Yesterday I spoke with British Board of Film Classification examiner Jim Cliff at the BBFC stall at Games Market Europe. I asked Jim some questions on the subject of how games are rated, the Hot Coffee scandal and the 18 rating. Here's a transcription of the interview.
Joystiq: First of all, what is the BBFC's attitude to user added game content with
regard to the rating of games in terms of mods?
BBFC: Well, it doesn't really come under what we do which is rating games under the video games recording act, which specifies that the physical supplier's work is classified. There has to be a transaction taking place between one person and the game creators. Otherwise we can't cover the classification.
Joystiq: With regard to the Hot Coffee mod, am I right in saying that the BBFC did not increase the
rating despite the widespread condemnation of the content in America?
BBFC: Yes, we did not increase the rating beyond 18. The situation is that if that happens in the original game then we will take it into account in our rating, but if it's added later then there's really nothing we can do about it. [Clarification: The BBFC didn't increase the rating due to the content already being covered by the BBFC's 18 rating.]
Joystiq: What would your advice be to the US based games classifications board, in particular the ESRB when addressing sexual content in games?
BBFC: We have different ways of rating lots of things in comparison with lots of countries, for instance in France the film American Beauty recieved the equivalent of a Universal rating whereas in the UK we rated the film 18. We deal with media in different ways because our society is different. And in America, consumers have a reaction to content that we don't have here. A lot of the British that saw [The Hot Coffee] episode said "It's not that big a deal, it's not that explicit".
Joystiq: When the BBFC gets a high profile game to classify, say the GTA series for example, does the BBFC give any special treatment to the game? How does the BBFC go about rating games?
BBFC: First of all it's given to two examiners, who will play through as much of the game as they reasonably can. We get cheat codes, god mode, walkthroughs, save games so we can see as much of the content as we possibly can. We have guidelines that guide us through rating the game, which help us determine what classifcation the game should be in terms of how much sex, violence, language and drugs and horror is contained in the game. We try and get a feel for the game and what the experience is and whether it's an active experience or not.
Joystiq: The Adults Only rating is the equivalent of a ban in the US, since many stores do not sell games with those ratings. Do you think it's possible that rating games 18 or higher can have the effect of making games even more desirable than they would without such a high rating?
BBFC: Yes, the Adults Only rating is not carried by many stores in America, but here in the UK, the 18 for some perhaps, denotes a more exciting and challenging game and it can be a badge of honor, in a way, for some games. It's possible that some game developers aim for the 18 rating because it can sometimes help with marketing the game.
Joystiq: Have any games in the UK been given the equivalent of an Adult Only rating in the UK (effectively a ban)?
BBFC: Certainly not in the last twenty years, or perhaps within the range of twenty years. Carmageddon was an example of a game being cut, I believe the game initially featured the killing of humans with red blood being shown on screen, but the developers changed the humans into zombies and the colour of the blood to green. So that was one example of external pressure causing game developers to alter their content. I also believe there was a game called Harvester, way back in the 80s, which was withdrawn.
Joystiq: You said earlier that the 18 rating could be seen as a badge of honor for games, do you think that might attract the younger audience which would still have access to the game through apathetic parents? How does the BBFC deal with younger children getting access to games rated above their age?
BBFC: Well first of all I think that it's not just games that attract a younger audience through violence and taboo subjects. If you put a high rating on anything, it will have the double effect of putting some people off and also making people thinking that looks quite interesting. So, there's little we can do about that except try and educate parents that although it's a game, it's not for kids. I think there's a large problem with the fact that a lot of parents haven't grown up with games so they don't understand that the average gamer's age is 30 and that's who [an 18 rated game] is being marketed to. So, yes I think education of parents is what's needed, and they shouldn't buy GTA for their 8 year old. [laughter]
Joystiq: In America, politicians are trying to get some legislation through that will give courts the ability to fine game retailers up to $1000 for selling games to children that are classified above their age. The UK has already imposed such legislation, so what is your view of the games retailers being held responsible for selling games to minors?
BBFC: Retailers, in the main, have been very good about it. Certainly they've been trying hard to not sell such games to minors. But a lot of big game retailers also sell videos. They already understand the system, so they understand the consequences of selling 18 rated games to minors. So I don't think there's a major problem there.
I'd like to thank Jim Cliff and the BBFC for their time in talking to me for Joystiq.