Pegi becomes law in UK: a decisive turn
On Monday 30, PEGI turned into law in the UK. Everybody seems happy with that. It was a tough battle between BBFC and PEGI, with the help of the VSC and UK-IE.
Symbolically this shift is interesting as the first game to be submitted for a rating was Night trap, in 1993, the BBFC was on it. At this time, SEGA was anticipating US Congress hearings, and was working on its own game labeling system. It was also a decisive time for the videogame industry. The multimedia perspectives were hot... The CD-Rom was told to be the future of videogames and interactive movies with the full motion movie game based genre. It had not been. With Mortal Kombat and its digitalized actors, photorealism became a major issue.
Back to 1992: Night trap, the future of videogames.
So when the debates on videogames violence entered the US Congress in 1993, the main theme was graphics realism. Videogames were framed as (interactive) movies. To be adopted by authorities, the industrial created the ESRB on the basis of the MPAA label design (and FDA principles). In France and later in Europe the CSA's TV regulation was the dominant design. In the UK, the BBFC would regulate games, even if the VSC was part of the PEGI regulation (with the nicam for 3+ and 7+ games).
Standard design is a cultural enterprise and strategic issue
From a public policy analysis, this framing leads to the logics of institutional isomorphism. To understand why games are regulated on the basis of movies, it is important to understand that the way you cognitively define games is decisive.
So the industry standards anticipated authorities’ decision and submitted an isomorphic device. The idea was: as ESRB looks like MPAA ratings (that were adopted), so it would be good ones. For industrials (i.e. publishers and platform owners) It was a way to keep public action away from games and avoid content administration (we almost had it France in 1999) and market limitation by authorities.
In order to prevent it, the ESRB or the PEGI established a labeling system really drastic. As a mass communication device, it had to deal with different sensibilities, especially in Europe. How to propose a label that would be efficient in different cultural spaces? By taking into account every possible objections and make the "particular" and the "local" the global/european norm. One culture cannot deal with drugs? +18 for all games with it, in all countries. Another cannot stand violence? The age category threshold should be increased.
As long as it is to prevent public action, high level restrictions are strategically goods, especially when there is no law enforcement. But once self regulation standards become law, the threshold should be lowered and adapted to local space (i.e. national market) and aligned to other mediums (movies, music, TV) legally framed.
So 19 years later, the BBFC abandons the videogames regulation to the PEGI. The European market (but Germany) is run by a single system. Someone believes that the debates on violence would end with it. But the Aurora shooting shows that ratings are not efficient against moral panics and causal stories involving entertainment. At least it allows new laws productions but cannot avoid opinion polarization.
As it becomes law, what is institutionalized is the cognitive framing of videogames as movies AND a really drastic labeling system. Or games are not only images, they are actions and fictions. And authorities and associations have diificulties to deal with that.
The player is also a machinic operator. We play with algorithms (gameplay) and object oriented data bases (the signs) through human machine interface (the pad or joystick). Also a gamer will be in a fictional world, a kind of simulation taking roots not on realistic datas, but on author imagination. The way this playful fiction is expressed is through classical mediums (images, sounds) but also interaction.
So, an institutional label that mainly deals with the visual nature of videogames can politically be sufficient and efficient for autorities. But, the consequences are larger.
Because of the “graphic fascination” (developers and editors looking for more realistic engines and marketing it as the must have videogames – it is a long process of videogames taste education since the early 90s), AAA action games will no longer be available for the main market: the teenager. And without this core market target, the industry will have to invent other ways and will have to rethink the industrial process of creating games.
If that should be benefic for some indie game designers, I think it will strengthen the actual crisis on creativity and mass production. The whole paradigm of violence and what it involves (the aesthetics of videogames interaction) will be no longer bankable. Moreover an action game taken from animated pictures should not be over-classified because of the interactive nature of games. Why an interactive drama, like heavy rain", should not be suitable for teenagers. That's a non sense when you have a look at what is allowed on screen. Without a real discussion on interaction, the regulation devices will not be in real adequacy with games nature, with all the industrial risks.
And as PEGI becomes law, it means that as for other restricted products, the grandma should go to jail if she buys Call of duty for his 17 years old grandson. Yes, parent responsibility is important, but there is a difference between moral and cultural responsibility and penal responsibility. This is the main fail of the ESRB or PEGI system: the communication for the mass audience of non gamers is weak (yep there are campaign and partnership with familialist association), but the budget will be raised as it will become a public good obligation. This communication should really start with a digital education with a focus on interaction.
To conclude, this move is very important for the next big one: the regulation of games on non-historically gaming platform and distributed through the net. Google and Apple have their own system, and the ESRB / PEGI cannot administrate it (they tried). Or the Iphone is one of the main gaming platforms. Facebook games are implicitly regulated by facebook (and because FB is officially not open to child under 13 the regulation issue is less urgent).
Ok, actually there is no real problem with those games. But as the technology is moving quickly and offers more powerful devices, the same issue of violence will come back (+ addiction). And the farm-like game losing their attraction, news genres will appear. So, having the PEGI turned into law is a very good move for ISFE as it will make them a natural interlocutor with authorities if there is a need for regulation of this new gaming platform. The issue will be more important with the cloud gaming and connected TV.
But the most difficult issue is the relative deterritorialization of the games (we had the same issues with second life and porn content in France): who will administrate it and how? Will platform owners do politics? They are on their own from a long time (you don’t read Eula?).