Dr Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of UK video game trade body TIGA, considers the impact and benefits of the current game age-rating system, and the need to raise awareness as to its importance
If you speak to most individuals in the game industry, you're likely to find a supporter of robust age ratings.
Fortunately, that is an attitude that presently prevails in the UK. At least with regard to sales of physical copies of games, and increasingly, mobile releases, we equally enjoy robust age ratings, thanks to the efforts of the UK's VSC Ratings Board experts, who assign PEGI age ratings to boxed games here, we have a clear, carefully considered system where age-appropriate gaming content is concerned. That brings tremendous benefits.
The PEGI ratings system is designed to be as straightforward as possible. Physical copies of games sold in the UK are granted one of five ratings: 3-plus, 7-plus, 12-plus, 16-plus or 18-plus. Each refers to the minimum age a player can be in order for the game's content to be appropriate. So a game with a PEGI 7-plus rating is suitable for players aged seven-years-old and above.
It's important to note that the rating is not about the complexity of a game; it is about the relative maturity of the themes of the content. So a very complex business management game might carry a PEGI 3-plus rating, as there is no content that is, for example, violent, sexual in nature, or refers to recreation drugs; but it would be too convoluted for a three-year-old to play. To find out about the level of gameplay of a game, it is worth checking the game's official website, trailers, or reviews.
In the UK the aforementioned VSC Ratings Board assign PEGI ratings. Their specialists play through any games, and carefully consider the themes and scenes a game includes. They then apply a rating based on a set of clearly defined guidelines. In extremely rare cases they can refuse any rating, meaning physical copies of the game are legally unable to be sold; something that can inspire publishers to also hold off on releasing downloadable versions.
Mobile games provide more of a challenge, simply because hundreds – and sometimes thousands – are released every month. As such, a group formed by PEGI and several comparable organisations globally, and known as The International Age Rating Coalition – or IARC – gives both mobile games and apps their age ratings.
For a mobile game, at the point a game developer makes available their creation to be sold on a given app store like Google's, they are asked to provide detailed information about the content of their game. Games that do not provide clear information may then be reported by consumers to PEGI, upon which action can be taken. Groups like The VSC also check submitted games as much as is possible.
And why is that effort worth it?
Video games provide society with such a wonderfully diverse medium, but, of course, not all content is suitable for everyone. Age ratings protect young people and children from inappropriate content. They also provide consumers with information about the nature and appropriateness of games.
Equally, video game age ratings allow games that tackle adult issues to exist. In that regard they are far from a form of 'censorship'. A game that explores mature content and adult themes is appropriate to an adult audience. Such titles can be personally important, thought-provoking and promote critical thought and public discourse. Books, films and games designed for an adult audience can inform us, challenge us or make us think. So, while age ratings protect the young, they also preserve the video game medium’s ability to explore complex and mature themes. An 18-years-plus rating doesn't just stop youngsters playing a given game; it also allows the game to exist for appropriately mature gamers.
As such, game age ratings are extremely important. That in turn means they must not only be robust and reliable, but also readily understood and respected.
Legally speaking, a parent can decide what content is appropriate for their children within the home, so in that context the UK game age ratings implemented by PEGI serve only as a guide. As for retailers, under section 11 of the Video Recordings Act 1984, it is illegal to sell a game to a customer under the rating, and legal action can be taken to those ignoring the law, meaning that out in public these ratings are legally binding.
It's not unusual, however, to hear anecdotal tales of parents and guardians happily and knowingly buying their children 16-rated or 18-rated games, perhaps due to misunderstanding around video games status as 'play-things'. It's a misconception that has plagued games for many years. While they can be toy-like and perfectly suited for children, that is not the medium's entire audience remit.
That means a very delicate balancing act is needed to accurately represent game's status and place in society; something that in turn can help strengthen the UK game industry, those employed in it, and the economic contribution it makes within the UK (TIGA research shows that the UK video games industry now contributes £1.5 billion to UK GDP). If different games are only reaching appropriate audiences, then the medium has found an appropriate place in society, and can thrive, rather than be misunderstood or reasonably warrant concern that leads to limitations.
There is, then, a need to educate consumers, and potentially even remind some retailers. Some games can be adult and inappropriate for children, but that does not necessarily mean those games are a harmful or negative entity more broadly. The very same titles might bring many valuable experiences to an adult. Games can bring children many benefits, and adults many benefits, but that does not mean all games suit all audiences. Therein lies the balancing act. We must assert that not all games are appropriate for all audiences, without proliferating the misconception that games are broadly or by definition are harmful. Parents and guardians of young gamers should take the medium seriously, without demonising it. To do that they need information.
There is a collective responsibility here. Developers, publishers, platform providers and the industry must continue to provide detailed, accessible information about games and content so that consumers can make informed choices. For example, pointing consumers not just to age ratings, but to the 'additional consumer information' provided with each rating, that clarifies the content elements that inspired a given rating.
Publishers and platform holders should ensure through the use of parental controls that children and young people cannot access inappropriate content. All developers, publishers and platform providers should equally adhere to the law and comply with the ratings process; something that fortunately already happens.
However, adult content will likely always hold a taboo appeal, and that will always be tricky for parents and guardians on the 'front lines' in the family home. Consumers, parents and guardians can start with the simple act of following the age ratings.
Encouragingly, we are today seeing generations who have grown up with games now becoming parents – compared to previously, where many parents had no experience of the medium they were trying to police within their homes. Parents and guardians that are familiar with games are better placed to make sure the medium is appropriately consumed within the family home.
That is an encouraging foundation for a new era of awareness around the value, structure and power of game age ratings.