On the BBFC and PEGI

The UK officially handed over the ratings system to PEGI in July. This month sees the former classification board for games, the BBFC, turn a hundred years old. I suppose this is as good an opportunity to talk about my stance on both the BBFC and PEGI in the same post. Convenient? You bet…

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This month sees the British Board of Film Classification turn a hundred years old.

That’s an awfully long time and you have to marvel at how such an organisation has managed to keep up with the pace of social and political changes in the world, as well as our ever more accepting tastes in what is and isn’t decent. We have gone from days gone by of banning anything with the vaguest hint of naked flesh to being one of the worlds most relaxed classification bodies. And yes, it is a classification body these days, gone are the days where it was the British Board of Film Censors. Today, it is widely regarded as one of the fairest systems in the world, admired from afar by both the United States and Japan.

But when it came to the advent of games, it wasn’t such a rosy start. Indeed, to get to the bottom of the BBFC and its position on games over the years, you need to go back to 1984.

In the days of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Government, the new era of VHS and video games had raised a sore point. We knew that such things needed to undergo classification, but there were no legislative powers in place for us to do so. So the then government decided to pass the Video Recordings Act, which brought in legal powers for the BBFC to rate, approve and censor all video and game content before it could go on sale in the United Kingdom. Indeed, under this rule the BBFC enjoyed many powers to ban and restrict games, such as Parasite Eve and Carmageddon. Up to the turn of the new millennium, many viewed the BBFC with disdain as a restrictive force in a medium pushing the boundaries ever more. Movies and games were no longer aimed at children – indeed, the success of Resident Evil and the apparent popularity at the time of Mortal Kombat were demonstrating that far from a toy, video games were a medium that had matured and therefore could no longer be seen as something for younger people. It needed them to be taken seriously as adult content, and as the BBFC moved from Critics to Classification, the worm had turned. Video games became more relaxed and what was acceptable in video games became more relaxed.

However, the BBFC were put under the spotlight in 2009 as it turned out that the Video Recordings Act had no legal powers, as it had not been approved or sanctioned by the Europe Commission. Suddenly, it was a bit of an open season. Whilst the Labour government at the time did its best to assure people that previous convictions would stand, and previously banned content would remain so, legal challenges appeared to effectively force the BBFC to classify items that it would otherwise not have previously approved. The BBFC had had its teeth cruelly pulled from its maw, and in the DVD and games markets, no longer had the powers available to effectively restrict or classify content.

Even during that quarter of a century, many found creative ways around the BBFC. The advent of the internet in the mid-90’s provided a real challenge as games which were effectively censored for the UK market were discovering the ability to download patches from this shiny new creation and modify their legally-bought copies, to include the sort of content that they were otherwise missing out on. In 1997, the release of Fallout had to remove any depiction of children being effectively killed or afflicted by the world and/or others. But very swiftly fans had broken the game and released a key to others, which when applied demonstrated that rather than cut – the content had simply been edited out. This crack simply reapplied the previous code to its assumed rightful place, and there was very little the BBFC could do legally to stop this.

However, regardless of the issues, the BBFC slowly went from one of the most restrictive censors to one of the worlds most leading classification boards.

The changes can be dated back to 1999, when Robin Duval took the helm of the BBFC. It was a year later when he decided that – with the exception of criminal material such as snuff films and other various illegal non-pleasantries – content for adults should not be cut. Anything with an 18-rating could be sold uncut, unless it broke the law in doing so. This effectively liberated as many developers as it did film-makers, as they could within most reasonable boundaries just get on with making their games tailored for the audience, rather than trying to please the censors. Some games did still run into trouble – Manhunt 2 one of the more notorious, a title the BBFC refused classification in 2007, effectively banning it from sale. This was the first video game in a decade to be refused classification in the UK and it was eventually released – with some pretty heavy cuts. Cuts that, once again, were no more than hiding the original content underneath some new code. the PSP and Wii versions of Manhunt 2 were eventually cracked wide open, and the BBFC had to admit it was pretty much powerless to do anything about it.

Still, under this umbrella the video game market flourished. Classifications became less of a chore, and more open. The BBFC made itself more open and accountable, making sure people knew what was being classified and why it was being classified. The whole thing became a very open book, and it was good. Until that 2009 incident. No-one was really prepared to discover that the law passed was no longer enforceable. It took many months before it could be put back to the house, and put into law again, but the damage as they say was done.

As of July 2012, the BBFC have given over the task of classifying games to PEGI, a voluntary body run by the games industry.

Not that the PEGI system is universally loved, an independent body run separate from the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) has itself received many criticisms over the past few years despite its familiarity with the average consumer. The PEGI Ratings are effectively issued after guidance from the PEGI Council, involving people from multiple backgrounds from child protection services and parent consumer watchdogs to media representatives and legal advisors. This has led to accusations that the PEGI ratings system is not as open as the BBFC, not as transparent as it could be. This has of course been getting better and taken into account, with classifications put on their official website with a short description of its content – but very little depth. Some have raised concerns that without knowing who has been involved in what rating, there may be relatively little consistency in their results. Also, most 16 and 18 rated games still have to go through the examination process, meaning content is once again put under pressure whereas the BBFC had been far more relaxed in its latter years.

Questions too remain about its accountability. PEGI is still in its relative infancy, and is only legally enforceable in seven out of the thirty European countries in which it is used (with one set to push it into law sometime soon). In some – Russia and the Ukraine for example – they have no legal stature which restricts the sale of content, so PEGI is used more as a recommendation rather than an enforcable classification system. Germany does not formally recognise the PEGI system, instead continuing to use its own USK system which bans 18-rated titles from sale in public places, hence why games and content are often cut voluntarily for the market to ensure it does not get such a rating. And many countries are represented on the PEGI board but do not have any legislative powers to enforce ratings in their countries.

The PEGI system is designed to be used as a universally-recognised system. So far, there is little indication to denote that this will be the case; and the system is often accused for its complexity and expense as so many are involved in the process. Questions have been asked about what purpose it can serve as a universal body when is not and may never be universally enforced. Whether it will last a hundred years like the BBFC is yet to be seen, and many questions are yet to be asked. But they should be asked. With careful consideration and mindful that answers may yet not be fully formed, rather than reacting to it in an archaic Mary Whitehouse fashion. PEGI could be brilliant for us all. But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions.

My own personal criticism of both the BBFC and the PEGI systems however are simply that whilst age restrictions may be a necessary evil in a modern era, they are still somewhat missing a trick that some content really shouldn’t be aired. We may respect that 18-rated games can only be sold to adults, but we should still be mindful of the content in a lot of these cases. Ratings systems don’t give us carte blanche to effectively not have a sensible, mature discussion on the nature of the content we are sometimes sold.

You may mock, but the BBFC for me have in recent years lost more than their teeth – they have lost something more fundamentally important. Credibility.

For you see, the BBFC may indeed have done a good job but with the likes of Saw, Hostel, The Human Centipede and their ilk, it is fine to trust that adults are capable of understanding this content is fantasy and should not be dictated to. But a more fundamental issue has been lost; does this content have any artistic merit at all? Does it really add anything at all to the scope of the narrative, to the goings on, or is it just schlock-horror guts and gore for the sake of it? I said some time back in my piece about the upcoming Splinter Cell game having torture scenes – okay, sure. But the attention to detail to make everything anatomically correct and adhere to the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics – is this really necessary? Does it really add anything to the content other than something that generates a little bit of controversy?

The BBFC and VSA have also in recent years found themselves relatively powerless to stop the onward march of the “Uncut Edition”. Not that the BBFC forced many of these movies to cut anything much at all – to get by the board, most film-makers self-censor their work to make life a little bit easier. But that content is not discarded any longer – oh no. Now they are released as Uncut DVD’s, literally crying out that the cut bits “they didn’t want you to see” are back in the box. A cynical person would suggest that this is effectively false advertising, but because the content was actually cut by someone it holds up under legal scrutiny, largely making our bodies look rather weak and inept in the process. I still don’t quite understand why it can be allowed – I prefer to call a spade a spade, after all – but it happens. I just laugh and sigh and think it’s rather pathetic really. Now we’ve moved into fake controversy in the absence of real controversy. And that is as amusing as it is terrifying.

I don’t think I like the concept of censorship but I do think it is something that, as we progressively plunder new depths to exploit and explore, we must remain mindful of. There are certain things that simply aren’t quite ready to be aired yet, and some topics and subjects that are still very much a sore point for many. We are a more tolerant society and this of course means that certain taboos are and will be broken at some stage, and what was once considered unethical or immoral may be found in our entertainment mediums, whatever they may be. But that doesn’t mean it is right we tackle it. Situationally, we must still retain the power to challenge whether something holds a valid purpose in the context it is found, or whether it is nothing more than to generate sparks and create a little controversy that it would otherwise not have had. We can’t just have gore for the sake of gore – it holds no real purpose other than to shock, offend and generally wind people up. That isn’t a sensible place to be. Likewise, some games overdose on swearing and bad language in the hopes that someone will take offence – is it really necessary to have a blonde teenage girl constantly dropping the F-Bomb every five minutes?

We must never let things become so relaxed that nothing is sacred. Adults do have the responsibility to choose what content they want to see, of course. But some adults want content that perhaps may not be seen as very legal, after all. It’s a slippery slope.

But I have some hope. After the whole debacle after the Tomb Raider “Sexual Abuse” scandal, it demonstrated that many people are still looking very critically at the context of content. And in most regards, it is the consumers and the media who are more critical of such things than the classification boards. Bad publicity is bad publicity these days. You can’t ignore the power of the Internet and the reactions of the consumers your material is being aimed at. If we’re saying no, then that might be a hint to radically change something.

This is not a simple issue. But there is hope. We are changing, and therefore how games are rated and sold must change with it. It doesn’t mean we should go soft on it. If anything, the next generation of graphics and images mean we must be more vigilant than ever before. We must ensure that the industry we love and are involved with or criticising is above reproach. This might mean yes, being harder on games than we might have been in the past. But the danger is if we do not, then why bother with classifications in the first place? It simply by that point becomes a man in the middle, and serves no function than to divert funds away from where they may otherwise have a higher function.

So yes, congratulations to the BBFC. Well done on a hundred years. Here’s hoping you get it together to last another hundred. And hello PEGI. We can be friends. Just know that a lot of us still aren’t yet entirely ready to trust you. The ball, as they say, is in your court.

Do us proud.

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