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That was the news – Week 6, 2008: Are Brown and Byron really charting a collision course with the UK games industry?

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Image credit: VG247

One story emerged last week that is to dominate the British games industry for months, and possibly years, to come. Tanya Byron, ex-TV psychologist and compiler of a report commissioned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to look into the affects of videogames on the young and make recommendations as to future regulation, is to deliver her findings next month. Inevitably, the press decided to deliver some of them first.

The bedroom menace

A Guardian cover story on Saturday confirmed a Thursday speculation report from MCV that Brown’s government is expected to use Byron’s review as leverage for a “clampdown” on the UK games industry.

In short, the Byron Report is expected to suggest that a new ratings system is built specifically for games, and that it’s legally enforced. Currently, only games that show “gross” violence towards humans or animals are pushed up to the BBFC for rating. It should be made illegal, the report will say, to sell games to underage consumers.

It’s also thought that parents will be advised to keep games consoles and computers (the report has also researched the damaging effects of unrestricted internet use among the young) out of children’s bedrooms and to only allow them to play games and surf the web in living room and kitchen areas where screens are clearly visible.

There’s bound to be more, but this is the thrust as we know so far: we’re going to get a new, compulsory ratings system for UK games and parents are to be told to be mindful of the games and websites they allow their children to access.

What it means

The major recommendation is, and was always going to be, the formation of a legally abiding ratings system, to either replace or supplement the currently favoured, and voluntary, European PEGI rating. Many had thought that games ratings would eventually fall under the BBFC’s remit – an assumption accompanied by much rolling of eyes – but the Guardian piece said a “new” system is to be created. If this is true, then it would mean Byron and the government have correctly concluded that games are very different from films and need to be age-assessed by a dedicated board. This is a good thing.

The report’s other major piece of guidance, as we understand it, may mean we’re in for a rocky ride in the press over the next few months. Keeping games out of bedrooms and asking parents to monitor digital media use is tailor-made for the tabloids and prime real estate for some good old fashioned Labour rhetoric. “We’re saving the kids,” we’ll probably hear. As with all hot air aimed at parents by politicians, it’ll fall on leathery ears: no responsible parent allows their children to consume any media meant for adults, or needs to be told that an image of a person shooting another person isn’t appropriate for a five year-old.

Should we be worried?

In a word, no.

First and foremost, a legal ratings system for videogames was always going to come, and is sorely needed. The driving factor behind all those headlines about “killer games” is based on “outrage” that this content is legally available to children. There can be no argument that there are some extremely violent videogames on the market, the most popular to bash being Rockstar’s infamous Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt franchises. If these games are properly rated by a board both the industry and consumers can trust – and that board isn’t the BBFC in light of the Manhunt 2 banning farce – and people can be charged for selling them to minors, then the press can have no problem with adult gaming content. The situation will have been dealt with on a political level, it’ll be the end of the stupid tabloid headlines, and we can all live happily ever after.

The spin side of the report is more worrying, but in the long-term it’s a “storm in a teacup”, as one retailer put it to VG247 last week. “Of course they’re going to try to make themselves look good,” he said. “They’re politicians.”

Not everyone, however, is convinced.

“What do you do when you need to explain a decade of failed school policies?” asked one industry commentator. “Own up, or blame games? What’s to blame for violent crime among the young? A useless police force or videogames? That report’s going to be a whitewash. They’ve got no money to spend because of the global situation and ludicrous levels of expenditure since Blair came to power, so instead they’re going to ‘save the kids’ by putting all society’s ills at gaming’s door.”

There is a point here. A genuine danger of global recession looms large. UK house prices have stuttered, and the needles really are starting to fall off Labour’s evergreen platform of economic stability. It would be ridiculous to say that this government has ever put social policy at the top of its agenda – remember that Labour doesn’t seem to have too much of a problem bombing Mid-Eastern countries back to the Stone Age and closing down hospitals faster than nurses can say “maternity ward” – so is this sudden interest in the videogames industry more than a coincidence?

Possibly. The real question is whether or not it even matters. Even if Labour is trying to scapegoat games for school stabbings and a stressed education system, it’ll soon move on to something else. Of course games aren’t the real problem, and if Labour tried to suggest all young British society’s issues can be cured by moving TVs into the kitchen there would be a storm of ridicule. In all likelihood, we’re going to hear that too much exposure to violent games is bad for the young, and Labour’s done something about it. And that’ll be that.

There are caveats. There may be a short-term sales impact to the younger end of the market if the press really goes to town and parents are scared off buying games for children en bloc. Also, the Guardian report may be incorrect: legal ratings may be handed over to the BBFC and there may be damaging elements to the research we haven’t seen yet. But, as the Guardian said in its piece, “Ministers are anxious to strike a balance between the entertainment, knowledge and pleasure children gain from highly profitable internet and computer games, as well as the dangers inherent in the unregulated world of the net and its overuse by children.”

If social policy isn’t at the top of Labour’s agenda, “money” most certainly is. All said, it’s extremely unlikely the long-term growth of the British games sales is going to be negatively impacted by anything Tanya Byron has to say.

Now what?

The UK games trade should be looking forward to welcoming the Byron Report with an open mind. This is the long-awaited opportunity for gaming to come out of the closet, as it were, and grow up. What we’re seeing is society accepting games wholesale, with proper regulation and proper attempts at understanding what games are and how they affect people. All being well, we’re going to see legislation that will hopefully stand the test of time and mean game-makers can legitimately support the adult audiences they want to support without affecting minors.

The situation with gaming rating law in the UK this year is directly comparable to the “video nasty” uproar of the 80s. Legislators suddenly found themselves in a situation where very violent visual material could easily get into the hands of children at home. The press seized the day, films like Evil Dead and Driller Killer were turned into notorious classics, the video industry was properly regulated and now the film business enjoys an sensibly open environment where movies like this year’s Eastern Promises and recent “torture porn” series such as Hostel and Saw get made and are available to the people that want to see them. This is a mark of a medium’s maturity and society’s willingness to accept it.

The Byron Report means videogames have truly arrived. Just remember that “storm in a teacup” quote when it’s released next month.

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