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Violence for children: The failure of games age ratings

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Winning the playground

CVG's investigation into age ratings, published across these pages, exposes considerable failings in curbing the extent in which young people play mature-rated content. Particularly at retail, there are glaring loopholes.

Yet there is one statistic that the UK games industry falls back on whenever violent game content is discussed: It is said that a tiny five per cent of all games purchased are 18-rated.

The claim was popularised in 2008 upon the publication of Dr Tanya Byron's government commissioned review. Since then, it has been routinely thrown up by the games industry when violent games are scrutinised. Indeed, CVG was again given the number on several occasions during its investigation.

But from reading official GFK Chart-Track data, CVG can reveal that about a fifth of all games sold at retail in 2011 were rated 18. That is more than three times the rate in 2007. The graph below demonstrates the significant increase in mature-rated game sales in the UK across the past five years, and a slight increase in overall releases.

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Where does the oft-quoted five per cent figure come from? CVG was told by Livingstone that the number is reached when all App Store games are factored in. But the source of the original statistic - the Entertainment Retailers Association - said that was not the case, though it did not explain how it calculated its figure.

The graph above is not intended to suggest that the increase in adult games sales is inherently objectionable. Video games, as with any mature and culturally relevant entertainment medium, provide a broad church of content that can appeal to different people and tastes. It is a sector which empowers its creators with freedom to portray stories and express themselves however they wish.

The purpose of publishing this new data is to question whether the games industry should still brand mature content as a negligible issue.

ESA: "Information gained [on under age gaming] would be questionable at best and wouldn't justify the time and expense".

In July, CVG asked Jo Twist, the chief executive of UKIE, whether the trade association should examine how many people play 18-rated games under-age. She replied: "I think we'd rather focus on the whole landscape of games. 18-rated games are a small part of all games released in the year."

In September, CVG put the same question to Dan Hewitt of the equivalent North America trade association, the ESA. He said the group will not look into the matter "because of the numerous variables involved with obtaining that data and the necessary costs, the information gained would be questionable at best and wouldn't justify the time and expense".

The ESA says on its website that a third of US gamers are under the age of 18.

Considering the lack of publicly available data, CVG requested information from numerous triple-A games studios, and most were unwilling to discuss the matter openly. Many said there is no way to determine the data accurately, others said the issue was too sensitive. One developer at a key Ubisoft studio said he was ready to offer "player age statistics" - allegedly put together by a major European retailer - but he eventually declined for what was described as "legal reasons".

A former Activision publishing employee said that, even internally, the matter is rarely discussed.

"Everyone knows kids are playing Call of Duty"

"It's unspoken. Everyone knows that kids are playing it [Call of Duty]. The people at Activision I worked with, senior people, would only make off-hand references to it. It's not something that's on the meeting agenda."

The person revealed his own theory on why the matter was rarely discussed at Activision: "If you're producing a piece of content, as soon as you publish research on who's playing that product, you are highlighting the fact that you are aware that this is happening," he said.

"That's a position that's really dangerous."

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Avalanche Studios founder Christofer Sundberg believes that half his audience are under-age gamers

Meanwhile, two other development sources each provided their estimates on how prevalent under-age gaming has become. Again, the numbers could not be verified, despite the fact that both had arrived at roughly the same figure.

A former senior EA development executive said that, for one particular Battlefield game, "maybe 50 per cent of players were under age".

The person went on to claim: "The 'official' demographic data we got at EA was totally unrepresentative, because many young players are lying on their registration forms."

Also providing information was Christofer Sundberg, the founder of Just Cause 2 studio Avalanche, and a father of three. He said it is very difficult to amass any accurate statistics.

"We gather quite a lot of metrics from our players, but I've never seen any metrics about the age of our players," he said.

"Many game accounts are created by parents with a credit card and used by their kids. I am quite confident that at least half of our players are in the group under the age rating."

While there is a significant lack of official data, a general impression can be provided by Facebook. Most major games usually have a Facebook fan page, and some of these offer public data on the average age-range of a game's fan base.

The results, though speculative, suggest that the most popular fan demographics of Modern Warfare 3, Assassin's Creed 3 and Gears of War 3 are all in the 13-17 years bracket.

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Such statistics may not surprise everyone. CVG recently contacted its followers on Twitter (those that were under 18) to discuss the matter openly. Their anecdotal views, published across this article, are not assumed to be as useful as empirical evidence, but instead helpful reference-points considering the lack of industry information.

The most obvious result was that all of the survey respondents were happy to discuss the numerous ways, and ease, in which they play adult-rated games. Aylsa, a 17 year-old student from Newcastle and proud new owner of Borderlands 2 (18), says the issue is "much more common than people realise".

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