Explicit content in videogames: Why PEGI age ratings are a bad move
In my last article on the perverse allure of downloadable content I briefly highlighted the bewildering, yet funny story of Sam Ghera, the father of a twelve year old boy who spent £1150 on premium additional content, which was widely covered in the UK press. Slightly less amusing was the revelation that one of the boy’s favoured videogames was one of the 18 rated, realistic, first-person military shooter games in Activision’s Call of Duty franchise (the reports do not disclose which particular edition of the brashly xenophobic, politically questionable and shamelessly grim series was the offending article). After coming to the depressing realization that the reports themselves omitted this significant detail – acting almost as if the explicitly clear financial structure of the Xbox Live Market exonerates parents from their responsibilities when it comes to interactive media – a wave of familiar despondence came over me.
As while I now ply my trade as a hopeful journalist, writing about the trials and tribulations of being associated with an industry burdened by creative and social immaturity and thoroughly enjoying doing so, I once worked within the same industry in a completely different field: retail.
As a result the ‘pass-the-buck’ attitude that Sam Ghera’s self-inflicted problems represent are more familiar to me than most. While working as a temporary staff member at a certain high-street videogame retailer (whose identity I will leave undisclosed) I was bombarded on a daily basis by specious assurances – of varying believability – that whatever age restricted game that had been brought to my till was “not for my son/daughter”, but for the parent or guardian that happened to be their mature representative.
I’ve argued for and against violence and other explicit content in videogames before and have often expressed disappointment at uncontextualised ‘adult’ content, but there is a point where the expression and consumption of mature themes and imagery enters into the realms of personal responsibility. When (and this is a genuine example) a mother purchases Grand Theft Auto IV on behalf of a pre-teen child in order to “shut him up”, this responsibility has been flagrantly ignored. I for one, find it difficult to believe that a tender, youthful mind would comprehend the moral compromises of GTA IV’s beleaguered protagonist in a virtual world where pedestrians can be used as vehicular bowling pins.
What I found equally troubling though, was the frequent misunderstanding of age ratings. This issue is less to do with apathy and shirking responsibility and more with a legitimate lack of education regarding ratings, or to be more specific the ratings system of the Pan European Game Information (PEGI). Questions like “does this number 18 mean the game is difficult?” may have been less frequent than instances of adults buying mature games for children, their net result is no less problematic. A question of this manner offers encouragement in the sense that advice on videogame content is being sought after, but the fact that the question has to be asked in the first place is not only a damning indictment of how concerns about appropriate content for children can often be an afterthought, but also of the certification system itself.
It’s poignant that this tended to happen less with products exclusively rated by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the independent regulatory organization that has been categorizing films since 1912. Until recently, the BBFC have been the legal enforcer of videogame certification, although unlike film classification the only two age ratings observed under law were for the 15 and 18 age categories. While the BBFC has had a turbulent past in relation to adult content – especially with the ‘video nasties’ trials in the 1980s – their categorization system is understood, respected and, particularly in recent years, mindful of the rational consumption of visual media, exemplified by the parental empowerment of the 12A category. As a result their existence within the realm of videogame retail was appreciated and enforced. While grey areas still existed, parents and guardians held the sole liability of any ill judgments regarding their purchase.
It is perhaps due to the ubiquity and hazardous appearance of the BBFC’s crimson shaded 18 symbols that their warnings were observed more frequently than those of the relatively new PEGI system (first introduced in 2003). Regardless of the reason, the news that videogame classification is to be solely governed by PEGI appears ostensibly to be a progression (an opinion taken by The Independent’s Michael Plant), but is in reality a gross dereliction of common sense.
While regularly characterized as being a stricter method of censorial designation their additional pictorial labels used to denote specific adult themes, which accompany their standardized numerical ratings, simplify an endemic problem in videogame consumption and debase any of the complexity in which a particular game may handle such themes. If the BBFC’s to-the-point age stamps were a bold, last-ditch attempt to ward off any lapses of judgment, the PEGI markings are their muddled, overwrought opposite, pregnant with extra attempts to categorize a product with ironically childlike, stereotyped visual schemata.
Does a black and white spider on the back of a box differentiate between the disturbing, psychological horror of Silent Hill or the exquisitely drawn, pantomime monsters in Rayman Origins (both of which carry the ‘fear’ label) or does this simply perpetuate the frankly stupid idea that children should be scared of arachnids?
When classification is under discussion, the balance between education and enforcement should always be addressed and while the installation of PEGI as the de facto standard has indeed done so, the pervasive insistence from the industry that videogames need a separate ratings system than films to remain relevant is a severe case of missing the woods for the trees they’ve just walked into face first. In addition, by muddying the waters of videogame classification the onus on parental responsibility is greater than ever. In asking parents and guardians to decipher messages that are paradoxically too simple to offer a detailed summary of a game’s content and also too confusing to enable a snap decision on how appropriate it is for their children there is a significant risk to creativity; because after all, is it easier to blame an incompetent ratings system or parental malpractice for children having access to violent, explicit videogames? Or is it easier to blame the twisted, immoral developers that decided to put this filth into pixels?
In Dr. Tanya Byron’s thoughtful, unbiased and acutely intelligent review of videogames and online media “Safer Children in a Digital World” she highlighted these exact problems four years ago (“…sometimes it made parents think that some symbols related to how skillful you had to be, rather than how old you had to be.” – on the PEGI symbols). In the face of a widespread moral panic the report cut the signal from noise, but now appears as a footnote to a story that ends with the dismissal of an accepted institution in favour of superficial difference.
I noticed only today that one of the photos of Sam Ghera’s Microsoft Points-hungry child shows him sitting in front of the TV, a picture of innocence with a controller in hand and an array of DVDs nestled away in a cabinet underneath. Spiderman, Cars and The Polar Express sit among them, presumably emblazoned with BBFC age-appropriate labels. At least he won’t be watching anything inappropriate anytime soon…Tagged in: age ratings, BBFC, Call of Duty, children, explicit content, gaming, PEGI, Sam Ghera, videogames, Xbox Live Market
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