In The Language of Games – Game Genres I briefly reviewed how many games are classified according to genre, although I did also suggest that “higher dimensional” classification schemes (based on “Genre, Mode, and Milieu” for example) could help refine how we might talk about the defining characteristics of a game in a little more detail.
Criteria used to classify games under “official” video game age rating schemes provide another way of talking about game content: a news story today (“Review ‘to change games ratings‘”) picks up on a report that makes several recommendations about how video games should be rated by “the censor”.
The increasing budgets allocated to game development means that not receiving certification can be costly, and companies have shown that they are willing to go to the courts to appeal against rulings that go against them. In turn, the “censor”, that is, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the UK, is also increasingly willing to fight its corner.
So how are games certified today, and indeed, why are they certified?
Why are some computer games classified?
Under the Video Recordings Act, most video games are exempt from BBFC classification. However, they may lose this exemption – and therefore require a formal BBFC classification – if they depict, to any significant extent, gross violence against humans or animals, human sexual activity, human urinary or excretory functions or genital organs, or techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences. In the early days of video games, the quality of graphics was so low that, even when ‘human’ or ‘animal’ characters were depicted, they were unlikely to be realistic enough to be covered by the Act. However, the increasing sophistication of computer graphics means that nowadays a number of games require classification, usually because they contain violence against realistic human figures. In some cases, games may also need to be submitted to the BBFC because they contain non-interactive video elements (eg trailers or film clips) that do not enjoy the same exemption as interactive games.
Games that retain their exemption – for example because they do not feature violence or sex involving realistic human figures – are classified under the PEGI system, a voluntary pan-European rating system. In the UK, the system is administered by the Video Standards Council, who also advise publishers on whether or not their game requires a formal BBFC classification.
Ref: British Board of Film Classification FAQ [accessed 27/3/08]
Just how the BBFC examiners go about making their decisions is described in part in this article: Gamespot Q&A: BBFC examiner Jim Cliff explains UK games ratings.
If you would like to know whether games are treated differently from films because of their interactivity, read the Gamespot interview with Jim Cliff…
Also mentioned in the interview is a question regarding the extent to which parents understand games ratings.
As well as the state run BBFC, (which has “official legal powers” ;-), the voluntary “Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system was established in 2003 to help European parents make informed decisions on buying interactive games”. PEGI is a voluntary code adopted by the gaming industry (why do you think they took this move?) and is used to label computer games published by ‘reputable’ game publishers. (You can read more about its origins and philosophy here: About rating: Ratings Explained.) PEGI is promoted in the UK by the Video Standards Council.
If you have bought a computer game over the last 5 years, you will probably be familiar with some of the PEGI ratings icons – can you identify what each of the PEGI rating icons relates to?
To what extent do you think certification – or the PEGI ratings systems – provide a useful way of classifying computer games? Post a comment back identifying two or three different scenarios in which PEGI ratings might influence a purchaser’s decision as to whether to buy a particular game or not, and let’s see if we all agree…
To see how a wide range of different games have been rated, the Mobygames browser – http://www.mobygames.com/browse/games – allows you to browse game titles by theme, genre, platform, year, rating and so on. The browser works by filtering games based on the categories you select, in a similar way to the Amazon category browser, which you may already be familiar with?
In contrast to the hierarchical classification scheme used by Amazon, the Mobygames browser lets you select the order in which you want to browse the categories:
Visit the Mobygames website and see if you can find any games certificated by the BBFC, released in 2008 under an age 15 certificate. Using the browser, how might you informally explore whether there are any genres that are highly likely to be classified in a particular way? For example, are there any genres that appear likely to attract a ‘violence’ or ‘gambling’ PEGI rating? Are any genres apparently more likely to attract a BBFC 18 rating? Why do you think this might be the case?
[If you would like to read the recent UK government report on "Safer Children in a Digital World", that includes a consideration of games ratings, you can find it here: Byron Review; I also intend to return to it in a week or two...]