Rating System Fight Continues…

8 07 2008

The BBFC and PEGI continue to campaign against each other and for themselves, with the drumbeat of PR and anti-PR increasing in particular over the last week.

Today, at the Westminster briefing on the games industry, Margaret Hodge called for a “grown up” debate on the subject. It seems each has half of the solution: PEGI has a smoothly run back-end that’s scalable and already covers online and offline content. The BBFC has amazing “brand recognition”, with age rating symbols that have been emphatically drummed into the British psyche.

Since the games industry has cast the government as the miserly villain throughout the debate on tax breaks, it’s good to see a government representative sensibly warning the ratings bodies off a political conflict. The mudslinging is achieving nothing worthwhile and relegates a very important issue to the same territory as Microsoft and Sony execs regularly taking digs at each other in the industry press.

It shouldn’t be forgotten in the middle of this that the BBFC have often been in the corner of games, defending them against the more outlandish claims leveled at them. Hopefully the two can come to a resolution without either being unilaterally swept aside.

(CC image by lastyearsgirl_)

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More Byron Review Fallout

24 04 2008

Conflicts

Industry lobbying of the UK government seems to be going up in frequency, with TIGA teaming up with their Austrlian equivalent, ELSPA speaking out again and Iain Livingstone voicing concerns.

Meanwhile, the European Commission have said the exact opposite of the Byron review about ratings: that PEGI needs to be strengthened and more deeply integrated with national rating systems. This continues to be an interesting part of the conflict, because the BBFC has greater brand recognition in the UK, but PEGI has greater applicability (and economy of scale) in the EU.

I’ve been used to the idea of “videogames” entering a state of flux for a long time, but to see so many different aspects of them doing so simultaneously seems remarkable.

(CC image by factoryjoe)





Byron Review Published

27 03 2008

Byron’s Works

The Byron Review has now been published, and so far there are no big surprises. It takes a much more balanced tone than Gordon Brown talking about games and knife crime.

Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.

These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.

The full report can be downloaded from the DFES website, and the BBC have mirrored it too. From their coverage:

Dr Byron has said games should have just one set of symbols from the BBFC on the front of all boxes which are the same as those for films.

Pegi ratings will now appear on the back of boxes.

It actually makes sense, even though some are bemoaning an extra layer of legislation. The video rating symbols given to cinema, VHS and DVDs are a part of the cultural consciousness of the UK populace. They have more mindshare and impact on people than PEGI labels, and I think adopting them will do more to impress upon people that the games industry is responsible than any amount of PR for PEGI.

Additionally, it lowers the cognitive load imposed on non-media savvy parents choosing games for their kids. The mechanics of rating decisions obviously have to be different from one form of media to the next, but to combine that approach with a single recognisable set of symbols is very sensible. Consumers don’t need to understand rating procedures (though I’m certainly not arguing for any lack of transparency – it is both vital and fascinating), in fact between turning 18 and encountering the issue with games, age ratings are something I forgot about almost completely. It doesn’t matter how good a shiny, new, self-regulatory rating system is if consumers are expected to learn it from scratch. Existing, well known symbols can get the job done much more efficiently by exploiting prior learning.

When the Byron Review (so far) seems to be so balanced, it’s unfortunate that people will misread it as an irresponsible industry getting a well deserved kicking. Some people will even read it that way and trumpet it as a success, but you know what? Screw those people. Just about every case of anti-game media coverage in the last few years has illustrated just how unreasonable and prone to fantasy the anti-games lobby is. They can tell whatever stories they like, but they are not and still won’t be the people driving these policy decisions.

“The games industry is reasonable” is a much stronger statement to make to the public on the basis of the Byron review than “the anti-games lobby scored a point”. They didn’t, the games industry is just going through some admittedly uncomfortable steps on the compromise-riddled road to public credibility and de-facto acceptance.





M Rated Games in Decline

7 02 2008

ELSPA Ratings 2007

ELSPA have put out a breakdown of the ratings assigned to games in 2007, and found that games rated M are declining:

The E category saw the largest increase over last year, accounting for nearly 60% of ratings assigned overall. The M (Mature 17+) category represented 6% of the overall ratings assigned, down from 8% in 2006 and 12% in 2005.

It’s often been said that M games are a minority of those released, and it sits interestingly with the amount of attention and criticism game get on the basis of them, even from game developers. I guess sales might tell a slightly different story to ELSPA’s ratings pie, but nonetheless, it really shouldn’t take much more than this to create a deafening silence from unfair media outlets.

Also, where’s Adults Only in the breakdown? Has it almost entirely disappeared due to large US retailers refusing to stock it?





Mass Effects

24 01 2008

Mass Effect

Mass Effect recently received a proper hatchet job from Fox News and a writer named Cooper Lawrence, who’d never seen or played the game but leveled various accusations at it. EA have actually mounted an incredibly cogent defense, first seen here at Kotaku:

Your headline above the televised story read: “New videogame shows full digital nudity and sex.” Fact: Mass Effect does not include explicit or frontal nudity. Love scenes in non-interactive sequences include side and profile shots – a vantage frequently used in many prime-time television shows. It’s also worth noting that the game requires players to develop complex relationships before characters can become intimate and players can chose to avoid the love scenes altogether.

FNC voice-over reporter says: “You’ll see full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex.”
Fact: Sex scenes in Mass Effect are not graphic. These scenes are very similar to sex sequences frequently seen on network television in prime time.

FNC reporter says: “Critics say Mass Effect is being marketed to kids and teenagers.”
Fact: That is flat out false. Mass Effect and all related marketing has been reviewed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and rated Mature – appropriate for players 17-years and older. ESRB routinely counsels retailers on requesting proof of age in selling M-rated titles and the system has been lauded by members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. In practical terms, the ratings work as well or better than those used for warning viewers about television content.

At the very end:

The resulting coverage was insulting to the men and women who spent years creating a game which is acclaimed by critics for its high creative standards. As video games continue to take audiences away from television, we expect to see more TV news stories warning parents about the corrupting influence of interactive entertainment. But this represents a new level of recklessness.

Do you watch the Fox Network? Do you watch Family Guy? Have you ever seen The OC? Do you think the sexual situations in Mass Effect are any more graphic than scenes routinely aired on those shows? Do you honestly believe that young people have more exposure to Mass Effect than to those prime time shows?

This isn’t a legal threat; it’s an appeal to your sense of fairness. We’re asking FNC to correct the record on Mass Effect.

Sincerely,

Jeff Brown
Vice President of Communications
Electronic Arts, Inc.

Emphasis mine. You can watch the original Fox News segment here.

It’s quite astounding to see this letter after years of watching the games industry do an appalling job of defending itself, at best being merely litigious, at worst provocative and childish. It’s quite a big step for EA to take such a reasoned approach.

The same can’t be said of Mass Effect fans, but their reaction is quite a funny fulfillment of the words “Don’t fuck with the internet”:

Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk have recently seen a sudden influx of reader reviews on product pages attributed to Lawrence’s book ‘The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace with Your Inner Overachiever’ after she participated in the scathing attack against Mass Effect.

[…]

Currently 346 ‘one star’ reader reviews have hit the Amazon.com product page in the wake of the FOX News item, with gamers venting their spleens vehemently at Lawrence through a variety of damning criticisms against her and her book – including product picture submissions calling her reputation and credibility into question.





Microsoft Parents Survey

4 12 2007

Kids playing videogames

Microsoft just published a survey of parents with a report written by Margaret Robertson. BBC News have a story on it here:

More than 75% of parents are concerned about the content of video games played by their children, a survey suggests.

Almost half of the 4,000 parents surveyed in the UK, France, Italy and Germany said that one hour of gaming each day should be the limit.

Some 43% of the surveyed parents said they were not aware of ratings systems for games to determine suitability.

I would really like to know more about the 25% apparently not concerned: Are the majority of those already well versed in games, or do they just not care?

The story doesn’t say much new, just confirming how unaware a lot of parents are of the ratings systems for games, but it’s worth pointing out Ask About Games as a new resource for parents who want to know about the content of the games their children are playing. Other good sites include Gamerdad and What They Play.

CC Licensed image by Ed Fladung.