Dear Dave

Wednesday 26 August 2009

PEGI peril

Dear Dave,

That's an interesting question. There really are plenty of factors to be taken into consideration. You have to reflect on any number of emotional, moral, philosophical and logistical issues. Even then, the answer is by no means clear cut and the ramifications of your decision could still be affecting your dealings with your children when they're teenagers. It's tricky. I mean, seriously, good luck. Great men and women have pondered this one for decades and still not found a definitive response. Perhaps there isn't one. Perhaps every parent must find their own way...

Yes, I'm afraid you're going to have to decide for yourself. Is Scooby Doo! suitable for a nearly two-year-old? I couldn't tell you. Is Scooby-Doo! suitable for your nearly two-year-old? Well, that's up to you.

If it's any help, the live-action version was Lewis' favourite movie at that age and we saw it every meal time for a month. Marie, meanwhile, still shrieks and hides under the table while viewing the cartoon. That doesn't stop her wanting to watch it but it's pretty annoying if I'm trying to have a quiet lunch and makes me less inclined to put the show on. She's nearly five.

Of course, I never had these problems when Fraser was small. Without older children around to work a remote, I was able to keep him blissfully unaware for years of any programmes other than Teletubbies and Balamory. If anything, I was concerned he was living in a sheltered world of cute, fluffy creatures and twee aphorisms well past an age where he should have been learning from a gluttonous dog how to spot con-artists in rubber masks. It was actually a relief when he graduated to trashy cartoons and started watching animated cats and mice beat seven shades of slapstick out of each other.

For the last couple of years, though, it's been a struggle to maintain an appropriate viewing schedule that keeps all three children mostly happy most of the time while still providing an adequate number of fluffy aphorisms to morally educate the youngest and a sufficient supply of villains and comic peril to entertain the other two. I've messed up on occasion - the Dr Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, is still way too scary for Marie, for example - but generally it's gone OK. Thanks to my prior knowledge of many of the shows available and to the usually sensible broadcasting policies of kids' TV channels, I can effectively evaluate what's on and judiciously censor what my children see. Sorted.

Life is even easier with computer games. They have handy age ratings on the box to let me know whether they contain material unsuitable for my assorted offspring.

At least they used to...

Someone somewhere is clearly trying to make my life harder. Games used to have the possibility of two age ratings on them, one from Pan European Game Information (PEGI) and the other from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). All games had a PEGI rating of 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ or 18+ and those given a 12+ or higher were also examined by the BBFC to see whether they needed a legally enforceable* 12, 15 or 18 rating. The BBFC ratings were the important ones since they were based on the same criteria as for films and had the same logos. Any parent paying the slightest bit of attention could spot a BBFC rating and know what kind of thing to expect, no matter whether they played games themselves or not.

Unfortunately, having two rating systems was confusing. Last year, the Byron Report into the risks faced by children from the internet and video games noted that many people mistook the PEGI rating as an indicator of difficulty rather than of mature content. Tanya Byron recommended stream-lining the system and concentrating on the BBFC ratings because everyone knows what they mean.

I'm guessing some European politics and a lack of resources at the BBFC got in the way of that. The government opted to go solely for the PEGI ratings and they're now legally enforceable.

The problem is, PEGI ratings make no sense.

Really. I can't tell from a PEGI rating whether a game is suitable for my kids or not. I play games - goodness knows what it's like for parents who don't.

For a start, PEGI has to cater to the sensibilities of every member country. If the Portuguese happen to find the mere image of a banana sexually suggestive or the Danes have a problem with boomerangs or the Swiss find rabbits terrifying, then it affects the rating in a way that's incomprehensible to a UK audience.

PEGI is also much stricter than the BBFC system. Almost any violence involving humans brings a minimum rating of 12+. I recently played G.I. Joe on the Wii and was truly amazed to find it has a 16+ certificate. It involves lots of shooting but it's about as realistic and immersive as Space Invaders. Enemies in the game are faceless, bloodless and gormless - paint them silver and they'd be robots. The whole thing is totally what you'd expect from a game based around action figure soldiers for under-10s and contains less questionable material than the old black-and-white war films I used to watch as a kid on weekday afternoons on BBC2. Nonetheless, a fifteen-year-old can't buy it. To put this in perspective, a twelve-year-old can pick up a copy of Quantum of Solace on DVD without a problem.

As a bonus, there's no obvious consistency to the PEGI ratings. Ratchet & Clank involves a similar gameplay style and level of shooting as G.I. Joe but that's a 7+. (Remember children, it's wrong to shoot people. It's absolutely fine to go nuclear on any aliens you happen to meet, though...) Trials HD features motorcycle assault courses where your realistically-modelled rider comes to life-threatening grief every few seconds with a splatter of blood and the snap of bone. I'm all for my children associating motorbikes with horrifying injury, but 3+? I'm not convinced. Obscure 2 has mutilated corpses, shooting, chainsaws, drug use, extensive sexual references, gore and evil monsters which leap out of the undergrowth. It's understandably a 16+ but this makes the rating of G.I. Joe yet more bizarre. The two games are on the same shelf but in different leagues.

To add to the confusion, PEGI seems to have made its ratings harsher at some point. Take the Super Smash Brothers series, for instance. Super Smash Brothers Melee on the GameCube is a 3+ but Super Smash Brothers Brawl on Wii is a 12+ despite being nearly identical in terms of gameplay and graphics. In both, Nintendo characters attempt to knock each other off the screen using Popeye levels of violence. I would struggle to tell them apart and yet the age ratings are radically different. One is allegedly fine for a passing toddler to watch while the other should be kept away from anyone who isn't at least at secondary school.

After a quick glance through my kids' game collection, I suspect this change in criteria happened in the last year or two, meaning there'll be a good mix of games graded differently still in stores. Great.

The upshot of all this is that in spite of having a keen interest in monitoring my childrens' viewing choices, I'm reasonably happy to ignore the PEGI rating on a game. The things are simply unreliable. Worse, they're almost certain to make me look like a totalitarian idiot if I try to enforce them:

12-year-old: I want to play G.I. Joe.
Parent: You can't. It's a 16+.
12-year-old: I saw Dan playing it at his house. It's just like Ratchet & Clank and you let me play that.
Parent: That's a 7+.
12-year-old: But they're the same. One's just got action figures instead of aliens.
Parent: Yeah, I know.
12-year-old: So I can play it?
Parent: No.
12-year-old: Why not?
Parent: Because it says on the box.
12-year-old: But why?
Parent: I dunno. Maybe it has boomerangs and bananas.
12-year-old: What?
Parent: Er...
12-year-old: So can I play it or not?
Parent: Well... I... Erm... Look here's a DVD. Leave me alone and go watch James Bond graphically kill some people in cold-blooded revenge, will you?

The PEGI system might be legally enforceable at point of sale now but it would be an idiotic struggle for parents to comprehensively police it at home. If some 12+ games seem acceptable for a pre-schooler and some 16+ releases appear vastly more suitable for a seven-year-old than the average episode of Emmerdale, the ratings are bound to be disregarded sometimes. This makes them counter-productive. Every game purchase is open to becoming a pester-power nightmare as kids whine at length that a title isn't any more mature than something else they've already played. Without a reliable rating scheme, parents are left to discern suitability from the publisher's blurb on the back of the box. More than that, there's a huge risk that parents and children alike will assume that all the ratings handed out are overly restrictive. If one 16+ has no discernible dubious content, then maybe the others are all fine too. Thus the chance of children playing unsuitable games is actually increased.

Don't get me wrong. I'm heavily in favour of a strong, consistent rating system where, when my children demand an inappropriate game, I can point to an age on the box and end the argument. I'm just a little upset that we don't have that anymore.

I took the kids to GAME recently to blow the last of the vouchers we had lying around from Christmas. Thanks to a convenient sale, we collected an impressively high tower of merchandise and headed for the till. The haul included a primate-exploitation simulator, a recreation of post-Apocalyptic survival, a replica plumber-eating monster and a game about heroically saving the world from extra-terrestrial invasion. The assistant scanned Super Monkey Ball, Wall-E: The Game and the fluffy Goomba without a second glance and then raised an eyebrow as he held up a box with a stark picture of an alien skull on the front. "Is this for you, sir?"

"Uh-huh," I nodded, resisting the urge to make a smart comment about how the cuddly toy was for me but my four-year-old was really looking forward to turning E.T. into entrails.

"We have to check. Sometimes parents don't notice the age ratings. We can't sell to adults if they're getting the game for a child."

I considered mentioning that although the kids would never see me slaughtering aliens, my four-year-old was quite likely to witness her brothers rolling cartoon monkeys around a maze (which apparently rates a 7+). On reflection, however, I concluded that this might not be such a wise conversational gambit. Instead, I muttered, "Yeah, I know," and then handed over the vouchers and made a hasty retreat, pausing in my escape only long enough to subject the poor bloke to a five minute rant on the shortcomings of the PEGI system...

So, yeah, ultimately only you can decide about Scooby-Doo!. Think of it as practice for when Sam and Daisy are older. This censorship issue only gets harder and, frankly, as far as games go, we're on our own.

Yours in a woman's world,


*STOP PRESS: Would you believe it? Someone in Margaret Thatcher's government forgot to phone the European Commission twenty-five years ago and so it turns out that none of the age restrictions on pre-recorded material have been legally binding in the UK since then. Shhhh! Nobody tell any teenagers for a few months until the current regime has rushed through some emergency legislation...

UPDATE: I emailed PEGI about Trials HD because I simply couldn't believe the 3+ rating and thought it was a mistake. They were very nice but gave the following explanation:

"We have examined the game Trials HD before the rating licence was issued and we did not encounter any violence in this game. The biker can fall of his bike, but then he becomes a ragged doll. We did not encounter any clear depictions of injuries.

"The difference between this game and a game like Super Smash Brothers, is that in Super Smash Brothers, you can find depictions of violence. You can actively beat someone up, this is the whole purpose of the game. Trials HD is in essence a bike-game and does not show any violent acts."

I'm a little bemused. Personally, when it comes to my four-year-old daughter watching her brothers play computer games, I'm OK with the Tom & Jerry style violence of Super Smash Brothers Brawl but I'm much less certain about a guy endlessly breaking his neck in a warehouse full of shadows and flame. Just call me old-fashioned...

Oh, and I was apparently right about them having drastically changed their criteria. Fantastic.


JenK said...

The real reason the system makes no sense is because it was obviously made by a dad. He knew that if the system was flawed he would have the perfect excuse to try out the game first. At least this is the theory in my house.

"But honey, I can't do the dishes, I'm doing research for the kids. It's for the children."

DadsDinner said...

I never thought of it like that...

Maybe you should call his bluff and get him to road-test Barbie Horse Adventure and the latest Bratz-themed shopping simulator. That'll teach him.