British newspaper The Observer has reported plans by the UK government to crack down on stores selling 18-rated games (the equivalent of M - Mature in the US) to underage children. According to the paper, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt and Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will shortly be holding meetings with the industry to discuss the subject.
The UK uses a Europe-wide system of age and content classification, with five age categories (3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+) and six content categories indicating the inclusion of violence, sex, drug use, fear, discrimination (a category which has yet to be used to describe any title), and bad language.
Publishers also have the option of submitting games for classification at the BBFC – the same organization responsible for classifying films in the UK. Publishers usually choose to do so because it is a legal requirement to observe BBFC ratings, and so they allow publishers to place the impetus on protecting children from unsuitable content in the hands of retailers.
There seems to be no suggestion of plans to alter either of these current schemes, but the ministers are apparently keen to set up more rigorous checks that stores are enforcing the ratings. They have also made it clear that maximum prison sentences of up to six months and fines of up to £5,000 ($9,700) will be used for serious offenders.
According to The Observer, the current crackdown is at the behest of a campaign organized by the mother of Stefan Pakeerah, murdered in an allegedly video game-related incident. However, media allegations that the murder was inspired by Rockstar’s Manhunt were strenuously denied by investigating police, who point out that only 17 year old Stefan owned a copy of the game, and not the murderer.
Even so, the government has felt pressured to tighten regulations after questions in the House of Commons. According to MP Tessa Jowell: "You wouldn't let your child watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You wouldn't let them go to a strip club. So you shouldn't let them play an 18-rated game. It's the same principle - adults can make their own informed choices, but children can't always and need to be protected."
This new furor echoes similar events in the U.S., where regulations have recently been tightened and stores have been required to more prominently display an explanation of game classifications.