In Britain, any computer or video game that depicts human beings and features sex, violence or criminal activity must be submitted to the BBFC. Two years ago the BBFC refused to issue a certificate for the game Carmageddon, in which the object is to run down pedestrians with a car, because of what it described as "killing for kicks". The ban was subsequently overturned by the Home Office.
Recently, the BBFC gave an 18 certificate to Kingpin: a Life of Crime, the top-selling game that has taken violence "to another level". Kingpin places the player in the role of a street punk who must kill his way to becoming the "kingpin" in an urban neighbourhood. It is filled with extreme images, including gory exit wounds and trails of blood, along with copious amounts of profanity. So why did the BBFC pass Kingpin without any fuss or controversy?
Jim Barratt, the BBFC examiner who certified the game, explained that the difference between decisions on these games is a result of "getting used to the material". "We had never seen a game like Carmageddon before and when it burst forth it was a real shock to the system," he said.
Computer games are still a new medium, said Mr Barratt, and the BBFC is starting to commission research on the effect of computer games on the player. The release of Carmageddon II was delayed in this country pending the results of a BBFC investigation last November. The BBFC talked to child psychologists, because they were concerned that "damage" might be caused to children who were exposed to the game.
"In terms of Kingpin, a lot of what was said in [the Carmageddon] reports was very useful - especially about the effect of computer graphics on the viewer," Barratt said. "The literature out there suggests that the more realistic the graphics, the more investment the players are likely to have, and the more likely it is to have an effect on them.
"Kingpin has taken game violence to another level, but it's still a long way from virtual reality. The effects still look [as if they have been generated by] computer."
Barratt said that Robin Duval, who earlier this year took over from James Ferman as director of the BBFC, is committed to making quick and efficient decisions, which pleases games publishers.
Roger Bennett, director general of the European Leisure and Software Publishers Association (Elspa), the industry's self-regulatory body, said: "Things have improved greatly in respect to the games industry's relationship with the BBFC since Robin Duval took up the role of chief censor.
"Communication is better, and speed is better. All that we ask is to know at the early stages of game development if there is a problem. These days, the BBFC will go to a publisher while a game is in development, which is a big move forward."
Mr Barratt says that the BBFC will progress by "actively educating ourselves about games... We have put in place a multimedia room with a high-end PC, PlayStation and Nintendo, which we encourage examiners to come and play. I am part of a new influx of examiners, and within that are people like myself who have quite an extensive history of game-playing."
The BBFC's re-examination of computer game culture and the improvement in relationships between the censors and publishers could be in for another challenge, though. The arrival of Sony's next-generation PlayStation, which claims to make games look like films, could further test the censors by blurring the boundary between reality and virtual reality.
Bafta Interactive will host a discussion, `The Rating Game: Doing it for Themselves', tomorrow at 7pm in the David Lean Room, Bafta, 195 Piccadilly, London W1V 0LN. Admission: members free, non-members pounds 10. More information is available from http:// www.bafta.org