Banned - but still on the road

In May, Carmageddon became the first video game to be refused a certificate by the British Board of Film and Video Classification. In June, it went to the top of the charts. Confused? You should be. Because, as the story shows, even those charged with certification do not know what to do about entertainment software.

A driving game in which players smash into other cars but can also mow down pedestrians and cows, Carmageddon has kicked off a debate about the censorship of games.

The industry set up a voluntary ratings system for all games after an outcry in 1993 over Sega's Night Trap, a "girls in peril" game, while the most violent titles were included in the BBFC's remit. The law says games are exempt unless there is "human sexual activity or acts of force associated with such activity; mutilation or torture of, or other acts of gross violence towards, humans and animals; human genital organs or excretory functions; techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences". But most violent games involve mutant foes rather than humans, so they can still be deemed exempt.

The Carmageddon affair started in January when the publisher, SCI, sent out a press release called "Murder in the Streets" to a media already obsessed with the movie Crash. The press had a field day. Questions were asked in the Commons.

So SCI submitted Carmageddon to the BBFC, even though legal experts said the game would not need legal classification. According to SCI, the BBFC never gave a written decision. To be on the safe side SCI produced a version with zombies rather than human pedestrians.

It sent a copy to the BBFC but, come the June release date, no response had been received. Carmageddon 2, with a voluntary 15 rating, came out on 20 June. It went to number one.

The BBFC says Carmageddon 1 was "refused a certificate because the pleasures on offer were those of killing for kicks". On the release of the second version, it is angry but neutral.

SCI itself feels battered by the whole affair. Jane Cavanagh, managing director, is particularly aggrieved at the BBFC's lack of accountability: "Ultimately [the BBFC's] processes are secretive. There are no minutes you can look at to fathom why they've asked for the changes they want."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the key question remains: who decides whether a game is exempt? The BBFC does not. Neither does the Video Standards Council (which classifies games for the voluntary rating). In practice, most games companies submit their game to the VSC, and if it comes back with an 18 voluntary rating they then pass it on to the BBFC.

But they do not have to. Although breaking the law carries a two-year prison term, it would require a court case to determine the illegality of a non-classified game. None has ever been brought. In other words, do not submit a title, save yourself some money and you will probably get away with it.

So where does that leave Carmageddon? SCI is appealing against the ban on the first version. If it wins, expect to see Carmageddon: The Uncut Version on the shelves by Christmas

Tim Green

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