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22 September 1999

The rating game

Fenno Outen reports on a discussion held by BAFTA on Tuesday 14 September 1999

Welcome to the scary world of computer games. This fascinating discussion, one of many BAFTA Interactive events, provided a revealing insight into the fearful minds of both the regulators and, more surprisingly, the producers of today's cutting-edge computer entertainment.

The discussion opened with a presentation by Nathan Karim, an examiner at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), focusing mainly on the problems of regulation and censorship of modern cultural products. Karim is clearly one of the new breed of politically correct censors. Not for him the denunciation of any genre of film, video or game as 'depraved' or 'likely to corrupt', nor the indiscriminate use of bans. His approach is far more respectful: 'an individual's culture is important to them.' For Karim, and the new censors, the problem is to 'access other people's culture'. In other words, he attempts to see a work as its intended audience would see it, and incorporates this perception into his ratings.

Of course, this sensitivity to the audience can cut both ways. It only takes a few irate parents to complain about Starship Troopers' 15 certificate at the cinema to frighten the BBFC into certificating the video release at 18. Nonetheless, of all the various clips of sex or violence shown and discussed, only a compilation of CCTV-captured deaths and accidents and the computer game Carmaggeddon were banned outright - and the latter was later cleared on appeal. Indeed, the trajectory of Karim's presentation began to suggest that attempts at censorship were almost entirely futile. However long he might spend 'accessing other people's culture' there was no way he could account for people who masturbate to the Teletubbies. Scary.

Extending this logic to computer games, it was clear that from the censor's point of view things become even more terrifying. Because of the interactivity of these games, it was argued, it is impossible to reproduce the audience's experience. Describing an endearing image of middle-aged examiners, equipped with cheat codes and infinite lives, struggling to classify games designed for people half their age, one got the impression that Karim and his fellow examiners were not far from throwing in the towel altogether. He admitted as much when he suggested that it was impossible to hold back the tide of popular culture, and that if, at some future date, we discover that computer games really are harmful to children then 'we will just have to live with it'.

Yet frightened as they appear to be by the difficulty of the censorship task, today's regulators are even more afraid that just maybe a danger is lurking somewhere in an undiscovered dark level of the latest software release. They are joined in this fear by the software producers who, despite their certainty that there is 'no evidence of harm' caused by computer games, have in direct contradiction introduced a voluntary rating scheme administered by the European Leisure Software Publishers Association - presumably 'just in case'. With some satisfaction, Roger Bennett, Director General of ELSPA, described how this voluntary scheme had been made mandatory by some multiple retailers - presumably also ''just in case'. At least Peter Molyneux, creator of some of the world's biggest computer games, felt able to say that he paid the regulations no heed during the design process. But then he blew it all with the revelation that Jurassic Park was too scary to be certificated PG.

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