Following our recent interview with the BBFC, TechRadar caught up with Paul Jackson, chairman of the European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) to discuss, among other things, the fallout over the recent Byron Review and the hopes and fears amongst games publishers for the future of age-ratings on videogames. Read on to find out what the UK's spokesperson for games publishers had to tell us.
TechRadar: Hi Paul, we just wanted to talk to you in a little more detail about the recent Byron Review [which looked at issues surrounding children’s access to violent games and inappropriate internet content].
Paul Jackson: Yes, well we welcomed the review all along and we’ve worked very closely with Tanya Byron through the whole process to try to brief her and make the right decisions. We particularly like the things she is saying about advice to parents, about use of technology in the home and about parental awareness of children’s activities.
So it’s not good enough, necessarily, to put a computer in your 12-year-old’s bedroom and then just let them loose on the internet. You need to be aware of what they are doing. So we are very supportive of the broad thrust of what she was talking about.
When you look at the technicalities of what she was suggesting, she was suggesting that hardware companies should be working to improve parental locks, and we are very supporting of moving in that direction.
TechRadar: Could you say a little more on that point, because there have been many criticisms of parental locks – generally suggesting that younger children are often more tech-savvy than their parents and thus can ‘get around’ parental locks.
Paul Jackson: To be honest with you, I’m not sure that that’s really the issue, because as long as the parents are given good and accurate information and as long as the systems are simple enough – and it may take us a while to get all these things right – then, it’s relatively easy to know whether or not the parental locks have been tampered with. So, within the home context, it is then perfectly reasonable for parents to be able to manage what their children are doing with those parental locks.
TechRadar: So it just comes down to good, responsible parenting?
Paul Jackson: It does, although in relation to that particular element it is also down to making sure that those parental locks are user-friendly enough and flag up warnings to enable parents to parent responsibly.
TechRadar: So what have Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft said on these lines?
Paul Jackson: Well, I think you should ask them that question! But the industry is fully supportive of better parental locks.
TechRadar: Let’s talk a little about the BBFC. It was obviously very pleased with the outcome of the Byron Review, as it means that it is going to have more responsibility in terms of rating games. ELSPA seems to have had some concerns with this. Can you outline what these concerns are?
Paul Jackson: Yes. We’ve worked very closely with the BBFC for the last 15 years. The BBFC sits on the PEGI council. So there are very close links. Our concern is this – the games industry needs to be reassured that the British Board of Film Classification would be capable of delivering against a new remit. There are two broad areas of concern.
Firstly, it looks as though the PEGI system currently delivers a harsher rating on games than (historically) the BBFC has – and we want to understand why that is happening and, if it’s not right, how we can fix it.
The second area of concern is about ‘future-proofing’. We know that our industry is going online and we know that the methodologies used with PEGI allow complete flexibility, because it is generated from within the industry. Every product has got a product manager, so every product can be self-assessed. And then the checks and balances that are so important come into play after that.
With the BBFC system that has been developed since the 1930s it is based around individual censors reviewing each and every product. Now what does that mean in a world where there are perhaps a million online elements a year which need to be classified? I don’t know? That is where we need to make sure that we understand how the BBFC would be capable of delivering against that remit.
TechRadar: The BBFC told TechRadar recently that it was more than happy and confident to take on what it estimates to be an extra three to five hundred games a year.
Paul Jackson: Yes, and at the level of three-to-five hundred, who would question that? The question really is – ‘what happens in that online space?’
As the industry goes online over the next three to ten years what we don’t want to do, including the BBFC, I’m sure – and this is why we keep talking about ‘future proofing’ – is we don’t want to invest in a system that effectively becomes redundant over the few years’ time.
TechRadar: Why would it become redundant?
Paul Jackson: Well if – and there are many ‘ifs’ in this which is why we want to work with government and with the BBFC over the next 18 months – for instance, one scenario is that the games industry moves almost exclusively online and then the products that we are selling, many of those products fragment… So, ‘The Sims’ would be a good example here.
If you look at ‘The Sims’ as a product, it’s a £30 purchase at the point of display - and then just look at the number of items that are already available to purchase online for ‘The Sims’. Every one of those in future will need to be referenced and classified. How will that be done?
Those are the areas of concern we have got, because we are certainly not talking five to six hundred ‘elements’ per year over the next ten years. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands, millions, who knows?
We’ve tried to word our concern very clearly. We are concerned because we don’t understand how that is going to work. And if it doesn’t work, if we’ve not ‘future proofed’ then we just have a system that’s going to last us the next three years. Which is not what any of us want.
TechRadar: Do you think Tanya Byron’s recommendations were based to some extent on the fact that the BBFC’s symbols are more widely recognised that PEGI symbols?
Paul Jackson: Awareness was at the heart of Tanya Byron’s concern, relating to how the classifications are used. That reflects on how well known the different symbols are. And if that’s the case, what she is saying is that the BBFC symbols themselves are more well-known. And as those BBFC symbols have been around 30 or more years, then I can understand where she is coming from.
TechRadar: Another key recommendation in the review was this idea of a marketing campaign to educate parents about games ratings.
Paul Jackson: Yes. That’s right.
TechRadar: The big question being – how will such a campaign be funded and put into place?
Paul Jackson: I think that is a very big question. I can tell you that everybody in the industry is absolutely up for a significant contribution. We do expect to play a very significant part in that. And, as an industry, with award-winning marketing over the last 10 years, we’re in a very good position to do that.
There are real concerns though that without significant government support and partnership in this, we’re never going to succeed in getting the message across properly. These are the questions that need to be addressed both by government and by ourselves over the next 18 months of consultation.
TechRadar: Some more outspoken cynics, such as renegade games marketeer Bruce Everiss, have gone as far to dismiss the Byron Review as a “waste of taxpayer’s money”.
Paul Jackson: [laughs] Well, I would disagree completely with that. Tanya Byron has succeeded in putting a stake in the ground about parental awareness and about how parents should interact with their kids and with new technologies. It will be a standard that we will be working to for years to come. It needed saying, and it needed saying by someone of Tanya’s stature and understanding, and ELSPA welcomed it for exactly that reason.
TechRadar: David Reeves [Managing Director of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe] recently commented that he wanted PEGI to ‘have teeth’ – what did he mean by that?
Paul Jackson: What’s being referred to there is PEGI having the same legal basis as the BBFC. That is, that PEGI would be legally enforceable at retail and it would be illegal for a retailer to sell a game to an under-age person.
TechRadar: So that’s currently not the case?
Paul Jackson: It is where the BBFC logo is also being used on an 18-rated game… What Tanya Byron was balancing were two very simple things. One is that you bring the BBFC logos down the age-range and that gives legal protection one way. Or, the other way would be to extend the legal protections to the PEGI symbols. So it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other!
TechRadar: So, on a practical level, there are questions as well – if as the Byron Review suggests, you have a PEGI rating on the back of the box and a BBFC rating on the front (for 12s, 15s and 18s) – then who is paying for this? And are there going to be any ‘logistical’ problems delaying games coming to market due to classification?
Paul Jackson: You’ve raised a number of questions there. I’ve never come across anyone in the videogames industry who has the slightest concern about the money when it comes to protecting children. We set up our own age-rating system 15 years ago, without any requirement from government, exactly because we wanted to protect children. Logistically, these are the sorts of questions that we need to deal with during the consultation period following the Byron Review over the next 18 months.
Tanya Byron has promised us 18 months of consultation, which was right and proper because she has raised some very complicated issues. In actual fact, we shouldn’t be de-railed into just talking about PEGI and the BBFC, when the wider report is very powerful. And we’ve got 18 months to figure out the technicalities of how the relationship between those two systems will work out.
TechRadar: The BBFC claims that its games testers are able to assess a game taking into account issues of tone and context, whereas it claims PEGI is just a questionnaire-based system, not capable of doing that.
Paul Jackson: The key phrase there is ‘just…’ because I don’t think that the PEGI system is ‘just’ anything. I think that the PEGI system is very robust. I think the BBFC system is robust. The question is – what is going to be most future-proofable for our industry so that we can protect youngsters going forward.
Tanya Byron has addressed the wider issues of how we protect our youngsters in this new digital age. In a sense she’s started a conversation that I hope will be a productive conversation and will continue for years.
TechRadar: She also seems to have taken a stance against the more sensationalist, tabloid media and its tendency to ‘demonise’ games and the games industry.
Paul Jackson: The classic for me was on the morning that the Byron Review was announced, one of the newspapers did a story about six videogames, reporting in vituperative terms about each of these games and how the review was going to sort it out. The important point being that two of the games mentioned were already 18-rated by the BBFC and nothing is therefore expected to change.
The games industry is too often an easy political target for people who don’t really want to think about the real issues. And the real issues are about protecting children and they shouldn’t be dealt with in that kind of ‘light’ tone, frankly.
TechRadar: Perhaps there’s an issue of language here – isn’t the word ‘game’ too easily associated with ‘toys’ and ‘childhood’ and so on?
Paul Jackson: That’s a nice dream, but the population will talk about things in the way it wants to. I’ve heard people say that ‘game’ is the right word and people argue otherwise. But it is the word, and I don’t think we can change that with any amount of marketing.
TechRadar: I suppose it’s part of a slower cultural shift.
Paul Jackson: Yes and the cultural shift is really interesting, because there is a concern about videogames. There are some very strong concerns in certain areas and we need to address that and we need to get it right.
But the support for videogames is also unbelievably strong. And Tanya Byron herself wrote at length in the review about the positive aspects of videogaming.
In my belief it is the entertainment medium of the future.