The game of regulation
Today's best computer, video, online and especially MMORPG games actively invite experimentation and exploration and, as a consequence, player's experiences vary enormously. The BBFC's Jim Cliff explores the challenges that these games bring to the regulator and what solutions are being considered.
Today's best computer, video, online and especially MMORPG games actively invite experimentation and exploration and, as a consequence, player's experiences vary enormously. Jim Cliff explores the challenges that these games bring to the regulator and what solutions are being considered.
When two people watch a film, they may notice different things - a look on an actor's face, an emotional music score, an allusion to an earlier scene. While their experience isn't identical, they are at least watching the same footage. When it comes to games, two gamers will have different skill levels, take different paths to solving problems and reaching goals, and succeed and fail in different proportions.
In classifying a film or a video, British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) examiners watch all the way through, apply their guidelines and come to a decision, safe in the knowledge that viewers will see what they have seen. This is never possible in classifying games. As a result, as well as attempting in some way to replicate the playing experience, it is necessary to try to explore as much of the game as possible.
Some games could theoretically be 'finished' in a single working day, but completing all the missions or levels doesn't equate to seeing everything there is to see. In the vast majority of cases it is simply not possible for any regulator to see every minute aspect of a game before coming to a decision.
Nowhere is this more true than in the field of online games. Aside from the sheer size of an MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, the simple fact is that much of the content in an online game may not even exist when a regulator, such as the BBFC, sees the game.
Lawyers disagree but many argue that online games are not currently covered by the law that requires some games to be classified by the BBFC. This means that if a company chooses to send their game to the BBFC and receives, say, a PG rating, there is no compulsion to have the game reclassified when the game is patched, even if the patch would potentially introduce stronger elements into the game.
The gamers themselves present further issues. User generated content is integral to some games, and can range from individual skins or items to, in the case of a game like Will Wright's upcoming Spore, the vast majority of the content - from creatures and buildings to vehicles and planets. Naturally this kind of content is not included in the original rating.
In America, the ESRB recognise that many online games will contain material not covered by their rating, and every online game carries the warning "Game Experience May Change During Online Play".
It certainly isn't an ideal solution, but given that any regulator can only classify what they can see on the day the game is submitted, it may be the best solution that can currently be applied to the whole industry. The alternatives would be that every online game is rated at the highest possible rating (i.e. BBFC 18 in the UK) on the grounds that in the future some 18 level material might be introduced, or that every online game is constantly monitored to ensure that nothing is added, by the company or the user, which would be inappropriate at the game's age rating.
This task would be difficult for any single organisation to perform. This concept does, however, form the basis of a scheme being developed by the pan-European game rating system, known as PEGI. PEGI Online proposes an online 'Safety Code', which requires distributors who sign up to take steps to ensure adequate behaviour among users and ban inappropriate content from their sites. In return, the access pages for the online games concerned will display a PEGI Online rating to show parents that the Online Safety Code is adhered to. This is a voluntary scheme, and relies heavily on self-regulation by the games distributors.
The BBFC is working with PEGI to develop the scheme, and simultaneously trying to address the challenges inherent in the classification of games and of online games in particular. As the technology evolves, so must we.
About the author
Jim Cliff is an examiner for the BBFC.