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A single UK games rating system – but will it get off the drawing board?

By on December 3, 2009
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Jas Purewal

The Digital Economy Bill (among other things) proposes a new games classification regime in which, for the first time, the Video Standards Council would become responsible for classifying all games in the UK. While broadly the games industry has welcomed this clarity, it is unclear if the proposal will become law before the forthcoming 2010 general election, says Jas Purewal.

 

What you need to know about the proposed new law

  • The Video Standards Council would classify all games in the UK. The previous practice was that games used either or both of the BBFC classification system (which is the same as used in films – e.g. PG, 12, 15,18) and the PEGI classification system (which previously was a voluntary, industry-regulated system in the UK and which uses a series of numbers and symbols).
  • It would be compulsory for all games aimed at over 12s to be classified (although as a matter of practice publishers are likely still to want a child-appropriate classification given to games).
  • However, games which fall into one of the following two categories would be exempt from the classification requirement:
    (i) games which are, taken as a whole, “designed to inform, educate or instruct” or are “concerned with sports, religion or music”; or
    (ii) games which meet a list of further requirements: among other things, such games must not include “depictions of violence towards human or animal characters”, “depictions of activities involving illegal drugs, “depictions of criminal activity that are likely…to stimulate or encourage the commission of offences” or “words or images that are intended to convey a sexual message”.
  • It is expected that the Video Standards Council will drop BBFC ratings and apply only the PEGI ratings system to games. However, the Bill provides that will only happen once the new regime has become approved law – so there is no express reference to PEGI in the Bill itself.
  • The Video Standards Council would likely need to issue guidance regarding how it will classify games in the future and it may issue a code of practice with which publishers would need to comply.
  • Failure to comply with the new regime could result in criminal prosecution.

 

Why is the Government amending the law on games classification?

Previously, games were classified under either or both of the BBFC or the PEGI systems (although increasingly the majority of the industry used the PEGI system in practice).

In 2007, the Government-commissioned Byron Review called for a new legally enforced, cinema-style classification system making it illegal to sell games to children below the recommended age.  Cue a long debate as to whether that new system should use BBFC or PEGI.  Then, in June 2009, the Government announced that it would use the PEGI system in the new legal regime.  Now here we are with the Digital Economy Bill.

So, the new law seems to have two objectives: (i) the better protection of children as regards games; and (ii) implementing a single classification standard for the games industry to adopt.

 

What happens next?

The Digital Economy Bill still needs to be debated fully, which could result in amendments making the new classification regime different to the outline provided above. However, the Bill also proposes a number of other legal changes, of which the most (in)famous is a new anti copyright-infringement regime for the UK. This could well lead to significant (and time-consuming) debate in Parliament. So it remains to be seen whether the Bill can complete its legal journey before the 2010 general election.

As lawyers will often tell you when it comes to legal matters, there is no easy way to predict exactly where this will go next – we will have to wait and see what the next months bring.  But, since games classification is the main way in which the Government directly regulates games, and given the periodic media scrutiny into ‘violent games’, clearly what happens to games classification will be important for the games industry.

Jas Purewal is an associate at Olswang LLP and writes www.gamerlaw.co.uk

About Jas Purewal

Jas Purewal is an interactive entertainment lawyer at Osborne Clarke and writer of Gamer/Law