TechRadar recently caught up with David Cooke, director of the British Board of Film Classification, along with Mark Dawson, one of the BBFC’s leading games examiners, to discuss, among other things, the recent Byron Review, the Manhunt 2 saga and to find out more about what the BBFC thinks about the future of videogame classification and age-ratings in the UK.
(You can read the first part of this interview here)
TechRadar: There have also been concerns and questions posed by ELSPA about things like funding and logistics. Who pays for BBFC examiners such as Mark here? Who pays the BBFC? And second to that – might there be questions of additional delays to games coming to market, because an extended BBFC system might take longer to classify games?
David Cooke: Well the second point is the easier part of that question to answer. We are faster than PEGI, at the moment. And we’ll try and keep it that way. We turn round games, on average, in ten calendar days (not working days) which is at least as fast as PEGI, probably faster.
TechRadar: Is there an average time it takes for you to examine and rate a game?
Mark Dawson: It generally depends on the game. With a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, for example, which is one of the most recent titles we have rated, it was something like 15 or 16 hours, for each of the two examiners playing it.
David Cooke: But that is of course exceptional. There’s a hell of a lot in the game!
Mark Dawson: I would say that we probably allocate around 5 hours per game on average.
David Cooke: On the money front, I think we’ve calculate that there are around 25% of the games that we do that work out cheaper than PEGI, then there is a chunk that are more expensive.
We are entirely independent of government and funded by the fees that we charge. So yes, I suppose it is valid to say that there will be cases where, going from the Byron recommendations, publishers will have to get stuff classified by us as well as by PEGI. But then, that’s no different really from the other top games buying countries, in terms of market size – us, Germany, Japan, the US. And we are the only one that is in PEGI. To some extent, if you have big national jurisdictions, you have to play by their rules and you have to pay for the regulation that they do.
But we are not allowed to make a profit. We operate purely on a cost-recovery basis. We try to make it as cost-efficient as we can. So it’s not going to be that much in the greater scheme of things and maybe we can find ways, in collaboration with PEGI, to get these costs down further.
TechRadar: One of the other issues raised by ELSPA has been the whole area of online gaming and the classification of online games. They are suggesting that PEGI has a more robust system for classifying online games and online content that the BBFC. What is your response to that?
David Cooke: Well, yes and no. PEGI has PEGI Online, which I was involved in devising. It’s a pretty decent attempt to deal with a very difficult set of problems, as you get all of these post-releases issues that kick in with online games. What PEGI Online ISN’T is well-resourced. There is one person in PEGI trying to run PEGI online as well as trying to do lots of other things.
Let’s start a bit further back, here. Tanya Byron has recommended pretty much the same thing online as she has recommended for physical product, which is that games to be rated 12 and up should come to the BBFC. So there are two routes we could go here. We could either set up something which we are already doing – called BBFC Online – as a competitor to PEGI Online or we could feed into PEGI Online, given that PEGI Online already recognises BBFC symbols.
Now, my preference is to go the second route, which is more consistent with what Tanya Byron has recommended. That would then enable us to classify the 12s and up for the UK, within PEGI online, but with BBFC symbols for the UK. But there is also the possibility that we could offer greater resource to PEGI Online, so actually help that system as well.
BBFC Online is something that we are setting up for DVD producers who want to distribute direct to download. So BBFC Online has much more of a DVD world starting point. But one of the things we have been able to do with BBFC Online is talk to some very major aggregators – who we cannot currently name as negotiations are currently still ongoing – but I know that PEGI Online would like to capture some of these aggregators and there may well be some synergy there. We may well be able to help PEGI Online bring in these aggregators as well as the publishers of games – so we’re talking here who are selling books, CDs, DVDs, films, games… the lot really.
TechRadar: What about rating downloadable add-ons for games? Say, for example, when the GTAIV downloadable episodes are released later this year for Xbox 360 – how do you go about rating those?
David Cooke: Well, it’s governed for the rest of Europe by the PEGI Online safety code. One of Tanya Byron’s recommendations was that she wants the BBFC to work with PEGI to beef up this safety code. As I currently understand it, there is a sort of agreement under the PEGI Online safety code that if a publisher produces add-ons that would actually change the rating of the original product, that the publisher will bring the original product back to be re-rated. This is all quite fiddly – as this is not quite what PEGI Online actually says, but this is what they have agreed to do. This is kind of pending any further work to beef up the online safety code that we and PEGI will do together.
TechRadar: One of the other main recommendations from Tanya Byron was a call for a public education and information campaign to educate parents and consumers about games ratings. How do you think this might best work?
David Cooke: Well the first thing to say is that I think it is right, as it seems quite clear that parents understand games classifications less well than they understand film or DVD classifications. And that’s not getting at PEGI. That’s true whether or not you are talking about PEGI or BBFC ratings, I think.
Parents are more familiar with our symbols than they are with the PEGI ones, but their overall awareness levels about games ratings are lower. So the overall objective has to be to get these awareness levels up to the kinds of awareness levels that we have for film and for DVD.
In terms of how you go about doing it, this is something that we, Paul [Jackson] at ELSPA and the PEGI people and the government will all now have to get together and discuss, because there are loads of issues there about who pays for what, what is the most cost effective way of going about it and so on.
On the film side, for instance, we have done paid advertising, but we have found that some of the best kind of vehicles for getting messages across have been the really big titles – so Harry Potter, Casino Royale, Spiderman, War Of The Worlds, to name but a few…So maybe there is a comparable sort of thing that can be done off the back of very high profile games.
Then there is the schools angle to it. Mark and his colleagues do go out and do media and literacy work in schools. We have some websites that can help – children’s website, student’s website and a new parent’s website, where we provide extended consumer information – so we provide in-depth information as to why the title is a 12, 15 or 18 and full listings of what the key content issues are that produced that result. Again, this is something that is easier to do under our system than it would be under a questionnaire-based system like PEGI.
TechRadar: Do you not think there may be a naming issue here – while we refer to them as games then many will continue to treat them as toys?
David Cooke: It’s a question that lots of people have been struggling with. It is why ISFI is called ISFI isn’t it? But then again, ‘interactive software’ doesn’t really trip of the tongue does it?
TechRadar: The games industry does seem to be under constant bombardment from sensationalist tabloid scaremongering. Tanya Byron seems to have made a real, concerted effort to distance herself from that.
David Cooke: She did. And that was very healthy, I think. And I sometimes wonder that perhaps games industry people like [Electronic Arts UK MD] Keith Ramsdale, with some of the things he’s said about us, if they that we are more in the ‘Daily Mail’ camp. The answer is no, with a big ‘N O’, we are an independent organisation who’s examiners have actually been snooped on by Daily Mail journalists. We’ve had Daily Mail journalists phoning up the building pretending to be colleagues trying to get information out of us.
We know that the media selects certain research to back up these types of stories, we know all the problems with the claims of the American research into media violence. I think maybe things are skewed a little bit in the thoughts of people like Keith Ramsdale. They are conscious, for example, that we have this reject power and they don’t like that.
We’ve only used it twice over the last ten years for god’s sake! And you cannot have a reject power and never, ever use it. Tanya Byron did find a very strong amount of public support for having this type of last resort. But it really is a last resort, for us. As I’ve said, with a lot of our decisions, it’s possible for age-ratings to be lower and less strict than PEGI, which often pushes games up to a higher rating, even when it’s clearly not a sensible thing to do. If everything goes up to a level where it is not credible, then it’s clearly a bad thing for the games industry, as there is a much reduced parental confidence such a system.
TechRadar: The power to ban of course is still very much an issue in the games industry, following the case of Manhunt 2 last year and early this year.
David Cooke: Let me tell you how I think about Manhunt 2. I think it was… well, it was bloody hard work! It was not a decision to be taken lightly. It was a decision that we arrived at absolutely on the merits. There was no political pressure, despite what many accused us of. Our initial decision was the same as the ESRB in the US, so there was some changes made to the game by Rockstar, which the ESRB accepted but we still thought the changes hadn’t gone quite far enough. So that was the version that then went to appeal at our independent judicial appeals tribunal [the Video Appeals Committee] where there was a 4:3 decision in Rockstar’s favour.
The main reason we then questioned this decision and took the case to appeal at the High Court was that we had very strong legal advice that the VAC had applied the wrong interpretation of ‘the harm test’ and in particular they had accepted an argument that the BBFC had to prove ‘devastating effect’ and we said this was wrong in law. So we needed to challenge their decision, not just because of the Manhunt 2 case, but because it would have been relevant to absolutely everything we do – games, films, DVDs, the lot. The VAC had also said that we had to show ‘actual harm’ and the judge corrected this and said that the correct test is to show ‘any hard which may be caused’ – so we are talking about the possibility of harm (rather than some kind of probability) and we are talking about ‘potential harm’ and not ‘actual harm’. He did also say that it had to be ‘real harm’ and not ‘fanciful harm’ so we have now got a very clear definition of the harm test which we are completely happy with.
So we won in the High Court and the judge said the VAC had applied the wrong harm test and that they must apply the correct one. So they did it again and it came out 4:3 again, so we lost. And at that point our lawyers were telling us we had no basis for challenging it any further.
So, we’re disappointed because we had spent ages examining Manhunt 2 and we felt that we had a greater familiarity with the game than the Video Appeals Committee.
I have to be very clear that we absolutely do not like anything that interferes with an adult’s ability to choose what films they see or what games and DVDs they buy. We only apply this power on the very rare occasions where we feel that the harm risk means that we have to do it.
So that was the saga! At the end of the day you have to do what you think is the right thing to do on the merits and you have to accept the decision that an independent judicial tribunal produces.
Some talk about it as a debacle or catastrophe for the BBFC, which is absolute rubbish. We often have cases that go to the VAC, as we occasionally reject DVDs as well – so maybe once every two or three years a case will go to the VAC. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but that’s what it means to have an independent judicial appeals system. It doesn’t mean that every time you lose it’s a catastrophe!
TechRadar: A lot of the response from gamers was this feeling that games were not being treated by the BFBC in the same way as movies and DVDs.
David Cooke: Yes, the film/game comparison is very tricky, because you can fish out Hostel and SAW films and so on and say ‘are these worse than Manhunt 2?’
But you have to have a look at the total package and what we were saying was that there is a kind of focus on killing and on exploring the kills in Manhunt 2 that is of a totally different magnitude to those films I just mentioned. It offers almost infinite scope to explore the killing – so this is what we identified as the difference, this dominant focus on killing and on exploring the killing.
TechRadar: Do you think Rockstar milked the controversy a little for some extra positive PR for the game?
David Cooke: Well, people say these things of course. But when dealing with the actual people who make the games at Rockstar I’ve found them very reasonable to deal with, we have good relationships with them, they were very professional through the whole long saga of the appeal. I’m not sure myself that it is right that they were ‘milking the publicity’ but who knows?