To make parents feel more comfortable, computer game manufacturers and the big games stores yesterday produced a new certification system which will put age ratings guidance on all games, and a players' charter containing advice for parents.
The manufacturers explain the perils of a world far beyond Sonic The Hedgehog: 'Depiction of items such as the consumption of alcohol, criminal activity . . . the use of bad language and the graphic representation of fighting would affect the rating given to a particular game.' The code of practice, drawn up by the Video Standards Council, adds a list of depictions which may not be permitted in video and computer games 'except when treated with the greatest caution'. These include sexual intercourse, excessive tasteless nudity, aggression towards women and children, racial hatred and encouraging the use of tobacco.
The parents' guide answers such questions as whether computer games cause epilepsy or addiction, and explains the ratings system. All games will have one of four age suitability ratings; 0- 10, 11-14, 15-17 and over 18. In fact, under the 1984 Video Recordings Act the British Board of Film Classification can already outlaw excessively violent or explicitly sexual games.
The age ratings will be European-wide and have gained the support of all the large manufacturers, stores and the Home Office. They will, though, be for guidance only and shops cannot refuse to sell computer games to children younger than the rating.
Looking at the best selling games last Christmas, the European Leisure Software Publishers (ELSPA), which is behind the self-regulation system, gave Fifa International Soccer a 0-10 rating, Jurassic Park 11-14 and Mortal Kombat 15-17. Mortal Kombat involved martial arts, a decapitation and quite a lot of blood. Jurassic Park, which involves avoiding a pursuing dinosaur, is arguably more frightening.
While all the main retailers and manufacturers have endorsed the new code, some were privately sceptical. A spokeswoman for Mortal Kombat said: 'These things are pure fantasy really. I don't believe anyone would commit a violent act after playing the game.' Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin, which has a network of computer games stores, said: 'I'm a little surprised. My own children play computer games a lot and they don't seem to have been damaged.'
However, Mark Strachan, chairman of ELSPA, said: 'Computer and video games were once only the preserve of children, but there is an increasing trend for games to be targeted at a more mature age group. As such, we accept the need to provide an easy way to show parents for whom the game is suitable. Video and computer games are unique in that, unlike previous generations' toys, parents tend to find them complex and inaccessible and, as a consequence, have viewed them with a certain amount of unwarranted suspicion.'