Video games have long been the scapegoat of politicians and media campaigns. Whilst the majority of the focus has been upon the depictions of violence within games, the furor over Grand Theft Auto’s infamous “Hot Coffee” scandal and subsequent legal wrangling brought on board the potential controversy of depicting explicit sexual acts in games. (Rock star had at one stage planned to include a sex-based mini-game in the title. The plans were scrapped, but the code for them remained hidden in the game. When a PC enthusiast learned how to access them, instructions on how to access the content quickly spread across the internet, with an outcry following closely behind.)
A recent survey in the US in November of last year (see Rasmussen Reports: 54% Think Violent Video Games Lead to More Violence in Society) indicated that the majority of Americans (54% in the sample) believe that violent video games result in a more violent society.
Following Panorama’s recent expose of how engrossing games apparently are, we can now throw addiction into the pot. Please read on for further information.
The US remains governed entirely under a system of self-regulation – as yet there is no federal law against the sale of violent or sexually explicit video games to children (although certain states have tried to introduce legislation). The US system relies on the voluntary ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board, an independent body) rating system which rates titles and polices the marketing of games. The system relies on goodwill- that of retailers and the ESRB – so there is nothing, as a matter of law, to stop kids buying violent games. Attempts have been made by at least two states to ban the sale of violent games to children, but free speech legislation has to date blocked such attempts. The Californian Supreme Court is to rule later this year on whether such a ban would be legitimate.
The UK has a mandatory system for certain types of video games depending upon the content. Games featuring sex or violence must be submitted for classification by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in accordance with the Video Recordings Act 1984. The role of digital and interactive media was elaborated in the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994, which introduced a number of new tests to the classification process, including a specific requirement to consider the ‘harm’ that the work may cause a potential viewer.
Video games remain generally exempt under the Video Recordings Act 1984 (VRA). However, the exemption will not apply if that game depicts:
- may encourage criminal activity (or other “matters of concern”); and/or
- Where the depiction of such material is particularly realistic.
The VRA was introduced at a time when games could not hope to rival the imagery of movies and films, but given the increasing visual fidelity of current and next generation videogames and the considerable crossover of interactive and traditional media entertainment, this exemption is of increasingly little value.
The attitude towards classification in the games industry has shifted over time and as a result, many publishers submit each and every new game to the BBFC to ensure the game has been classified before publication.
Following the arrival of the Digital Economy Act, legal powers have been granted to the PEGI (Pan-European Game Information) rating system with effect from 1 April 2011 and PEGI will become the sole classifier for video games in the UK. Any retailer who sells games after that date to anyone younger than the age certificate on the front of a game’s box is liable to prosecution.
In addition to the UK’s own mandatory age classification scheme, the PEGI scheme is a voluntary age suitability scheme aimed primarily at advising parents. In the UK this scheme is supported by UKIE (the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, formerly ELSPA) and all its members are required to submit all games which are exempt from BBFC classification for classification under the PEGI system. In contrast to the BBFC system, publishers are required to fill out a self-assessment application form, based upon the content and provide their own suggested age rating which is verified upon receipt.
The PEGI scheme currently covers sixteen countries within Europe, with Germany being the most notable absentee, as it relies upon its own compulsory classification procedure. Some other countries also use their own classification systems (e.g. Finland) and the ratings in these countries are adjusted accordingly. In essence, the PEGI scheme provides a useful guide to the likely classification of a release for publishers in Europe.
Both the BBFC and PEGI systems are fundamentally aimed at the protection of children and young persons and therefore employ a system of age classification. Publishers are strongly advised to consider submitting new games to the BBFC if they are in any doubt as to the content, as unlike the PEGI scheme, it is a criminal offence to supply illegal unclassified works or to supply age restricted material to persons under that age with fines and/or prison sentences for any person found in breach.
The BBFC will only classify the product and, where necessary, advice on cuts that need to be made. The BBFC cannot rule on the legality of the content, but in any event they will not classify material that they believe is in breach of the law.
The law in relation to what is illegal is judged according to whether the material in question is legally obscene. Fortunately, whilst the Obscene Publications Acts were crafted in the early 1960’s, the test is judged according to the contemporary standards. The test is simply whether the effect of the material (considered as a whole) is “such as to deprave and corrupt persons“. There is no set definition; it is not enough that the publication shock or disgust, it must have a morally debasing, corrupting effect upon the viewer.