Cinema-style ratings for video games

Video games will be forced to carry cinema-style age classifications to improve children's safety in the digital age under a new strategy announced today.

Psychologist Tanya Byron called for an overhaul of games classification, while her report also recommended the creation of a UK Council for Child Internet Safety.

The council would report to the prime minister, represented by charities, parent's groups and the industry.

Dr Byron, who is best known for her work as child behaviour guru on TV show Little Angels and House of Tiny Tearaways, said her proposals would help bridge the "digital divide" experienced by parents brought up in the analogue age.

She called for a public information campaign and urged industry to establish transparent codes of practice on areas such as user-generated content, regulation of online advertising and parental control software.

The report was commissioned last year by Prime Minister Gordon Brown amid concerns that new electronic forms of entertainment may be harming the development of children's moral value systems.

Joining Schools Secretary Ed Balls and Culture Secretary Andy Burnham at a gaming centre in central London at the launch of the report, Dr Byron said: "It is with the interests of young people in mind that I am challenging industry and the Government to step up to make digital worlds safer."

She said kids were "digital natives" while parents were "digital immigrants" and adults needed help understanding online and video game risks.

"When kids go online it's the same as walking through the front door, walking out into the street," she said.

Mr Balls said the UK could lead the way globally in digital safety for children.

Giving his backing to all the recommendations, he said: "I think this will be seen as a ground-breaking report. I don't think any country around the world has done a report on this scale on these issues."

He said Government would act immediately to take the proposals forward, with the UK council up and running before the end of the year.

But he did not say how much funding the Government would commit.

At present, only games showing sex or gross violence require an age rating from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and less than 2% carry an 18 certificate.

A new legally-binding system would ensure that every game is rated in the same way as films, with U (Universal), PG (Parental Guidance), 12, 15 and 18.

Dr Byron recommended the classifications be displayed prominently on the front of the games.

The European classification system PEGI (Pan European Games Information), which is a voluntary pictorial system, would continue to be used on the back of the box.

Mr Burnham said Ofcom would play an important role in carrying out the recommendations of the report.

"This report in some ways points a way forward on a bigger scale in terms of how do we influence content in an age where the basis on which we regulated content in the past has changed," he said.

Dr Byron said the gaming industry had been co-operative and accepted that it made adult games for adult players, but urged it to do more.

Mr Balls and Mr Burnham earlier enjoyed a lengthy game of Fifa 2008, drawing 0-0, although at one stage the Schools Secretary asked a schoolboy: "Have you got any idea what's going on, because I'm not very good at this."

Children's charities welcomed the proposals.

NSPCC policy manager, Lucy Thorpe, said: "Children need to understand the risks as well as they understand the technology.

"The internet is a fantastic resource but an education programme could help both adults and children know of its potential dangers as well."

Adam Hildreth, founder and president of internet child protection specialist Crisp, said: "The speed children's internet opportunities are growing totally outstrips the introduction of effective safety measures.

"It is only by combining the education of children and parents with intelligent active child protection technologies that the solution starts to appear. Education also takes time to take effect."

And NCH, the children's charity, said: "We particularly welcome (the report's) focus on game ratings and internet safety.

"Ratings on video games must be made compulsory, with tough penalties enforced when they are ignored.

"Retailers must share this responsibility and ID individuals buying games."

The gaming industry also offered its support but expressed some reservations about the ability of classifications to keep up with the online world.

Paul Jackson, director general of Elspa, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, said: "We are concerned that the proposals as they stand may struggle to keep up with the public's increasing desire to buy and play online.

"The games industry would need to be reassured that the BBFC would be capable of delivering against any new remit, or whether PEGI may be more appropriate.

"As consumers increasingly both download their video games and play them online we will see the number of products expanding exponentially.

"Any system in place will need to be able to cope with that expansion.

"Currently we believe that PEGI is the only system which has that expertise and scalability."

Baroness Buscombe, chief executive of the Advertising Association, said: "Dr Byron and her team have actively engaged with all stakeholders who are committed to ensuring that children and young people are able to experience all the benefits of new technology in a safe environment.

"The advertising industry will continue to maintain this level of engagement with Government departments as they look to implement her recommendations."

She added: "Recommending awareness campaigns (Dr Byron) demonstrates how the positive power of advertising will continue to help close the digital divide by creating informed consumers and giving everyone the opportunity to become a digital native."

The study, carried out over a six month period, took more than 500 submissions, including those from children and industry figures.

Dr Byron said a review would be carried out in 2011 to see whether the proposals had been implemented successfully.

Specific recommendations are made in the report about issues including websites which promote suicide, chatrooms, and parental controls.

A spate of apparent suicides in Bridgend, south Wales, pushed such issues into the headlines.

The report says laws surrounding sites encouraging harmful behaviour, such as suicide, self-harm and eating disorders, need clarification.

It says some children may be deterred from harmful behaviour after finding emotional support on the sites or witnessing the content.

But sites promoting suicide in a way that contravenes UK law should be taken down.

Content hosts should also work with relevant charities to make sure advertisements with links to support services are displayed whenever users discuss or search for information about harmful behaviour.

The report also recommends that all computers sold for home use have kitemarked parental control software which starts up when the computer is first set up.

And all home internet service providers should offer similar free parental control software to be advertised when users set up their connection.

The Council should also work with industry to develop ways for parental control software to automatically communicate with age-verification systems to prevent children from signing up to sites with false dates of birth.

The report said more research was needed into the interactive and repetitive nature of video game playing on children.

It acknowledged the potential benefits of games, including improved cognitive ability and hand-eye co-ordination, but warned against excessive use and recommended time limits where possible.

Voluntary minimum standards should be agreed for parental control settings on gaming platforms, it said, as part of the initial set-up stages.

BBFC and PEGI should work together to establish a single set of standards managing the risks of online gaming, the report added.