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Vendors to be legally bound to think of the children

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Digital Britain The Government has abandoned its hybrid approach to age-rating computer games in favour of a single system. One method will now be used to rate all games in the UK and a new law will give regulators statutory power over game rating.

Computer games are currently only controlled by legally-enforceable ratings if they contain grossly violent or sexual content. The Government has said that it will introduce new legislation to extend the law to all ratings.

It will do this by giving new legal powers to the Video Standards Council (VSC) to operate classification for all games based on the PEGI (Pan European Game Information) system. PEGI has the backing of industry group the European Leisure Software Publishers' Association (ELSPA).

Currently games can carry ratings produced either by PEGI or by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).

Just last year the Government said that it wanted to create a unified hybrid regime. Under that proposal, games would be classified by a hybrid of PEGI ratings for games for children and BBFC ratings for games for people aged 12 or over.

It has now abandoned that hybrid approach in favour of all-PEGI ratings with strengthened legal backing. In its Digital Britain report, the Government said that the new system will use the force of the law for the first time in protecting children from inappropriate content.

"[The new system] will offer improved protection for children including, for the first time, making it illegal to sell games suitable for 12 and older to underage children," said the report.

The Government's consultation was prompted by a report by child psychologist Dr Tanya Byron on the safety of children in relation to digital media. Though the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said in its consultation document last August that Byron preferred its hybrid system, she has now backed the single, PEGI system.

"In my review to Government I identified the need to improve the video games classification system," she said. "I identified some fundamental criteria including making games suitable for 12-year-olds and above subject to statutory control."

"I also said the system had to have child safety at its heart and have the ability to adapt to future challenges. All these criteria are important for ensuring that parents have the tools they need to make informed choices and keep their children safe," she said. "The PEGI system has been strengthened since my review and the Government has consulted widely on each of my suggested criteria. I support the Government’s decision to combine the PEGI system with UK statutory oversight."

The law currently governing ratings is the Video Recordings Act of 1984. "Introducing a new system of classification and increasing the statutory role of the VSC will require primary legislation," said a DCMS statement. "When fully established, the VSC will commission research into UK sensibilities and be able to offer the public reassurance that their views have been taken into account within the wider guidelines."

The Digital Britain report can be read here (pdf), and supporting documents from the DCMS are available here.

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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