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The Ratings Game

PEGI

The ESRB's equivalent on the European side is the PEGI, or Pan European Game Information board. The board was founded in 2003 in an effort to help end some of the conflicting ratings and issues facing European nations. The whole of Europe has a lot of different national cultures, many of them viewing different levels of sexuality or violence in often conflicting fashions. PEGI is currently used in 25 countries in the EU, including the UK.

PEGI ratings come in six age categories, but it isn't hard to see that they're set up a little better than the ones in the US. Three specific ratings handle the "teen years," the games industry's largest demographic. This makes it easy for a parent to determine quickly whether a game is suitable for the ones most likely to be playing it.

The Ratings Game The UK (and the rest of the EU)
The Ratings Game The UK (and the rest of the EU)
PEGI ratings and content descriptions
Partially in an effort to clearly label and partially in an effort to make something universally legible over 25 countries, PEGI uses a simpler set of seven content descriptors. Each of these is represented by a picture, making it easy to visually recognize the possibly offensive parts of the game. Aside from the obvious ones like Drug Use and Violence, PEGI has descriptions for things like Discrimination and Fear (as in horror, like Resident Evil).

Like the ESRB, PEGI ratings are voluntarily sought by publishers. However, the tests are slightly different - the publisher must submit a rather long questionnaire outlining the game's content. The questionnaire is based on the both the Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audiovisual Media test and the Kijkwijzer system (Dutch). There is no initial requirement for seeing the game's content - the questions are evaluated and a rating is provided. If the game rates higher than 16+, an actual copy of the game is then required and evaluated.

The thing that is least known about the PEGI system is that, much like its ESRB cousin, the ratings are unenforceable. This includes games sold in the UK, where many residents are under the impression that all of the age requirements are enforceable by law. However, there are some games where that holds true - games rated for excessive violence or nudity get cherry-picked to fall into the BBFC's lap. PEGI is not a government agency and is not affiliated with either the EU or any of its member nations.

BBFC

The BBFC, or British Board of Film Classification, is one of the oldest ratings agencies in the world. I'll skip the history, because it could fill volumes unto itself. Suffice it to say, the agency has been around the block a time or two. And because of that, it's got a little extra weight that it can swing around.

The BBFC has extended the Parliamentary Video Recording act of 1984 to allow for computer games and other digital media. Of course, the agency has far too little time to rate every game that comes into the UK, and so it chooses those games based on ones that get filtered out of the PEGI system. Games that receive a 16+ or 18+ and include gross violence or sexual content end up on the BBFC's list for a second review.

The BBFC now only hands out two ratings for video games, mostly because of the games it starts out with.

The Ratings Game The UK (and the rest of the EU)
BBFC 15+ and 18+ ratings
These games often undergo some decent testing by a highly-trained panel of examiners who are hired in 5-year intervals (the position used to be permanent). Once a rating is handed out, it is subject to the same appeals laws as are provided to films, but the game cannot just be barely edited and resubmitted in hopes for a more favourable draw like can be done with the ESRB.

Unlike the other two ratings agencies, BBFC ratings are enforceable by law, meaning that someone caught selling to a person under the age of 15 or 18 (depending on rating) can be fined, jailed, or both. In history, the BBFC has only refused a rating to one game, Carmageddon. It later approved a modified version of the game, with some of the gore turned down. Games such as Grand Theft Auto have traditionally had an 18 rating, making it illegal for anyone under 18 to purchase (although this does not prevent an older person legally buying it and giving the game to someone younger).

Strengths and Weaknesses of the UK system

Much like the ESRB, the double-whammy of PEGI/BBFC has some good points and bad.

First of all, the age spread between PEGI and BBFC allows for four distinct age groups (12+, 15+, 16+ and 18+) in the teen years, the largest demographic of video game players. That narrow focus on the largest audience means that it can be easy to match up a gamer with a game suitable for his age, without forcing a 16-year-old to play Crash Bandicoot unless he or she really wants to. Also, the European view on comic violence often puts it considerably lower on the chain of age requirements - nobody who played Mario ever went out and jumped on another kid's head that I've ever heard of.

The other nice benefit of this system is that more graphic games end up having their age restrictions be legally enforceable. These games end up on that list because they're reviewed not just by the survey at PEGI, but also by staff playing the game and then an exhaustive test from the BBFC. That means that a game with a 15+ or higher rating has been carefully checked over by some people who really know their stuff.

These perks come at a price, however. PEGI is far from infallible, and a game that doesn't make it onto its 16+ tier isn't even played. By anyone. Instead, a 12+ rating is slapped on it and it's on to the next game. Since PEGI's gap is four years (like the ESRB), it means a careful publisher can drop its questions by just enough to slip under the 16+ radar and its product is home-free in all 25 nations, including the UK. Content descriptors aren't much of a help in making that age determination then, either - since there are only seven of them and they are each pictures, it's hard to really be clear as to what the game may contain.

For games that do end up on the BBFC's desk, it's been proven once already that the agency will occasionally act as an indirect censor by withholding a rating altogether. As mentioned on the first page, most retailers won't purchase copies of an unrated game for multiple reasons - so the choice can be a death knell for a title. By choosing to withhold Carmageddon's rating until a less "senselessly violent" version was written, the agency acted as a barrier between a willing producer and willing consumers, all based on what the agency determined was not artful. This is, it should be noted, the same way that films are treated in the UK.