But it's only a game...

The BBFC says a new video game is too violent. The rest of the world disagrees.
Successful UK software publisher SCi is squaring up to the British Board of Film Classification for what could be an important test case for video-games censorship. The BBFC has been stonewalling SCi over the certification of its latest PC title, Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now. SCi is taking legal action to force a decision on the game, a demo of which has now been with the BBFC for almost three months.

Carmageddon 2 is a driving game with a difference - the player is encouraged to mow down hapless pedestrians and ram opponents off the road. It is undeniably violent, but the violence is of the tongue-in-cheek variety that can trace its lineage back to the Acme explosives and falling pianos of Fifties cartoons. With its heavy- metal soundtrack and pneumatic female characters, the game is adolescence encapsulated, which begs the question: why has it been taken so seriously by adults?

The BBFC's objection to Carmageddon 2 is that it may cause "damage" to children exposed to the game. It claims the latest reason for the certifying delay is that it wants to put the demo to a panel of "child psychologists" to determine the extent of such "damage".

Jane Cavanagh, chief executive of SCi, described this decision as "ludicrous": "We're requesting an 18 certificate, which means this version is designed for adults. The original has sold 600,000 copies throughout the world. Nobody has been `damaged'. On the contrary, we've received sackloads of letters saying how much everyone loves the game and how entertaining it is."

SCi experienced similar problems last year with the first Carmageddon. The BBFC refused to issue a certificate, thus "banning" the sale of the game in the UK. SCi appealed against the decision under Article 10a of the European Convention of Human Rights and successfully overturned the "ban", the BBFC instructed to grant an 18 certificate.

"This repeat performance of last year's delaying tactics can only be a result of severe `sour grapes' at the BBFC for losing the appeal last year," Cavanagh said. "Why don't they just accept they made a mistake and move on?"

The repeated delays have forced SCi to release a version of the game with green blood and zombies rather than red-blooded pedestrians. This has been given a 15 rating by the European Leisure and Software Publishers Association (Elspa), the game industry's self-regulatory body, which is supervised by the Video Standards Council. Interviewed in industry journal, CTW, Roger Bennett, general secretary of Elspa, blasted the BBFC as being "patently inefficient" and "very difficult to communicate with". Bennett thinks that game regulation should be dealt with entirely by the Video Standards Council.

"We believe that the VSC have been have been extraordinarily successful at rating the 94 per cent of games published since 1994. There has been just one complaint in that time. Given our stated beliefs about the BBFC, we really do believe that the VSC are both better equipped and qualified to rate all games - their track record speaks for itself."

The BBFC's decision, when it eventually arrives, will be largely irrelevant to any UK gamer who wants to play the uncensored version. With the international release of Carmageddon 2, SCi posted several "patches" on its international Carmageddon 2 support Web site (based in America). With these patches, players can alter various aspects of the game, including the transformation of zombies into pedestrians. Within the first day of the game's UK release, thousands of players downloaded the patches.

"The patches are text files, not moving images, and they are available free of charge from a US-based Internet server [http://www.carmageddon.com]," Cavanagh said. "These points alone take any `patch' out of the jurisdiction of the UK's Video Recordings Act and, therefore, the scope of the BBFC. Apart from that, there are some 50 million Internet users throughout the world with no electronic territorial boundaries. It makes censorship on a country-by-country basis impossible for a national-based organisation.

The BBFC's unwillingness to explain or account for its actions indicates that its censorship decisions do not seem totally fair. Compare the delaying tactics on Carmageddon 2 with the preferential treatment handed out to Hollywood blockbusters. Tim Burton's Batman received a new certificate (12) rather than lose a lot of its audience to the 15 certificate that its violence merited. Jurassic Park, and its sequel, The Lost World, were also allowed to bend the rules, obtaining a PG certificate on the proviso that posters warned children of their "disturbing scenes".

In the added light of the recent decision by Australia's conservative Office of Film and Literature Classification to award the "full gore" version of Carmageddon 2 a 15 certification, the BBFC's stance is looking at best unreasonable, at worst childish.