TechRadar: The BBFC interview

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Jun 26, 2007
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Tanya Byron recommended to the government last month that the BBFC’s remit in the area of classifying and assigning statutory games ratings to games should be extended to 12, 15 and 18 rated titles.
TechRadar recently caught up with David Cooke, Director of the British Board of Film Classification along with Mark Dawson, one of the BBFC’s leading games examiners, to discuss, among other things, the recent Byron Review , the Manhunt 2 saga and to find out more about what the BBFC thinks about the future of videogame classification and age-ratings in the UK.
We also aaked about recent concerns that have been aired by the European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) who would rather the pan-European ratings body, (PEGI – Pan European Game Information) were solely responsible for applying age-ratings to videogames.
TechRadar: What was the general response from the BBFC to the Byron Review? What was the feeling here?
David Cooke: We were pretty pleased with how it came out. Obviously Tanya has talked to a lot of people. She talked to me on four separate occasions. I think she’s been extremely thorough in reviewing all the arguments, trying very hard to be fair to everybody. There’s masses of stuff in there. She’s had all the feedback from children and all the work done by academic specialists. So it’s kind of a huge treasure trove of stuff she’s compiled, really.
In terms of what it asks of us, we have always taken the view that we are not predatory or imperialistic. We will do what people want us to do. If people want us to do more, then we are more than happy to do it.
The only thing that has irritated me a bit is the line of argument that we are not properly resourced to take on extra [games ratings] work. Which really is nonsense. It’s probably somewhere between an extra 300 and 500 works [games] a year. And when you bear in mind we have more than doubled the number of DVDs we rate – taking on more than an extra 10,000 – so it just goes to show that it’s not such a huge increase in comparison with that. I’ve been saying firmly it’s not a resourcing issue and I am in a position to know, as I run the organisation! So I hope people will accept that.
*TechRadar: So the criticism from the games industry, from ELSPA, has been that they really wanted the Byron Review to recommend one ratings body and they want that to be PEGI. ELSPA’s line seems to be that it is a resourcing issue, as you just mentioned. Is there any other explanation for them backing PEGI over BBFC?
David Cooke: Another argument is that the BBFC somehow doesn’t understand games very well.
TechRadar: Is that a criticism from the games industry, from ELSPA?*
David Cooke: Yes, I’ve seen that from ELSPA as well. And I very, very strongly dispute that as well. This is where people like our specialist games examiners like Mark [Dawson] come in. We have about a dozen people at the moment that can do games and they are not this kind of stereotype of fifty year olds in bowler hats. I mean, I’m a fifty year old, but I don’t wear a bowler hat! But we have people that do know a hell of a lot about games. Some of them are actually from the games industry.
In terms of knowledge and skills they are, and I say this objectively not critically, they are way better than anybody in the PEGI system. I’m on the PEGI advisory board, I know all the PEGI people, I know that they do a good job, we have good co-operation with them. But we have got people that understand games, no two ways about it. You only have to see this guy play [indicates Mark Dawson] to know that that’s true.
Mark Dawson: I’ve been playing games for around thirty years now. From the ZX81, Commodore 64 through to the Atari ST, PC, the PlayStations, the Xboxes… I’ve always been a gamer. I still play loads of games for pleasure, outside of work!
TechRadar: So how does PEGI go about rating games? There seems to still be some confusion amongst gamers, parents and consumers generally about that.
David Cooke: Okay, well obviously in a sense I shouldn’t speak for PEGI, but I do have a reasonable knowledge and I’ll do my very best not to misrepresent what it is they do.
They have a quite detailed, complex questionnaire which is completed by people they call ‘coders’ who are based within games publishers. Then it starts to get complicated because PEGI is a complex organisation.
There are basically three groups of people involved in PEGI. There’s ISFI – International Software Federation Europe – they are the owners of the PEGI system. Then there is NICAM the Dutch Film Classification body that has a contract with ISFI to run the PEGI system on behalf of the different European countries.* NICAM in turn has given a sub-contract to an organisation called The Video Standards Council which is Peter Darby and Laurie Hall. They, confusingly, are a UK-based organisation but they are taking European-level decisions as part of the PEGI system.
So, very crudely, the way it works is that NICAM do the games up to and including ‘12’ and VSC do the ‘15s’ and ‘18s’ across Europe, except, of course, they don’t do the ‘18s’ for the UK, as the BBFC does those (and not, obviously, under the PEGI system).
The PEGI ratings system is questionnaire based, which means that you can’t take into account questions of context or tone, in the way that our examiners such as Mark can when he is classifying a game here, which we think is a drawback with PEGI. We understand it, because they are trying to do something that runs across Europe, so they are trying to stop individual counties and local cultural sensitivities coming in and making the whole thing fragment.
The degree of actual testing varies in accordance with what kind of age the game is coming in at. The VSC tests the 15s and 18s and NICAM have some recently ex-Amsterdam University students that do some testing for 12s. They don’t test for the lower-than-12s, they just go by questionnaire.
Whereas here at the BBFC everything gets played. We see two sorts of things. Either things that come to us because there is gross violence in them – so roughly the equivalent of an ‘18’, although they don’t always end up with an 18-certificate - or the second category of things that we see are games that contain certain kinds of linear material. These are genereally games which have video footage in them – so games linked to blockbuster films such as, for a recent example, The Golden Compass – which has the effect that they lose their exemption from the Video Recordings Act, so that’s why they come here as well. And that’s why we have knowledge of games of all levels – and not just the ‘18’s – because of that second thing, which brings us in a kind of smattering of games of junior levels as well.
In a nutshell, the big differences are that the BBFC can take account of context and tone, which can sometimes lead to a higher classification. Often though, it leads to a lower age-classification. We sample more thoroughly and with more expert games players – and with all due respect to all the characters I’ve been mentioning, Mark and our games examiners are much better gamers than anybody in the PEGI system.
And then of course we benefit from the fact that our classification has statutory backing, so you get the question of enforcement in the shops. This is where Tanya Byron’s recommendation comes in – taking that down to the 12-level.
TechRadar: And how would that be enforced – at the shop level - if Tanya Byron’s recommendations to have BBFC age-ratings of 12, 15 and 18 on games?*
David Cooke: Through Trading Standards Officers actually checking out that people in the shops are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
*TechRadar: There have been some reports suggesting that games retailers are largely in favour of Tanya Byron’s recommendations.
David Cooke: Yes, they are. There is an organisation called the ERA - run by a lady called Kim Bailey, who was speaking at an ELSPA event last week. She made it very clear that the ERA was in favour of Tanya Byron’s recommendations.*
TechRadar: Another recommendation in the Byron Review was that the BBFC and PEGI will have to work together and collaborate in new ways. How do you foresee that working?*
David Cooke: Well, it’s not going to be difficult as we know all of the people at PEGI anyway and we’re well used to operating with them. Partly because of how we currently decide which titles come to us at the moment. But it’s also more than that. We do regular joint training sessions with them, so every six months we get together with PEGI people and also with people from games publishers – the coders who fill in the questionnaire for PEGI. Mark here is one of the usual presenters at these meetings, which are half or full-day events, where we get together and discuss the practical, procedural and legal issues.
Mark: Yes, I used to be a lawyer, in a previous incarnation!*
David Cooke: So basically we’ve got bags of experience of actually working with these people, lots of mutual respect and I’m sure we can work together with PEGI to put these [the Byron Review’s] recommendations into effect.
*TechRadar: One interesting thing that also came out of that recent ELSPA meeting was that David Reeves from Sony [MD of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe] was talking about some other similar research to the Byron review which Sony apparently commissioned a German Consultancy to undertake a few years ago.
David Cooke: Yeah, I was there when David was talking about that I think I’ve seen that research. But I think the Byron Review is pretty comprehensive and must have now overtaken that. Don’t forget that she is a distinguished psychologist herself and she also had a number of other experts feeding into the review – David Buckingham, for instance, who is THE man on media effects - so her review is surely the state of the art.
TechRadar: David Reeves went on to suggest, citing this German research he mentioned, that he would like to see PEGI ‘given teeth’ – which also seems to be ELSPA’s position. What does this mean, wanting PEGI to have ‘teeth’?
David Cooke: Well, they have to accept that they are not going to get it, because the government has accepted Tanya Byron’s review’s recommendations in full. So they [ELSPA] are going to need to start to work with us. I do think that if you take a broad view of Byron’s recommendations, what she is recommending is potentially very positive for the games industry. They will undoubtedly get some lower ratings from us for games than they currently get under the PEGI system, because we are able to do a more thorough and contextualised job.
PEGI, for example, has great difficulty dealing with slapstick violence, because it can’t find a way of dealing in a questionnaire with person-on-person violence.
The other main strand of disagreement with us and ELSPA on this, and I understand their position on this and I respect it but I DO disagree with it very strongly, is that they take the view that ‘games are games and should be classified separately and not mixed up with film and DVD classification systems’.
We take the view that, yes indeed games are different from films and DVDs – and we think that we have done as much thinking and sponsoring of research in this building as anybody, trying to get our heads around that. If you look at our games ratings’ guidelines you will see that there is a lot of emphasis on the difference that interactivity makes – the possibilities of playing games in different ways, you can’t do the kind of ‘counting’ you do with film because you have endlessly repeatable situations… that kind of thing.
Our opinion is that the whole architecture is that it is much better to be able to look across all these different platforms – especially as you will often find the same kind of content in the film version, the console game version, maybe the mobile phone game, the internet version and so on – so we think it is a positive good that it is possible to look across and then give accurate weighting to what the differences are. Whereas ELSPA argue that games should be regulated separately. I think that argument falls foul of various trends within games as well – increasingly photo-realistic graphics, the fact that you have this multiple franchising of content and so on.
The other thing to say about this is that ELSPA’s argument is also a slightly odd argument, as the PEGI system is actually very close to the Dutch film classification system, a system called the Kijkwijzer System The PEGI questionnaire is remarkably similar to the Kijkwijzer questionnaire and they are both run by the same organisation, NICAM.
Stay tuned for more from our BBFC interview tomorow, including the final word on THAT Manhunt 2 saga...