Video games – new age ratings system introduced

Back in 2008 the Government commissioned the Byron Report (by Dr Byron of “House of Tiny Tearaways” fame). The Report addressed the negative influence that video games and the internet had on children and sought to put some measures in place to, well, curtail the corruption of the UK’s youth.  

One recommendation was stricter (and more straight forward) controls around access to video games.

This recommendation was set into action under the Digital Economy Act, and Government has now confirmed that the new age-rating system will come into force with effect from 30 July 2012.

The Dual System
The UK currently has a dual classification system, which is in part mandatory and in part voluntary.

Under this confusing system, video games are classified by two bodies, which have overlapping roles:

  • Pan European Game Information System (PEGI), administered by the Video Standards Council (VSC) in the UK; and
  • British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).

To date, the vast majority of games only carry a PEGI age rating – which provides guidance as to the content of the game and allows the buyer to make an informed choice.

If the content contains content or themes that of particularly adult nature, then the game may also be reviewed by the BBFC and be given an additional rating (using the same symbols as those used for age-rating films). Unlike the PEGI rating, the BBFC ratings are legally binding on retailers in that it is an offence to sell a BBFC game to a person that is below the relevant age rating.

Understandably, this dual system has caused some confusion for consumers. As a result, it is all change at the end of the month.

What is a PEGI rating and what is changing?
PEGI is a European system for rating the content of video games which came into use in April 2003 and is used in 26 countries.

There are two parts to the PEGI classification system:

  • a minimum age (3, 7, 12, 16, 18); and
  • up to seven descriptions of content, such as the use of violence, strong language and gambling, and so on.

To date, participation in the PEGI scheme has not been mandatory – participation is at the game developer’s discretion, and the minimum ages are recommended rather than legally binding.

However, from the end of July, this will change and the VFC will now assume statutory responsibily for rating games, using the PEGI system. As part of this, retailers should be aware that the ratings of age 12 and upwards will now be binding and it will be an offence for a retailer to sell a game that has a PEGI rating of 12 + to anyone under that age.

What is a BBFC rating?
To date, the BBFC’s remit has included statutory rating under the Video Recordings Act.

Most video games have been exempt from the requirement to obtain a legally binding BBFC classification. However, certain games that, for example, are particularly violent or explicit have required a formal BBFC classification – broadly speaking, those that are ‘adult’ in content. About 10% of games in the UK have gone to the BBFC for classification, and will in the main be rated 18.

Whilst the BBFC has provided some guidance on when a game might be exempt, it has been up to the developer or distributor to decide whether the game requires statutory classification from the BBFC.

Under the new regime things will get much simpler, as the VFC takes on responsibility for age rating. Only those games that contain “very sexually explicit material”, need to be submitted to the BBFC for classification (as 18R). If such a rating is applied by the BBFC, then the game may only be sold in licenced sex shops.

Further information on the PEGI rating system can be found here  and the BBFC rating here (although note that the BBFC guidance has not yet been updated to reflect the new regime).

Leigh Kirktpatrick

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