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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.
The whole debate about the relative merits of the system, however, is really just a warmup for the Byron Review, which is designed to inform the Government's policy on rating systems going forward. Unfortunately for PEGI, the review's recommendations fairly clearly fall on the side of the BBFC - or at least, on the side of a single, consistent rating system that covers all types of media, which is what the BBFC offers.
Much as the industry may dislike it, and despite the obvious advantages which PEGI offers in some regards, it's extremely difficult to disagree with that conclusion. Both rating systems are flawed, definitely - the BBFC's procedures for assessing games are arguably inappropriate to the medium, while PEGI's content icons are over-complicated, difficult to interpret, unclear and ultimately far less useful than the industry would like to believe.
However, the BBFC's ratings have a single, clear and absolutely shining advantage - namely that they apply to movies as well as videogames, thus giving the potential for a single system which parents can use to assess the suitability of all content. A second, supplementary advantage also exists - the BBFC's ratings are already enforceable in law, and while it's possible that PEGI could be given some teeth to allow it to function a bit more like America's ESRB, the BBFC's existing powers are perhaps more immediately workable.
The hope is that the best parts of both systems can, in some way, be brought together. In creating PEGI, the industry has shown a clear willingness to self-regulate and a capability to do so. If that can now be extended to working with the BBFC to create a more rigourous and appropriate ratings system for videogame content, as part of a unified rating scheme for all visual media, we may - hopefully - reach a workable solution.
The hurdles faced in protecting children from inappropriate content, though, remain broadly the same. Years of over-zealous censorship of content in Britain has created a culture where ratings systems are simply not trusted - the unintended consequence of the shrill-voiced "moral minority" of the eighties being that an entire generation has grown up to believe that 18-rated media is suited to far younger children, because frankly, for much of the 1980s, it was.
This factor, combined with society's disquieting trend towards blaming the availability of products for problems, absolving parents of their responsibilities to control their childrens' access to media, this makes for a tough struggle to educate the nation about age ratings.
Worryingly, in the face of this, there's still cause to be sceptical about this government's commitment to the freedom of creative industries and media. Talk of handing the reins of censorship to the Government remains in the air around Westminster - which, if anything, leaves the onus on both the games industry and the BBFC to work together in the wake of the Byron Review's publication, coming up with a combined strategy that eliminates the need for unwanted Government intervention in the process. Self-regulation is probably too much for the industry to hope for in the current political climate - but the opportunity exists to become a major stakeholder in the ratings process. If the alternative is Government oversight of rating and censorship, then for the sake of everyone involved - from publishers and developers down to the gamers and consumers themselves - that's an opportunity the industry must grasp.
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