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Violence for children: The failure of games age ratings

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The industry should be "100% proud" of the way it targets the appropriate age groups, says an EA insider

Blame games

Given how fashionable adult games are within younger demographics, it begs the question of whether marketing and publishing groups share some responsibility for cultivating school-ground crazes.

But one former Electronic Arts marketing executive, who did not wish to be named, said publishers will advertise and help certify their games in a wholly responsible and ethical manner.

"There's this general wisdom that publishers want their games to get as low an age rating as possible, so they can sell it to as many people as possible, but that's simply not true," he said.

"Age ratings are more misunderstood and complicated than that. Every game has a marketing budget, and what you try to do is be as efficient as possible with that budget. If you start pitching to an under-age or an over-age audience you begin to lose efficiency.

"Let's not forget, marketing results in higher sales. If you can't market your game properly to the right audience, it's not going to sell as well as it should."

The former EA employee explained that not only would it be morally negligent to try to artificially lower age ratings, but it could also affect the company's bottom-line.

"I know it looks like you're widening your demographic by going for as low an age rating as possible, but you're not," he claimed.

"What you're actually doing is risking lost sales. For your target market of a teen game, showing them a game with a 3+ rating might suddenly make it less credible to them.

"The industry can get everything right, but if age ratings are not enforced at point-of-purchase, then everything is screwed."

"Now clearly, if you are trying to make a game for twelve year-olds and it ends up being rated 18, that's a massive problem. Likewise, having it rated 3+ is also a marketing issue. But I've never heard of any publisher try to get an age rating down artificially. You would eventually be caught out if you did."

Though he was "absolutely 100 per cent proud" of the way the publishing industry adheres to age ratings, he said the whole enterprise "cannot be perfectly efficient".

"The whole publishing and development industries want a ratings system that works. We do everything that's possible. The problem is that, after taking so much care when it comes to certification and marketing, the whole thing goes out the window as soon as a retailer sells a game to people under age.

"The industry can get everything right, but if age ratings are not enforced at point-of-purchase, then everything is screwed."


The tangled Web

Zoom

As part of CVG's investigation into age rating laws, a gamer under the age of 18 (given the name "Gavin") was invited in to the newsroom to purchase several adult-rated games online by using his own debit card. Gavin's card is, of course, fixed with his personal details such as date of birth.

Just by using a debit card, Gavin was able to purchase Manhunt 2 - previously banned in the UK for its violent content - from Amazon, as well as Kane and Lynch from HMV's online store, along with MadWorld from Zavvi.

Footage of the results can be found below.

(The games were mailed direct to CVG and confiscated)

CVG contacted the Department for Culture to clarify whether this constituted a criminal offence in the UK. Though the government department did not comment specifically on this case, its statement read:

"Section 11 of the Video Recordings Act creates an offence of supplying a video recording [such as a game] in breach of the age restriction on the classification certificate to a person who has not attained the age specified.

"You would normally expect the individual shop owner or a store manager to be first in line for prosecution. It would be up to the prosecuting authorities [Trading Standards] to take a view as to who should be prosecuted depending on the facts and circumstances of the case."

UKIE chief executive Jo Twist also referred the matter to Trading Standards.

"We can't comment on specific retailer practices. What we can say is that it is the Trading Standards' responsibility to enforce how retailers safeguard and check how people buy products," she said.

After being briefed on the matter, Paul Miloseski-Reid, a principal Trading Standards officer, supplied CVG with a damning report of online retail practices. The document condemns the lack of precautions that internet retailers take to safeguard minors, as well as the apparent culture of negligence with regards to age ratings law.

Trading Standards: "Should a minor buy games from these websites... the businesses would not have a due diligence defence to protect them from prosecution"

Miloseski-Reid said he also checked the website of GAME and was "disappointed to find that it does not appear to verify the age of purchasers".

"I managed to get as far as the payment screen on Game.co.uk to order the 18-rated game Borderlands 2 to merely be presented with a 'please select your age' drop down. GAME accepts payment by debit card, which is available to children as young as 13."

His conclusion was that such loopholes are not legal.

"Should a minor make a purchase from these sites, the businesses would not have a due diligence defence to protect them from prosecution," he said.

HMV, Zavvi and Amazon each declined to comment.

A statement from GAME reads:

"Our website requires all customers purchasing age restricted items to confirm their age in order to complete the purchase, thus complying with guidelines. Age-restricted products are clearly labelled throughout the site.

"In line with the PEGI system, all store staff have been trained to request ID for all purchases on games rated 12, 16 or 18 where there is doubt of a customer's age. We require 100 per cent compliance from store teams and run refresher PEGI training for all store staff every three months.

"As the leading videogames retailer in the UK, we take our responsibility very seriously doing everything we can to advise parents on the suitability of games and ensure they are aware of the age ratings, in order to make an informed decision about what is suitable for their child."

Zoom
Mail-order purchses now account for a third of all boxed game sales, CVG can reveal

Mail-order shopping has become a significantly prosperous business segment for the games industry. The Entertainment Retailers Association has revealed to CVG that 28 per cent of all boxed games were sold through home delivery sites, such as Amazon, in the UK last year.

Kim Bayley at the ERA added: "There are obviously other issues with things like pre-paid cards, which have no age restrictions on them, as well as gift cards. If a minor is given a gift certificate as a present, there are no checks on their age or identity".

The ease in which young people can purchase even the most controversial 18-rated games online was expressed with indifference by CVG's questionnaire respondents. The gamers' collective responses depict a sub-culture of consumers who readily buy games online with little resistance.

Aylsa, 17, from Newcastle:

"It's impossible to buy 18 rated games as I'm always ID'd. However since there's no restrictions on buying 18-rated games online, then it's pretty simple for me to use a debit card connected to my accounts to buy games from online stores, Amazon being most common. It's pretty much the same with everyone else at my college."

Ryan, 16, Welwyn Garden City:

"...online is extremely easy as there's no age identification, all I have to do is set my age to 21 and I'm sorted. In stores however is a lot harder due to almost everywhere requiring identification for a purchase."

Tom Rowbotham, 15, Aberdeen:

"While it's getting more difficult to buy 18 games on the high street, Amazon and Steam have made it far easier to buy 18 games, as there are no age checks. With Steam you have to fiddle around with putting in your date of birth, but it uses PayPal, so I can buy things without anyone noticing."

Adam Allcroft, 17, Sheffield:

"It's easy to get 18-rated games. Just fake your age on online websites and you've got them. On places such as Amazon and Play.com you only have to edit your personal information. No problem whatsoever. No checks either."

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