In 'Green Blood vs Red Blood', another highlight from the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival earlier this week, representatives from two UK-based content rating organizations explained how video game rating occurs in the UK, why on earth the UK has two organizations and, even more confusingly, how their approach to content rating differs.
The PEGI System Explained
First up, Peter Derby of the VSC (Video Standards Council) explained how the PEGI (Pan European Game Information) system works. PEGI is a voluntary content rating system for video games that is funded by game publishers and, in the UK, is operated by the VSC (different countries have similar 'agents' that rate games). To get a PEGI rating, a developer self assesses their game using an online questionnaire and, based on the answers given, the system provides a rating level.
If the rating is below a 16, the publisher is permitted to use the approved PEGI symbols on their retail packaging. Games that rate 16 or 18 have to have additional content submitted for the rating to be verified, requiring the developer to submit evidence such as screen shots.
In the specific case of the UK, the VSC provides a validation of the rating for content likely to fall into the 16 category, it may also recommended that these works are submitted to the BBFC. All games that are indicated to fall into the PEGI 18 category are referred to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) if the publisher still wishes to pursue retail sales in the UK, as the PEGI 18 rating is not used in the UK.
The reason for this dual approach is that PEGI is intended as a pan-European ratings standard. However the UK has a pre-existing rating system that falls under UK law (the 1984 video recording act). Simply put, it is illegal for a retailer to sell or rent a piece of media (video game, DVD, video etc) of a given age rating to someone below that age, it is a statutary system that the BBFC provides content assessment for.
The BBFC's Hands-On Approach
As BBFC examiner Jim Cliff explained, its board takes a more hands on approach to rating. Under UK law, any media that contains content that falls into a number of defined category must be rated by the BBFC. To handle this, the BBFC has about 30 examiners that work on video games, whom, Cliff clarified, are gamers themselves, as it would be unreasonable to expect non-gamers to rate a medium they are unfamiliar with.
Examiners work in pairs and spend about a day with each game, using cheat codes, walk-throughs and any other help that a publisher can provide until the BBFC is satisfied that it has experienced all the representative content in a game. The two examiners then rate the game, and if there is a disagreement the matter is escalated to more senior examiners, and in time an agreed upon rating is produced formally ratified by the BBFC.
In addition to its statuary status and hands on approach the main difference between the BBFC and PEGI / VSC is that "BBFC have a lot of leeway in respect of context," Cliff said. That is, when rating video games the BBFC "use same guidelines as film and video, but takes into account that it is a game [that is being rated]." In addition the BBFC can take into account "precedents [set by] other game, and the quality of visuals", whereas PEGI / VSC tends to take a rather literal approach to the artifacts it is presented with - that is, they rate what they see, not the context in which it appears.
In Practice: the Ratings Boards Probe Example Games
To illustrate the differences between approaches, a number of game scenes were shown to the audience and each organization explained how they would rate them. The first game was one in the James Bond series. The PEGI / VSC rating for the game was 16 due to the level violence in the scene, but the BBFC gave the final game a 12 rating. This, Cliff explained, was in part because as a James Bond game, the license goes some way to setting the context of the events.
Cliff added that this has nothing to do with the commercial context of a license, such as any pressure to rate based on potential sales, but the cultural context. Another factor the BBFC took into account that was readily apparent in the scene was "the way that character falls." In this case, the game characters looked and moved like video game characters being shot, as opposed to real people.
The next clip was from an alien invasion game which started with a female being levitated, and an alien giving a suggestive monologue about "probing." PEGI / VSC rated the game as 12 because it was clearly not realistic. The BBFC, however, rated the content shown as a "high 12," not because of the nature of the sexual innuendo, but because of the lack of detail in some shots. Cliff added that in actual practice, the game was eventually given a 15 rating as the weaponry shown "could eventually be used in urban areas" and because of later references to an "anal probe."
Ending the fascinating session on UK video game rating, Cliff stressed that they had chosen examples that picked out differences in the rating systems and re-iterated that rating "is not an exact science."