Age ratings will warn parents of bloodthirsty video games

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The Independent Online

A crimewave of shootings, robberies and dangerous driving brought joy to hundreds of thousands in this seasonof goodwill. The British-dominated computer games industry is booming.

A crimewave of shootings, robberies and dangerous driving brought joy to hundreds of thousands in this seasonof goodwill. The British-dominated computer games industry is booming.

In an atmosphere of high street gloom, the industry had its most successful year. Figures show the games market grew 13 per cent year-on-year to become Britain's biggest entertainment export.

But after complaints about the content of some of the games, the industry has been forced to introduce a film-style classification system to warn parents off games with graphic violent or sexual content.

Games sold across Europe will carry standardised age ratings from spring next year. The ratings, based on criteria including the level of violence, sex and nudity, discrimination and drugs, will be labelled 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+, and 18+ and are designed to help parents to protect children from violent excess. But the ratings scheme is voluntary and planners admitted it would be a failure if the majority of the industry did not support it.

Britain has its own voluntary code, based along similar lines. Some European nations have none, while Germany has some of the most rigorous regulations.

Stricter controls were brought in after a shooting rampage at a school in Erfurt in April. Sixteen people were killed when Robert Steinhauser shot teachers, pupils and a policeman. Politicians blamed "killer games" for the attacks.

Home Office research has ruled out a link between aggressive behaviour and computer violence. Critics highlighted the prime reason for shootings as the easy access to firearms.

The new guidelines were triggered by concerns about the effects of games on young people. One school in Swansea banned the violent driving game "Carmageddon" because of fears it would lead to joyriding. Many shops refused to stock one game, "Hooligans: Storm over Europe", in which players attempted to maim and destroy rivals.

Patrice Chazerand, the secretary general of the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, the organisation behind the scheme, said the industry "wanted to display an enhanced sense of economic and social responsibility", adding: "Improving the protection of minors from inadvertent exposure to unsuitable material is indeed the over-arching ambition of this new set of instruments." He said he was confident games makers would support the scheme because a unified system would cut costs.

How the self-regulated code will be a substantial improvement on the current scheme in Britain is unclear, since it falls short of the levels of regulation in Germany.

There, young players on the professional computer games tour have been banned from tournaments because of the violent nature of some games. One of the most popular tournament games, "Counter-Strike", pitting teams of "terrorists" and "counter- terrorists" against each other had to be altered before it could be played at a tournament in America after 11 September.

Jonny Neffgen, 21, a former professional games player from London, said: "I don't think the scheme is a bad thing because the games are pretty gory and meant to depict real-life situations. In most of the big games you can use the options to turn off the blood but it is asking a lot unless parents know how to run the games."

In Britain, which produces most computer games for the European market, the Video Standards Council will administer the scheme. The most violent games can still be banned and anyone caught selling them could be fined.

The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, which represents the industry, welcomed the new code. It said the system would help parents to choose suitable games.

Roger Bennett, the director general of the association, said less than 1 per cent of games published in Britain were rated for play by those over 18. Games based on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and football were among the top 10 sellers this Christmas. "It is vital not to underestimate the value the games industry brings culturally and in terms of money and jobs to the UK," he said."Unfortunately there is a tendency for some to see only the negative and to accuse games of overt violence and corruption of young people."