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Retailers could be sent to prison for selling 12-rated games

Games retailers could be sent to prison for selling to underage gamers under new laws that came into force in the UK today.

Games retailers could be prosecuted and even sent to prison for selling to underage gamers under new laws that came into force in the UK today. The old BBFC system has been jettisoned and the industry-run PEGI system now has legal force.

The Pan-European Game Information system rates games as appropriate for ages 3, 7, 12, 16 and 18, with colour codes to make the point even clearer. Here's what gets a game a certain rating:

  • Games are rated for 12-years and over if they include non-graphic violence to human or animal characters, a slightly higher threshold of violence to fantasy characters or significant nudity or bad language.
  • Games are rated 16-years and over if the depiction of violence or sexual activity looks the same as it would do in normal life. Drug and tobacco references also trigger the age limit.
  • Games are rated 18-years and over if there is a 'gross' level of violence likely to make the viewer feel a sense of revulsion.

Games rated 3 or 7 aren't legally enforced -- they're just guidelines for parents. The ratings will be enforced by the Video Standards Council's Games Rating Authority. The GRA can refuse to classify a game, effectively banning it from sale in the UK. This only ever happened twice under the BBFC, for Manhunt 2 and Carmageddon, and both were overturned (in the case of Carmageddon, the publisher simply changed the red blood to green goop, if I remember rightly).

And although PEGI is a Europe-wide system, the GRA can give a game a different rating if it offends 'UK sensitivities' in a particular way. Blowing up Great Ormond Street Hospital, hurting corgis and taking Danny Boyle's name in vain will all attract high ratings, I've heard.

The penalties for retailers found guilty of selling games -- even 12-rated games -- to underage children are severe, with a potential £5,000 fine and up to six years in prison. Sell a game without the age certificate and you're looking at two years in chokey and an unlimited fine.

Getting rid of the BBFC system is intended to simplify the process. Instead of some games being certified by the BBFC and some by PEGI as well, with occasionally different ratings, now they're all PEGI all the time. The British Board of Film Classification, which rates movies in the UK, argued that its system was more familiar to parents; PEGI argued that it was in a better position, as an industry body, to give advice.

There was no question that the industry would take a softer line and give games lower ratings than the BBFC -- in the few cases where the two disagreed, PEGI gave the higher rating. Industry bodies have been desperate to improve their public profile and prove to parents they can be trusted.

As well as an easily understood age rating, the PEGI box on the back of games has icons to represent the kind of problematic areas the game may tackle, such as swearing, drug use, sexy times and, um, dice.

The change has been a long time coming. It was recommended by the last government's Digital Britain report in 2009, which followed on from the Byron review, a study into how children were using the Internet and video games that was published four years ago.

If you're looking for more information, PEGI has relaunched its All About Games website, where Jo Whiley -- the coolest of all cool mums -- will talk you through the new system.

What do you think of the new system? Do you think it will work? Will parents stop buying their kids inappropriate games? Get censorious in the comments, or over on our 12-rated Facebook page (contains scenes of mild Lego peril).