The Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984 and established that any video recording available for sale or rental in the UK is required to be certified and carry a classification assigned to it by a Home Office designated authority, this authority was the BBFC. The Video Recordings Act states:
'Video work means any series of visual images (with or without sound)...produced electronically by the use of information contained on any disc... magnetic tape [or any other device capable of storing data electronically], and shown as a moving picture...recording means...means any disc...magnetic tape [or any other device capable of storing data electronically] containing information by the use of which the whole or part of a video work may be produced'
(Video Recordings Act 1984)
While it seems that the content of the Video Recordings Act is tailored specifically for films and TV the modern video game usually contain content that one would deem as video, newer games contain a number of cut-scenes and full motion videos, these are small sections of video that are uncontrollable by the player, they are usually utilised to advance the story but nevertheless can reflect the mature content of the title.
The Video Recordings Act does not in any way explicitly address Video Games in the laws it provides, there is no mention of classification or regulation, in fact, the act actually states video games as exempt;
'...a video work is for the purposes of this Act an exempted work if; taken as a whole... it is a video game.'
(Video Recordings Act 1984, s2)
Although the Video Recordings Act states that video games can be an exempted work this does come with a caveat, section 2 of the act provides a number of qualities that can result in the video work not being exempt:
'A video work is not an exempted work for those purposes if, to any significant extent, it depicts - human sexual activity or acts of force or restraint associated with such activity, mutilation or torture of, or other acts of gross violence towards, humans or animals, human genital organs or human urinary or excretory functions...techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences, or is [likely] to any significant extent to stimulate or encourage anything falling within paragraph or, in the case of anything falling within paragraph, is [likely] to any extent to do so...A video work is not an exempted work for those purposes if, to any significant extent, it depicts criminal activity which is likely to any significant extent to stimulate or encourage the commission of offences...'
The fact that the act specifically includes categories which can affect the exempted status means that although video games are an exempted form of entertainment if they contain any of the above qualities they become subject to the laws on classification contained in the Act.
There are a number of exceptions to liability through the sale or rental of unclassified video work; these are stated in section 9 of the Video Recordings Act. The act states that an offence is not committed if the supply 'would if it took place be, an exempted supply' or 'the video work is exempted'
(Video Recordings Act 1983, s9(1)a).
The punishments for the supply of unclassified works range from convictions to fines, retailers can receive fines of up to 5,000 pounds for both the store manager and the staff member:
'conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both...on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding 20,000 pounds or both.]'
(HMV VSC Team Brief)
In 1993 Jamie Bulger was killed by two 10 year old boys, much of the mainstream media placed the blame on a popular horror movie called 'Childs Play', it was argued that the two boys were mimicking the murderous behaviour of Chucky the doll. In response to public concerns about violence in the media changes were made to the Video Recordings Act in the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act of 1994, the act clarified what elements the BBFC were required to take into account when classifying the video content, until that point the BBFC was given full discretion as to what factors it would consider during the classification process, the 1994 changes stated that special attention had to be paid to work dealing with; 'Criminal behaviour, illegal drugs, violent behaviour or incidents horrific behaviour or incidents; or human sexual activity'
(Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994, Part VII [Video Recordings: Suitability])
As well as this, the 1994 legislation also added video games to the definition of 'video works', however it stated games were exempt but subject to the exceptions.
In addition to the legislation governing the media there are a number of regulatory bodies who govern video games, the BBFC in the UK, the Interactive Software Federation for Europe and the ESRB in the US.
The BBFC is an independent, self-financing UK regulator that regulates on film, video, DVD and video games;
'The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is an independent, non-governmental body funded through the fees it charges to those who submit films, videos, DVDs and digital games for classification'
Originally established by the film industry in order to bring uniformity to classification of films the BBFC now classifies all video that is not made exempt by the Video Recordings Act of 1984. The role of the BBFC changed from strictly censorship to classification when it was assigned by the secretary of the state to classify films based on the 'suitability for viewing in the home'.
The BBFC makes income by charging fees for the services it provides, the amount payable relates to the running time of the video submitted for certification, the financial aspects of the BBFC are handled by the Council of Management which is comprised of representatives from servicing and manufacturing areas of the film industry, by remaining separate from the government, producers and distributors of movie, the BBFC can remain impartial and free from any bias. The BBFC is comprised of examiners and senior examiners. Examiners view the materials and then advise a classification or any changes that need to be made; the senior examiners manage the examiners and focus on any changes to recommendations made by the examiners.
The BBFC is also associated with a number of other bodies including 'The advisory panel on children's committee' who advice on issues of classification for video that will be seen by children, and the 'Video packing review committee' who work to prevent offensive material from appearing on covers of video's or DVD's.
The BBFC considers four main principles throughout the classification process:
'Adults should as far as possible be free to choose what they see, providing that it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful to society.
Works should be allowed to reach the widest audience that is appropriate for their theme and treatment, the context in which something (eg sex or violence) is presented is central to the question of its acceptability.
The BBFC's Guidelines will be reviewed periodically the Guidelines, and the Board's practice in applying them, have particular regard to any changes in public taste, attitudes and concerns; changes in the law; or new evidence from research or expert sources.'
The classifications range from a U rating which is suitable for everyone to an 18 rating which is only suitable for adults aged 18 or over. The BBFC takes into account a number of categories including;
'Acceptability of a theme depends significantly on its treatment ie the context and sensitivity of its presentation. However, the most problematic themes (for example drug abuse, sexual violence, paedophilia, incitement to racial hatred or violence) are unlikely to be appropriate at the most junior levels of classification'
'Use of expletives with a religious or racial association and language which offends other, sometimes vulnerable, minorities. The extent of that offence varies according to age, gender, race, background, beliefs and expectations brought by viewers to the genre on offer.'
'Natural nudity, providing there is no sexual context, is acceptable at all classification levels '
'The portrayal of human sexual activity can range from kissing and references to 'making love' to detail of real sex. This is reflected in the classification system, in which progressively stronger portrayal is allowed as the categories rise. The guidelines apply the same standards to homosexual as to heterosexual activity.'
We address the degree and nature of violence through our classification system. In making decisions our concerns, especially at the lower categories, include; portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problems, heroes who inflict pain and injury, callousness towards victims, encouraging aggressive attitudes, taking pleasure in pain or humiliation'
These categories are some of the most important categories as they are regularly featured in video games, while violence has been a prominent in video games for a substantial amount of time, nudity and sex have not, however recently a number of games have involved some elements of sex and nudity, while not as explicit as movies or even daytime television the inclusion is nevertheless important, the fact that the BBFC have detailed guidance as to content such as this shows that it is equipped in some way to deal with content maturity in video games.
While the BBFC is equipped to handle sensitive content it does not focus on video games specifically, this in turn means that it is comprised of people not familiar with games as a medium or the industry as a whole which has resulted in situations where video games and films being treated differently despite having similar content.
The Pan European Gaming Information (PEGI) focuses less on regulation of video games and more on assisting and advising parents in deciding whether a game is suitable for purchasing by implementing an age rating system developed by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE). Whereas the BBFC regulates a number of media formats the PEGI system was developed specifically to ensure that games are played by the appropriate audience:
'The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system was established in 2003 to help European parents make informed decisions on buying interactive games'
Whereas the BBFC operates disjointed from the video game industry the PEGI system is supported by the three major console companies; Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo as well as a number of developers and publishers. The PEGI system replaced the national age rating systems in favor of a unified European system to ensure that there would be no confusion when buying games from a foreign PAL territory.
The PEGI system is comprised of two aspects, the first is a traditional age rating system which ranges from a rating of 3+ to 18+, supplementing this is a system of descriptors, these are small icons relating to a particular type of content, these icons are placed on the front and back of the game case and signify the different content that is featured in the game. The benefit of this system is that parents are given more detail on what type of content is in the game allowing for a more informed decision.
The system was designed with closer attention paid to the audience, instead of simply applying the laws developed for another medium the PEGI system was created with a help of a number of demographics;
'In the drafting of the PEGI assessment form and the shaping of the system organisation, society representatives such as consumers, parents and religious groups have been largely involved.'
Furthermore the ratings are given by members of the industry familiar with the game, the game is usually assessed by a coder for the game which means that deeper issues such as context of content are given thought to:
'PEGI system is a voluntary system...ratings are carried out by members of the game industry itself...by means of a self assessment form. After examining a game, the in-house coder uses an intranet to answer a number of questions, after which the rating of the game will be given automatically. For each content category an age is established, based on the answers on the assessment form.
Ratings proposed by publishers are then checked by NICAM. All 16+ or 18+ ratings are checked before a rating is granted. All 12+ and samples of 3+ and 7+ ratings are checked after a rating has been granted. At the end of the process, products concerned are granted by NICAM, on behalf of ISFE, a license to use a specific logo and possibly descriptors as well.'
This is particularly effective because it rates games based on a criteria developed specifically for games, whereas the BBFC applies as standardized system originally developed for video. Many of the criticisms that can be leveled against the BBFC such as examiners who are not familiar with games or the industry, or the disconnect between the regulators and the industry are addressed by the PEGI system.
It may be argued that the influence that the developers and publishers have on the PEGI system provides an opportunity to manipulate the system and create incorrect classifications, although this is a possibility the vetting process handled by NICAM dispels any fears of this, since all the games rated 16 or over are checked before they are certified it means that there is less opportunity for misrepresentation.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) uses a similar system for rating games in the US. The ESRB is self-regulatory and applies and enforces rating's guidelines for games, advertising of the games as well as privacy principles for online play.
Much like the PEGI system the ESRB uses a rating symbol as well as content descriptors that describe any features of the game that resulted in the rating. The ratings are given by at least three specially trained raters, the ratings are kept confidential and the raters are not allowed to have any connection to individuals or entities in the computer/video game industry.
Next post will be video games, movies and how they are treated.