It may have been a long time coming, but as of today, the 30th of July, it's been made official - the multi-coloured game ratings, PEGI, have now become law. After a long and winding process, which has entailed several official reviews, and numerous delays, setbacks, and parliamentary debates, from today, all games sold in the UK must carry a PEGI rating, which have now become legally enforceable. That means that if an eleven year old tries to buy a game rated as a PEGI 12, the retailer is legally not allowed to sell them it - with a prison sentence, and a £5,000 fine awaiting anyone found breaking the rules.
As may have been expected, this is a move that many within the games industry are phenomenally happy about, as it's seen as one more step on the road to safer games - a clearer, legally enforceable way to help make sure parents know exactly what a game's all about before they buy it. The games industry already gets a rather unfair amount of criticism regarding the amount of "violent" games it produces, while the media are always quick to blame games as the sole cause of many tragic events - so any chance the industry gets to blow its horn, and show it's being as responsible as humanly possible, it'll obviously take. But when it comes to this new legislation... Well, things aren't quite as simple as they may seem. In our opinion, PEGI is a system that has several major flaws, which may take quite a while to be ironed out.
Before we get started, we ought to say that we do agree with the principals behind what the Government are doing. Without a doubt, we should be doing all we can to make sure parents are aware of what the games their children are playing are actually like (and that's a large part of what this website's all about), as many would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with the idea of letting their young children play games like Modern Warfare 3, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto, no matter how popular they may be with their friends. But it's the method, rather than the idea that's causing the problem.
To find out how we got to where we are today, we'll have to turn the clock back to 2007, with the commissioning of the Byron report, "Safer Children in a Digital World", a wide reaching document which looked into every aspect of keeping children safe online - from social networks, and the possibility for grooming or bullying, to the issue we're the most interested in - games age ratings. At the time the report was written, games were rated by two separate bodies - the BBFC (which also do the age ratings for films), and the less well known PEGI. The report, quite rightly, suggested that having two age ratings can be confusing for parents when it comes to buying games, and that having a single, universally identified ratings scheme would be for the best - which is undoubtedly true, especially as the ratings games received from the BBFC and PEGI were often substantially different.
This then went to a full public consultation, during which the Government backed the BBFC to become to sole ratings system, whilst the industry, for reasons that we're still unsure about, backed PEGI, as a European standard (PEGI actually stands for Pan European Game Information). Although we're not entirely sure why the games industry chose to back PEGI over the BBFC, we can only assume that money had something to do with it, as having to submit a game to a single ratings body, which would then apply for the whole of Europe, would be much cheaper than submitting it to each country's board individually. Prof Tanya Byron, the author of the initial Byron report, recommended a hybrid approach of having the BBFC ratings on the front, and the PEGI ratings on the back - but in the end, PEGI won the right to be the sole ratings system of choice. And so we find ourselves here today. But was this the right decision to make? Is PEGI the best ratings system to protect children from inappropriate games? Well, it's a little bit more complex than it may originally seem.
The main purpose of the brightly coloured PEGI age ratings is to give parents a quick, easy, at-a-glance description of how suitable the content of a specific game is - which is the first place where PEGI falls down. The BBFC logos have been long established in this country, and were recognised almost unanimously by parents, who in turn also understood that the ratings were intended to apply to a game's suitability in terms of content, not its difficulty. PEGI, on the other hand, has always been a lot less clear. From personal experience, we know that parents can be unsure as to exactly what PEGI ratings are passing judgement about - on several occasions, we've seen friends and family go to buy games rated as a PEGI 3+ for their 4 year old, believing that the PEGI logos are effectively difficulty ratings, only to discover the game's full of reams of text, which their child could only dream of handling. The BBFC ratings were subject to none of this confusion. Because they were also found on films, parents knew they were rating the suitability of the content, not the game itself - and PEGI will have several hurdles to conquer before it establishes itself similarly.
Similarly to the BBFC, PEGI also divides itself into categories, but perhaps not as logically as you may think. While BBFC has U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 ratings, PEGI instead opts for 3, 7, 12, 16 and 18 - and it's only the 12 and upwards ratings that are legally enforceable. Oddly, in other countries in Europe, these age brackets differ slightly (some countries have a 4+ rating, rather than 3+), but bar the smaller gap between the final two age categories when compared to the BBFC (rendering it somewhat less useful), there's actually not too much difference on the surface. It's when you delve under the covers, and see how PEGI works, that the problems start to reveal themselves.
Having been established for longer, most parents have a good idea of what to expect from a film rated as a BBFC U, PG, and so on, and could judge, without necessarily knowing much about the film, how "bad" or otherwise it was going to be, and whether they were happy with their child watching it, as they were familiar with the standardisation used. On the contrary, PEGI ratings, partially due to being less established, and partially due to the different ratings system, can tend to be a little bit hit and miss. Were we to show you footage of several games, without telling you what age rating they were, the chances are it'd be hard to guess all the PEGI ratings correctly, as they can often be really, really harsh.