the average customer on the street, that Mum or Dad looking for a game for their 12-year-old, going to be aware that the Spider-Man game is almost entirely suitable for their child, apart from one scene?
And is it fair that one child can play a game on their Wii, even if that game is Iron Man 2, while their friend has to wait four years just because their console has enough processing power to remember where enemies have fallen?
Personally, I'm still not convinced we have the right answers. I think PEGI offers a valuable service, and makes difficult decisions with, as I discovered, admirable transparency.
Clearly, the system is getting most things right. In 2010 PEGI fielded just 1684 enquiries from the public across the whole of Europe. Of those, most were apparently people asking how their consoles work or whether the ratings are a guide to the difficulty of a game ("Clearly there's some awareness work to be done on that one!" jokes Zamo). Just 115 were from people complaining about a rating.
Yet while I'm pleased to see games rated as games, rather than subjected to ratings designed for a different media, if a 16 certificate can cover everything from the benign comic book punch-ups of Spider-Man to the sweary stealth-kill headshot violence of Crysis 2, doesn't that risk making the PEGI rating a little less credible in the eyes of parents?
"I can see that some people might find it hard to comprehend the difference between [Spider-Man] and Crysis 2. However, I doubt that this in itself would lead to a wholesale loss of credibility."
"It's a subtle difference and not, perhaps, something that the average gamer would immediately recognise or understand", Zamo admits, "So I can see that some people might find it hard to comprehend the difference between [Spider-Man] and Crysis 2. However, I doubt that this in itself would lead to a wholesale loss of credibility."
I can't quite agree. If consumers find it hard to comprehend the difference between two games with the same rating, it suggests that there's a blind spot in the system. Particularly, it seems, for games that fall between the 12 and 16 ratings by relying on visceral yet non-explicit action, usually in a fantasy setting but against human foes.
I find it hard to believe that the sight of multiple dimension-hopping Spider-Mans delivering three punches to a bad guy or a digital body lying on the ground is going to cause "harm" a 12-year-old, who can already legally see far worse in live action movies. A ratings system that is too lenient will obviously cause an outcry, but moving too far in the other direction is hardly desirable either.
We're already seeing games migrate away from the middle ground where content is concerned, with inoffensive kid's titles at one end, blood-soaked adult titles at the other and very little in between.
As PEGI ratings become legally enforceable, it would be a shame if the few games that still aim to satisfy the young teen audience without pandering to gory bloodlust were placed out of reach by a ratings system designed to accommodate them.