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BBFC vs PEGI – a battle in the classification of video games

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In 2009, the UK government announced that the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) would be solely responsible for rating games in the UK. This was to ensure that retailers had clear guidance on preventing children being sold unsuitable content, as a giant ’18’ label wasn’t enough. Now there will be a range of ages (’15’ has moved to ’16+’) and each will be colour coded. The transition from the British Board of Film Classification was said to be ‘a smooth and rapid transition to this new ratings system’. It’s now 2011 and this hasn’t happened yet.

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The BBFC has a realistic position as both an advisory body and classification system in both the UK film and video game market. Where the BBFC once bowed to ludicrous demands, during the ‘video nasty’ era for example or the banning of one particular title, they now remain focused and fair on their decisions. There has the been the occasional title cut or banned in recent years often due to the BBFC’s main gripe – violence towards women – but it’s easy enough to import an uncut copy should you wish. Where the BBFC rated Mass Effect as a ’12’, PEGI rated it an ’18’. Why? Probably because it hinted at sex. It hasn’t always been a pleasant relationship; the BBFC has had a long history originally censoring, sorry, classifying video for the wrong reasons.

In 1982, the UK had more VCRs per household than any other country in the world. The video rental market was a huge success and at the time videos were not monitored prior to release. Following outrage in several papers, including The Daily Star (‘the video boom is giving youngsters a chance to see some of the most horrific and violent films ever made’) and Sunday Times, Mary Whitehouse and other members of the government would leap onto this scapegoat in the midst of social unrest and pressure the BBFC into rating home video. A list of ‘video nasties’ was published in June 1983, and would continue to be updated with new ‘offenders’ on a monthly basis.

I do take issue with films or video games being refused a rating. If a product is considered of ‘bad taste’ then there should be a rating like there once was – the ‘X’ rating. If you were to scan through my film collection you’d find many full versions of films banned or cut to shreds in the UK. For me there is a close link between comedy and horror (not a discussion for now), and if you were to remove the punch lines from a comedy no one would bother watching it, and so horror cannot be expected to succeed without its ‘money-shot’ moments. The BBFC has a history it continues to learn from and knows how to handle the British press; PEGI doesn’t have this.

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Even with classification and set processes for the viewing of content before release, there are still cases where products are pulled due to ‘public demand’. Let’s take Ubisoft’s ‘We Dare’ for the Wii. The trailer itself was so terrifying that I couldn’t make all the way through. Watching a bunch of yuppies pretend to be risqué and fun didn’t sell the product to me. Personal opinions aside, it came as no surprise that there was a ‘public outcry’ (a nonsense term). Rated a ’12’ by PEGI, some English papers ran riot with the story due to the advertisements hinting at sexual themes. It was later pulled from UK release.

The BBFC once stated:

“The element of interactivity in games carries some weight when we are considering a video game. We were particularly interested to see that this research suggests that, far from having a potentially negative impact on the reaction of the player, the very fact that they have to interact with the game seems to keep them more firmly rooted in reality. People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be.”

With the constant improvements in technology and facial animation this argument by the BBFC will have to be revisited soon. By using films as a template, games can use any subject matter they wish as long as the narrative supports it. Or have the BBFC seen something we haven’t, that our minds instantly see that video games aren’t real, making it much harder for us to care about the characters within – thus the carnage can be more severe.

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Hinted at in an article on whether gamers deserve better, it asked if games aren’t ‘progressing’ due to a lack of narrative. You’d have to be naïve to believe that video games are anywhere near the maturity and complexity of films when it comes to script, plot and delivery. Then why aren’t video games cut as much films?

The lack of cuts in video games could come from the pre-emptive work of the developers. To make a comparison I’ll reference the cult Hong Kong Category III films. The HK government’s introduction of a film ratings system in 1988 unintentionally created new genres. While many films that weren’t horrific were labelled as Cat. III (e.g. featuring depictions of triad rituals), others used this as a chance to sell films due to the rating given – like a symbol of pride.

This classification was given to a series of particularity nasty films that attempted to cash in from the gap left in the market after the wave of European horror died out. Films like Ebola Syndrome, The Untold Story and Dr. Lamb dealt with murder, necrophilia and rape with little respect – splattering the screens with a college of red and white bodily fluids. Years later, and hardcore fans would begin to discover that these weren’t the proof of an ‘uncut’ classifications system.

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The studios themselves had worked with the ratings board to trim down the content prior to release. Complete scenes were removed or trimmed down to avoid any publicised ‘cuts’. This was a practice later copied once DVD became affordable. Companies would submit prints that were cut and therefore receive an ‘uncut’ release from the BBFC. During the development of Condemned 2, Monolith worked with rating boards to find out what material would be permitted. They openly talked about and admitted that scenes and ideas had been removed after conversing with classification boards.

The cuts and omissions now take place before submitting to the ratings board. No one wants to release a ‘cut’ product. And as much as we may complain about the attitudes of gamers, film doesn’t always justify the mature tag given to it. It is now common practice for a film that was never cut to have ‘UNCUT HARDCORE EDITON’ slapped across it, and if the BBFC don’t award the film an ’18’ certification the company will add an ’18’ trailer to bump up the rating. Sex and violence sells.

Due to the past of the BBFC, many still believe them to be tyrants that hold control over everything we watch. It is very rare for a title submitted to be refused classification, and one of the last films banned was Grotesque. Refused due to its complete lack of narrative, those interested then imported the film from overseas. Again, if video games are going to be viewed as mature and feature scenes of a sensitive or graphic nature they need to create a narrative that justifies it.

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Our readers living in Australia aren’t quite as lucky as we are when it comes to the classification of media, in particular video games. In 2009, the Classification Board of Australia refused ratings to a number of games including Risen and Left 4 Dead 2. In one year the Australian Board had refused twice as many games as the BBFC had in the past 23 years. Germany also suffers from some very strict edits and content control. If PEGI wishes to become a European standard how would they deal with all the cultural variations?

The question remains, are video games rated ’18’ really only marketed to adults? We all know this not to be true, with trailers for the latest titles played online and via our consoles with no age check (or one easily bypassed). The content in the trailers may rated suitable for all audiences but this doesn’t represent the final product. Are games just the alcopops of the art-world? Where taste is second best to the amount of sugar (graphics) pumped in? Also, there appears to be no logistical reason for PEGI to have created two additional ratings – ‘3+’ and ‘7+’ – with no information explaining the differences on their website.

The UKIE (then ESPLA) stated in 2008 that the BBFC ‘just can’t cope with the infinite variety and complexity of modern video games, and the interaction between players’ and that the PEGI system could. PEGI is an age rating system that was established to help European parents (that’s parents from varying cultures, backgrounds and attitudes) make an informed decision. The reality is that no one cares about PEGI ratings in the UK. A kid not being sold a title due to it’s PEGI rating? Unheard of.

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No one I know cares about PEGI or the (childish) cartoon images they add to the back of the box art. A parent picking up a game won’t pay attention to the little black and white images of a spider and a syringe on the back. These mean nothing to the uninitiated. Whereas everyone understands what a bold ’18’ in a red circle means. The UK market has had a long relationship with the BBFC, and this should be allowed to continue. Now pass me that chainsaw, I’m off to do a spot of shopping.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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