Rating the Ratings

Who's right in the ratings debate?

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial offers analysis of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GamesIndustry.biz newsletter subscribers.

The BBFC, it seems, can't do anything right these days. On one hand, it's been dragged through a humiliating defeat over the release of Manhunt 2 in the UK, and has been lambasted - somewhat unfairly - for being unfair to videogames and overly censorious. On the other hand, it has been blasted by Britain's red-top press for allowing formerly banned 1980s "video nasties" to be released on DVD - with some of the nation's politicians, who never saw a bandwagon they didn't like the look of, hopping on board to chime in on the organisation's excessive leniency.

The reality lies somewhere in the middle. The release of old video nasties is little more than a recognition that the original bans were reactionary, censorious and unjustifiable. At the other end of the spectrum, the Manhunt 2 mess is largely down to the depressing reality that with the 18 certificate so widely ignored by retailers and parents alike, the BBFC has little leeway for dealing with content of this type. Banning content outright is never the right decision in any free society, but faced with such an extreme case, some sympathy is due for board - caught, as they were, between a litigious rock and a politically explosive hard place.

The extensive debate surrounding the BBFC, combined with the publication of the government-commissioned Byron Review of the risks to children from inappropriate Internet and videogame media, has placed the spotlight on the other side of the ratings situation in the UK - PEGI. The Pan-European Game Information rating, carried by videogames across Europe (often in tandem with more local, national rating schemes) has emerged as the darling of the games industry itself, being loudly championed by firms like EA and Microsoft as the preferred system for age rating.

Mind you, this is unsurprising. PEGI is, after all, the industry's own standard - and you'll forgive the cynicism in the observation that there isn't an industry anywhere on the planet that wouldn't prefer to be regulated by a tame body of its own devising rather than by body imposed by government. Watching Microsoft's UK corporate affairs boss, Matt Lambert, champion PEGI in front of MPs at the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearings on videogame and Internet content, the reactions of the politicians were telling. Lambert was perfectly eloquent, but industries asking to regulate themselves are always seen in broadly the same dim light as children asking to set their own bedtimes.

However, it ought to be observed that PEGI does do a remarkably strict job - it's certainly no soft touch where industry ratings are concerned, having issued a large number of 18+ ratings for products which the BBFC has subsequently rated as a 15 or even lower. In part, this is because PEGI rates for the entirety of Europe, and its age ratings therefore reflect the sensibilities of the continent's most conservative states in each category. Cynically, it could also be argued that with an 18 rating largely being seen as an effective marketing tool rather than a restriction on sales in many countries, PEGI probably doesn't have any onus upon it not to sprinkle them around rather liberally.

So, the industry likes PEGI - it likes being in control of its own ratings, and it claims that PEGI is more tailored to game content, stricter and more informative than the BBFC symbols. The former points are certainly fair, but the latter point is somewhat debatable. Although PEGI's symbols include a range of icons to illustrate what type of content a game includes, the BBFC has taken to including a brief text description in many of its ratings boxes, which is rather more clear and descriptive than PEGI's approach.

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