Game ratings a global concern


The video games ratings system in Europe is just a few months away from tackling two of the biggest challenges facing the ratings system here in the U.S.

The first hurdle is how to deal with the plethora of small, downloadable casual games that typically go unrated because their independent developers choose not to bear that expense. Recently, however, it's been learned that the "parental controls" of the new Microsoft Vista operating system can exclude unrated games which could cut into the developers' business.

A second hurdle is the best way to control online games -- like MMOGs -- that contain considerable content generated not by the game developers but by the players.

Europe's answer to both challenges will be PEGI Online, a variation of the current four-year-old PEGI (Pan European Game Information) system, according to Laurie Hall, secretary-general of the Video Standards Council (VSC) in London. He heads up the organization that rates games in the U.K. and that is also one of the two bodies charged with administering PEGI, which is used by 27 European countries, with the notable exception of Germany. Just as in the U.S., PEGI is a voluntary system enforced by most retailers who won't sell unrated games.

Hall expects PEGI Online to be launched mid-year.

"The games that are played online will be rated in the same way as retail products, and will use the same criteria," says Hall. "In addition, the game's Web site itself will need to be PEGI-registered. Before a child can begin playing, the parent is directed to the PEGI Web site which will list information about the dangers of allowing a child to play online -- including the fact that a lot of the content is player-generated, especially language. And it will warn about the dangers of chat rooms, about giving out personal information, about anyone asking for payment and about advertisement for other products."

On the PEGI "wish list" is the introduction of filtering software that may eventually allow parents to restrict children to PEGI-registered sites. "The technology is there," says Hall, "but we are not yet committed to it. First we need to get a consensus and then find the funds to do it."

He adds that PEGI Online will become more important as the use of digital distribution to sell games grows. "Eventually," he says, "the majority of games may be online and not in retail stores."

While PEGI Online will not address casual games, Hall believes that "this noncontroversial, bottom end of the market doesn't cause anybody any concern" and that the family-friendly games pose practically no risk.

"We intend to deal with them in a very simple way -- by letting the developer self-rate them with our doing subsequent random checks," he says. "Generally speaking, if you can successfully devise a good definition of casual games -- and we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of games that don't offend anybody -- unless there's abuse or somebody makes a mistake, what does it achieve by having us doing the rating?"

But in the United States, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) assigns ratings to casual games as well as to retail and online games. Developers of these casual games, many of whom are small independents with very limited budgets, have complained they haven't the funds to pay for the rating service. While the ESRB doesn't disclose its rates, developers report that it hovers between $2,000 and $3,000, which can be the complete art budget for an indie game.

"I would highly recommend that casual developers inquire about our rates," says Patricia Vance, the ESRB's president. "In the past, we have accommodated companies with different fees for different types of games and different platforms. Going forward, we may make additional adjustments to our fees to accommodate companies with particular financial hardships."

Last year, the ESRB rated almost 1,300 games, and Vance believes it has the capacity to service as many additional games -- including casual games -- as is necessary.

Because the latest version of Windows will enable ratings-based parental controls, it is likely that the debate over the effectiveness of those ratings will continue unabated. Politicians and parents groups have long held that games are becoming more violent and access to them by young children is easier than ever.

But the data suggests otherwise. In 2006, 53% of the ratings assigned by the ESRB were "E" (for "Everyone") ratings, up from 50% in 2005, while "M" (for "Mature") ratings slid to 8% from 12% in 2005, according to data not yet publicly released by the ESRB. In both years, less than 1% of the ratings assigned were "AO" (for "Adults Only") ratings.

"I would expect that this trend will continue in 2007 as well," notes Anita Frazier, industry analyst at the Port Washington, NY-based NPD Group. "While the role of mature-rated content, particularly among the heavy gamer segment, cannot be discounted, a good deal of industry growth will be realized by games that expand the audience for gaming and, in many cases, this will be content with a milder rating."

Regardless, political pressure on the video games industry -- and on the ESRB -- continues, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, says Vance. "When political figures encourage parental education, when parents get involved in the media consumption in their home, when parents start to pay attention to the ratings information that's available, that's when the system really works. And I think the system does work, but politics is politics -- and not all politicians are necessarily familiar with everything we are doing," she adds, which includes a partnership with the PTA and a public service announcement campaign to promote awareness of the ESRB's ratings system.

She stresses that, because there is no regulation in the U.S. when it comes to video game content -- unlike in many countries, where legislation can prevent inappropriate games from being sold to minors -- education about the voluntary ESRB ratings system is of primary importance.

In the U.K., games containing gross violence and/or sexual content need to be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), a government body, for legal age classification. Only 2% to 3% of the games published -- the so-called "extreme games" -- receive this treatment. If a retailer sells, for example, a game rated "18" to a 15-year-old, they can be fined up to 3,000 pounds (approximately $6,000) and be jailed for up to six months.

"It is enforced and people are fined and prosecuted," notes Hall. "Some people will say that it isn't enforced enough, but the law is there. If there is any problem at all, it's lack of enforcement."

In Germany, game ratings are controlled by the four-year-old German Juvenile Protecting Law, not the PEGI system.

"There had been a shooting in a school there and, just as in the U.S., a computer game was blamed," explains Hall. "Legislation was passed that all video games in Germany had to be rated by their government."

Unless they have been banned completely, perhaps due to excessive force. For example, the Web site reports that Microsoft's forthcoming cops-and-robbers game "Crackdown" was refused classification, as was Microsoft's "Gears Of War" and Capcom's "Dead Rising," all three Xbox 360 games. Unclassified games can't be sold to minors in Germany and can't be displayed in stores or advertised.

"We are having much political as well as public discussion about so-called 'killer games' and whether banning them is the best way to deal with them," says Jurgen Hilse, the Permanent Representative of the Supreme Youth Authorities of the Lander at the USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selfstkontrolle), Germany's software rating body.

Indeed, discussion has heated up following "two recent events when juveniles ran amok -- in Emsdetten and Tessin [in Germany] -- which may have resulted from computer games," he notes. "An evaluation of the current law is now going to start and the results of this evaluation will be considered for possible changes in the law."

Meanwhile, he adds, "the European Union is beginning to discuss unified approaches to computer games which may also have an influence on the way we deal with them. But due to the fact that this discussion has just started, it is too early to make any predictions."

In Australia, there is the same ongoing debate about the effect of violent games on players and how violent a game needs to be to receive the "Restricted" rating of "MA 15+." There is no such thing as a voluntary rating system in Australia. By law, no video game can be sold or rented unless it's been rated by the Classification Board, an independent statutory authority. Restricted games can only be sold to customers 15 and older.

"Under our [12-year-old] Guidelines For The Classification Of Films And Computer Games, MA 15+ video games are those that contain content that is 'strong' in impact," says Des Clark, director of the Classification Board. "Games considered to have content higher than 'strong" must be refused classification ... and cannot be sold, hired, demonstrated in or imported into Australia."

For example, Midway's Xbox 360 game "Blitz: The League" was the first game to be banned in Australia in 2007 due to its depiction of drug use. Last year, Eidos' "Reservoir Dogs" was banned due to its "frequent depiction of violence."

There are two separate debates going on in Australia, says Clark. The first has to do with the amount of violence in video games. Those people who believe it adversely affects players propose that the guidelines be amended so that fewer games satisfy the MA 15+ requirements thereby creating tighter restrictions on access by young people.

Others, who maintain that video game content doesn't adversely affect players but that young people should be protected nonetheless, suggest that there be an R 18+ classification. Games that have already been re-edited in order to get an MA 15+ rating could be released in their original form with an R 18+ rating so that only adults would be able to play them. This might also mean that some games which the Classification Board refuses classification could be released as R 18+.

"From my observation, the ongoing issues are the same here as in the U.S.," notes Clark. "People are concerned about the effect of interactivity, particularly where violence is concerned, and particularly on children and young people. The associated concerns are in relation to the amount and type of restriction that classification and censorship schemes should employ, and how these decisions can effectively be policed. The Internet has introduced entirely new challenges to regulating in what has now become a borderless marketplace."

But video game violence seems to be symptomatic of the violence occurring in all media, including movies, TV, and music; it just happens to get more attention, observes the ESRB's Pat Vance.

"Look at '24,' a top-rated TV show," she says. "You're seeing brutal, graphic torture and it's coming on at 8 PM in prime time. If those same scenes were player-controlled in a video game, people would be screaming bloody murder. And the game would undoubtedly warrant an AO (Adults Only) rating. But are you hearing anyone criticizing '24?' Do you detect a double standard here?"

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.