Rating Compromises

As traffic lights replace PEGI, where next for Britain's rating debate?

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At last, there may be some light at the end of the dark and depressing tunnel that is the British games industry's ongoing feud with the BBFC - the body responsible for age-rating content in the UK.

Ever since the (remarkably balanced and non-political) Byron Report was launched earlier this year, its recommendation that BBFC logos be carried on the front of all packaging has been ruffling feathers among industry bosses. They would rather see the PEGI system, a pan-European rating system operated by the publishers themselves, taking precedence - preferably with the BBFC butting out of the process entirely.

There are rather a lot of problems with the industry's view on this matter, but the one which has been raised most often is simply that PEGI's logos are unfamiliar and seem to be largely unrecognised even by gamers, let alone by parents.

The rating system relies on a single recommended age box, along with a number of smaller boxes indicating what types of potentially objectionable content you may find in the game. These smaller boxes simply confuse matters - not least because the task of expressing an abstract concept like "horror" in a tiny black and white picture is the kind of thing you expect to find in a lateral-thinking puzzle game, not a sober attempt at implementing a rating system.

PEGI is lumbered with countless other problems. For a start, it's pan-European - a factor stated as a positive by some in the industry, although I've yet to hear a reasonable justification for this. There are vast cultural differences across Europe in terms of what's deemed acceptable in media. At various extremes, you have severe attitudes on videogame violence in Germany, rules on the depiction of Nazi symbols in several countries on the continent, and various taboo individuals in a number of societies (such as the Royal Family in Spain).

Less significant but arguably more crucial to content classification are the wider cultural differences that spread across the region. In the southern and eastern areas of the continent, Christianity (and especially Catholicism) have a firmer grip, which deeply affects what is considered passable. Britain, by comparison, is very permissive - while some other states in northern Europe, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian nations, are arguably more permissive still. So by whose standards, exactly, should a pan-European rating be set?

After months of bitterly opposing the BBFC's further involvement in game rating, however, Britain's publishers seem to have changed tack. This week, UK publisher association ELSPA tacitly acknowledged flaws in the PEGI system - and instead proposed a new "traffic lights" system, which would be much clearer for consumers, not to mention more visually striking.

In fact, what's most visually striking about the new logos is how much like the BBFC's they are. The rating system is admittedly different, but ELSPA's new traffic lights really do bear a superficial resemblance to the BBFC's own rating stamps. They even boast the explanatory text box on the right, replacing PEGI's utterly awful content icons.

These logos are, in short, a step in the right direction - simply because they suggest a willingness to compromise on the part of the games business (although, of course, the government may prove unwilling to reciprocate). On the surface, they suggest that the industry is coming around to the idea of a BBFC-style system, but just wants to discuss the details of how it's going to be handled.

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