Classifying Games

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?

PEGI Bad language icon PEGI discrimination iconPEGI drugs iconPEGI Fear iconPEGI Gambling iconPEGI sex iconPEGI violence icon

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 – – 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…]


8 Responses to “Classifying Games”

  1. 1 Tony Hirst March 27, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Submitting games for BBFC classification is actually down to the publisher ( ): “Under the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984, it is the responsibility of the individual game distributor or developer to decide whether a game requires statutory classification or not.”

    The “Video Games Submission Form” requires publish to identify “the most contentious issues in the game” along with their frequency (None, Infrequent, Frequent) in the following categories:

    – Sex/Nudity
    – Drugs
    – Violence
    – Horror
    – Criminal Behaviour
    – Bad Language

    PEGI ratings are also awarded, in part, based on the completion of a questionnaire by the game publisher ( ), although in this case the form provides for a far more detailed breakdown of what constitutes the potentially offensive or contentious content.

    PS PEGI also provide a searchable database where you can look up the classification of a game:

  2. 2 Tony Hirst July 9, 2008 at 11:51 am

    The debate continues: “A row has broken out between the games industry and the UK’s content classifiers over who should regulate video games in the future.” continues…

    Divide on games industry ratings
    [ ]

    The debate is between proponents of the legislated BBFC certification and the voluntary PEGI code.

  3. 3 Matthew May 9, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    I have bought my fair share in games and not once have i ever looked at the warnings….. ever!
    I see no need, I don’t buy a game for the violence’s, I buy it because it looks good.
    I love realistic games love them and the higher the realism the more detailed violent scenes are, I think you should just be given the option to opt out those scenes like call of duty 4 MW2 .

  4. 4 James October 15, 2010 at 10:46 am

    I always look at the age and warnings on games, but I have usually decided whether or not I’m buying the game before then.
    I think that if a game is beyond your age you, in general (it depends why it’s that age), shouldn’t play it. On the other hand…I have issues with Dr. Byron’s plan of specific British game classifications. The PEGI system seems to be working fine. I think people should just be sensible when purchasing games.

  5. 6 Chris October 14, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I am in the army and was based over in Germany, Ihave a freind who bought Modern warfare 2 through his steam account, however since he bought it through a UK steam account it wouldnt let him download / play as the laws in Germany didnt alow the level of realism such as blood to be shown, the site could tell he was in Germany from his mac address or ? . The version released in Germany didnt have that realism even at the over 18 rating.

    Just an interesting point.

  1. 1 Friday Fun #20 Net Safety « Digital Worlds – Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on September 25, 2009 at 9:31 am

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