Are age ratings for video games "legally binding"? Come find out
Brief piece today!
Someone recently asked me whether the age ratings given to video games are legally binding. While the answer may not be surprising, there are some interesting, and occasionally funny, intricacies throughout the relevant law.
I guess this person had in mind the group of schools in Cheshire which said in a letter that it was going to report parents who let their children play violent or 'sexualised' video games to the police because they were 'neglecting' their children.
Which games are apparently corrupting our children's minds you ask? Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and, Dogs of War? The same Dogs of War that's a deeply tactical, hex-based, PC game, inspired by the 2000 board game, Confrontation? Potentially some confusion here with Gears of War (which demonstrates a complete lack of even basic Googling prior to writing this letter), or there are a lot of retro-inspired mini-gamers in Cheshire.
Anyway, legal stuff!
First thing's first – there's no specific law that prevents parents from letting their kids play violent or sexualised video games. The Cheshire school body knows this, which is why they said they would report to the police on grounds of 'neglect'.
Whether or not allowing your 12 year old to play GTA is neglect is a separate issue, and definitely not one I'll be discussing here. But what about the people who sell the games – are the age ratings legally binding on them?
Which classification system applies to video games in the UK?
Previously, the UK used a combination of PEGI (Pan-European Games Information) ratings and BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) classifications. Now however, only the PEGI system is used (unless the game is rated R18 – pornographic, in which case the BBFC is still involved).
Does a game have to have a rating?
In the past, it wasn't mandatory to have a PEGI rating on your game and it was up to the developer's discretion. But in July 2012 it became the Video Standard Council's (VSC – operating under the name GRA – Games Rating Authority) legal responsibility to rate games.
Also, under sections 9-10 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 (which has been updated by the Digital Economy Act 2010) it is a crime to possess or supply a video game which has not been awarded a PEGI classification, unless it is an ‘exempted’ game.
What's an 'exempted' game? It's quite hilariously specific actually and very detailed - if you're not interested in the legal stuff, skip this next section.
Relevant clauses are 2, 2(2) and 2A of the 1984 Act – the text below is my paraphrasing of the Act.
A game will be exempted if:
The Act also states that a game will not be exempt if it depicts, to any significant extent:
So if you want to sell your game, it needs to be classified by the VSC. The exact operation of the VSC/GRA is a bit confusing, [edit (30/04/2015): but the kind folks over at the GRA have provided an explanation of how they operate in the comments section below]. There's also a really helpful outline of the process here.
Are these ratings simply suggestions, or are they legally enforceable?
In the UK, section 11 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 makes it an offence for someone to supply a game to someone under the age specified on the box, unless the game is 'exempted' (see above).
So basically, yes it's a crime to sell a game to someone in breach of the PEGI age classification on the box, punishable by imprisonment (up to 6 months) and/or a fine.
Yes, seriously. However, there are some defences to this offence (found in section 11(2)), one being that the person who sold the game didn't know and had no reasonable grounds to believe the person was under age (reasonable grounds probably interpreted according to common sense – i.e. did they look under 18).
Well there we have it – quite a simple answer to the question. But it's good to take the scenic, legal route through the issues sometimes, isn't it?
Header Photo: (c) owned by Square Enix - thanks for making Vivi so awesome!