Byron Reactions

15 04 2008

BBFC film ratings

Barring a few upcoming and typical tabloid smears on video games, the dust now seems to have settled on the Byron review. MCV have been doing exhaustive coverage of the reactions to it, the biggest of which has been PEGI raising serious concerns about the applicability of BBFC ratings to online content.

It’s not a bad point. While BBFC ratings are more immediately meaningful to UK consumers, the method by which the BBFC rates things seems poorly equipped to deal with the torrent of content online, not to mention the legal ground that would have to be laboriously trodden in defining what content needs to be rated and what doesn’t. The BBFC claims it can, but such an approach could easily be unable to keep up with a voluntary scheme such as PEGI.

It’s an interesting dilemma, and each side has its merits. BBFC ratings make sense culturally, but perhaps not economically; they may even drown in the volume of online content. Indeed, it seems that any rating system will be dwarfed by the overwhelming amount of freely accessible unrated content – it was easy enough for teenagers to get hold of porn before the internet, and speaking pragmatically it’s impossible to stop them.

Ratings are a useful system when picking content for children, but I’ve rarely ever seen people using them as a factor when making a personal decision on what to watch or play. The two exceptions I’ve seen recur are highly religious people of a kind very sensitive to violence or sex, or men in their late teens and twenties, who tend to say of films things like “It’s rated 12 so it’s going to be crap”.

With its focus on protecting children, it’s natural that the Byron review would spend so much time on rating systems, but it seems to me that education is far more important. With the exception of very young kids, there’s no way to monitor everything they do and look at.

Speaking personally, I can say it’s too easy for parents to give the impression to kids that, if they see something that upsets or confuses them, they might be be punished for finding it rather than helped to deal with it. That’s the picture of a culture that can’t deal with disturbing content, and it exists in patches throughout UK society.

The lack of hard research on the actual effects of certain types of content on children is also frustrating, because so many studies on violence and pornography have to conclude “Noone really knows”. As Tanya Byron points out in the report though, there are no ethical grounds on which such research could be based. Alongside honest discussion of content, rating systems remain the best tools we have, and they’re built on the impression many of us have that seeing certain things without the mental apparatus in place to contextualise them can be harmful.

The recommendations of the Byron Review will take some years to put in place, and I suspect the market may have something to say after the government.

ELSPA and a few others have been kicking up a great stink about the added expense to the industry, though in the case of big publishers if not AAA developers, it’s largely sabre rattling: the 10K or so required to submit a game to the BBFC isn’t much for them. However, it’s yet another thing that will keep small casual and indie productions out of the market for boxed product and push them even further toward digital distribution. If the industry would rather use PEGI and make it prominent, online is definitely now the place to push it.

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