Much is being made within the video game industry and fanbase about the implementation of an EU-wide system of video game age restrictions in the UK from the 30th July 2012. Previously, game content had been vetted by the British Board of Film Classification, the overarching regulator of all film and TV programmes, but the system was inconsistently and inefficiently enforced. PEGI, the Pan-European Game Information system, places harsher sanctions on retailers who sell age-restricted games to underage customers including prison terms and fines, and provides more detailed guidance on packaging about game content. All games must now be vetted by the Video Standards Council, with the exception of games with “explicit sexual content,” given R18 status in line with BBFC regulations on sexual material.
There are, broadly speaking, two responses to this measure. The pessimistic line is that nothing will change; games for adults will continue to be sold to children and even if not, children will continue to gain access to games for adults, as happens with films and other media. As a result, critics of PEGI claim that it simply makes it more inconvenient for legitimate customers to buy games (since identification may now be required) and does nothing to address the problem. While these critics may have sound evidence to support their claims, claiming that a law is useless because it is broken seems counterproductive; the law lays down in the simplest and most efficient way what may be sold to who. As it stands there is, I would argue no more efficient way of restricting access to age-controlled media while also preserving basic freedoms. What must follow to ensure the law is complied with is education – rather than restrictive and punitive regulation, educating people to discourage breaking the law in the first place is going to be the better bet. Such is the pessimistic argument (either that the law is too lenient and a total ban or some kind of more active censorship is needed, or that the law cannot be adequately enforced and so is useless).
Indeed, these criticisms are in my opinion unfounded, for PEGI’s implementation is being accompanied by education campaigns on BBC radio, and in major retailers – intended to demystify the hobby to non-enthusiasts and inform parents better.
The more optimistic line, though, is if anything more worrying. Eurogamer reported that UKIE, the United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment body, argues that the implementation of PEGI will stop negative media portrayal of games and what is perceived as unfair scrutiny of game content by policy-makers and the mass media. Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE, was quoted as saying:
“Hopefully we will have done enough education and enough showing the positive sides of games that this furore and this natural cultural bias doesn’t happen any more.”
It is understandable that UKIE, as an industry body, would see PEGI as a good thing – and indeed Twist’s statement has some value. It will no longer be possible to claim that children have easy access to age-restricted media in shops for the regulatory situation will be identical to films. However, behind this I see something slightly less useful; the belief that this “natural cultural bias” can go away. I personally don’t think there is any more a “natural cultural bias” – what there is is criticism. Twist argues that games with “mature” content are inevitable as the medium matures, and that PEGI protects games’ ability to treat it. However, there are two very complex issues here and it would not do for UKIE, and especially not for game players and game designers, to mix them up. What PEGI does is introduce a regulatory framework for the sale of games; in so doing it rules who can play games containing what content. What PEGI does not do, and what games must do, is think hard about how and why they include mature content.
A protected right to cover mature subjects in a medium is useful. It is not, however, the end of the issue by a long shot and anyone, game-player or game-maker, who thinks that tightening up regulation of age restrictions is carte blanche to deflect criticism of content is wrong. The fact that the BBFC exists and generally does a good job of controlling what can be aired has minimal relation to the critical debate about what can be aired; whether a film’s content, regardless of whether the BBFC has allowed it to be shown or not, is appropriate. Content supervision laws protect the ability for this debate to happen – games can now legally handle mature subjects and the law is doing its best to ensure they stay in the right age groups. I don’t see this as inherently ending media furore and perceived bias about games because for the most part the criticism has moved beyond “children are buying violent games.” It’s moved on to “adults are buying these games, but what are they buying?” – and this debate needs to carry on.
If people want to see it as “bias” or unwarranted media attention, that is harmful to games. Any serious medium is debated and protected in these ways – legally protected in what it can show to who, and critically discussed in terms of what it should depict and how. PEGI should be opening the debate, bringing games under more scrutiny because now the easy arguments are gone. No longer can you knock games by saying “they’re for children” because the law now says they can be for adults; but at the same time no longer can you use “but they’re for adults and have a right to show mature subjects” as a defence. Yes, a game is for adults. Great. Now start talking about the game – start talking not about what games should be allowed to cover but instead about how they can best cover it. Ridiculous articles saying this sort of discourse is advocating censorship when it occurs in less than favourable ways achieve nothing.
So to conclude, I think PEGI does a lot right; yes, any age restriction on media is inherently fallible and will inevitably be ignored where possible. However, its existence, and its enforcement, gives games the protected and legally respected status of other media. Now games have the “right” to be aimed at adults and cover mature content, that isn’t the end of bad press, that shouldn’t be the end of scrutiny; it should be the start of better scrutiny, because that leads to better games for all. If someone now wants to stand up and say “Call of Duty has gone too far with its latest shock level” they won’t be saying it because it’s corrupting the children but because they think it’s crossed a line in how war crimes or terrorism, for example, should be depicted. Something being “for adults” doesn’t give it free reign to do as it likes without criticism.
“PEGI video game ratings become law” Mark Sweney, The Guardian, 30th July 2012
“Could PEGI combat the inevitable next-gen “the violence is so real” media outcry?” Robert Purchese, Eurogamer.net, 31st July 2012
(Quotations from Jo Twist and UKIE taken from Purchese’s article)