Analysis: are age ratings coming to social and mobile games?

Are we seeing the start of a trend towards governments extending their games classification rules to mobile and social games?  If so, this is going to cause some serious friction with the games industry.

Examples: in August, the Australian Labour Party promised (if re-elected – which now looks highly likely) to apply its notoriously restrictive games classification laws to mobile games, which reportedly could cost between Aus $470 (£273) and Aus $2040 (£1187) per game – ouch.  The Government is said to be “examining the issues“.

Next, reports that Korean authorities are now blocking an increasing number of freemium games for failure to seek age ratings.  Clearly, freemium these days is one of the main ways in which indie/social/mobile games are distributed and seeking an age rating for them would be a time and money cost to the developer.  Apparently this may also cause problems for Valve’s Steam (and presumably other digital distribution platforms too) which do not pay for age ratings at the moment.

In the UK, games classification is governed by the Video Recordings Act 1984 (as refreshed by the Digital Economy Act 2010), which is currently administered by the BBFC but due to change to the Video Standards Council next year (which will then apply PEGI classification rules – somehow).  In principle, mobile and social games are “video works” under that Act just like more traditional forms of games – and therefore there is a good argument in law that they must be given an age rating before they can be sold to the public.

I think we are going to see more of these announcements in the short/medium term.  But, even if we don’t, what these examples show is that there is an issue here:

  1. Governments want to make sure that all games comply with their games classification laws in order to ensure that childen are protected.  In fairness, there may well be some social/mobile games which are inappropriate for children, which would need to be classified if they were ‘traditional’ games and therefore need to be controlled.
  2. BUT, complying with games classification regimes costs the developer/publisher time and money.   It is one thing to demand this of larger games titles which are better resourced, but arguably it is another thing entirely to demand it of indie/social/mobile games which might be released on a shoestring budget and depend on a long tail to be profitable.  Or, look at it this way: would Doodle Jump or Angry Birds have been released if Lima Sky or Rovio respectively had to seek prior games classification in every target market?

How could this play out in the long term?

  1. Games classification authorities insist that games are classified.  This will have a negative effect on some developers and might even persuade some not to release games in difficult countries.
  2. Games classification authorities are persuaded to use a ‘light touch’ model for smaller value games.
  3. Some form of industry self-regulation.  At the minimum, devs may realise that they don’t have a completely free artistic hand when it comes to making the next generation of social and mobile games.

Of course the problem is that there is absolutely no joined-up thinking when it comes to games classification world-wide.  You have ESRB self-regulation in the US and then you have PEGI-based classification in most of Europe (including the UK shortly).  Then you have a multiplicity of different games classification authorities in other countries, which can take very different decisions to each other (more on that here and here).

So, in the short term, games companies are going to have to continue to deal with a regulatory maze when it comes to games classification, which the authorities won’t assist if they continue to push for regulation of absolutely all forms of games. 

In the meantime, a few practical points:

  • Work out your projected target markets (say where you expect to sell 10% or more of your products)
  • Make sure you have worked out the games classification position in those markets and whether the associated time/money cost in complying with their classificaiton rules justifies the release there (if need be, have a word with a friendly lawyer)
  • Contact your publisher (whether a traditional games pub or perhaps Apple etc) and see if they can assist

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