In 2007, Tania Byron was asked by the UK government to conduct an “independent review looking at the risks to children from exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games“. This became the Byron Review in 2008, which made a number of proposals to better protect children online. In particular, Professor Byron made recommendations regarding the UK games classification system, which went on to become a proposal for a single games classification system based on the PEGI standard. Professor Byron has now published a Progress Review, which gives a status update on her thoughts on children and games.
Below is a summary of Professor Byron’s findings regarding games and our opinionated opinions on them…
The new PEGI classification system is of course still waiting to be become law as part of the Digital Economy Bill. Professor Byron recommends that “once the use of PEGI becomes law in the UK, companies associated with the video games industry, the online games industry, retailers, and the Government invest in raising public awareness of the new ratings system including through the UKCCIS public awareness campaign and UKCCIS one stop shop“.
The need to raise public awareness of the PEGI system makes sense of course, but Professor Byron doesn’t give detail on how that should work, beyond saying that everyone who is involved in or with the games industry should spend money on raising public awareness. How exactly is that going to affect games devs/publishers and how would it affect their bottom line (if at all)? Isn’t this primarily the responsibility of government? Clearly, this is going to need some further detail.
As for UKCCIS, this is the “multi-stakeholder body on child internet safety” that Byron recommended be established as part of her 2008 report. I understand her recommendation that UKCCIS coordinate the PEGI public awareness campaign, but it isn’t clear is how this fits in with the Video Standards Council, which under the Digital Economy Bill will be in charge of the PEGI system itself. I suppose this could be easily answered if the VSC was part of/partners with UKCCIS, but I don’t know is factually that’s correct or not (can anyone enlighten me?). Or perhaps it is envisaged that the VSC will only be responsible for legal implementation/oversight of PEGI, not public awareness about it (the problem there though is that I’m not aware of any guidelines setting out exactly what the VSC will or won’t do regarding games classification in the future).
She goes on to say: “since my 2008 review, the video games industry has grown and new high-profile familyfocused games have raised the profile of the sector further. To reflect this, video games representatives should be prioritised when filling vacancies on the UKCCIS executive board.”
Fair enough, and I’m sure greater representation will be welcomed by the games industry.
Last point: Professor Byron notes that, since her 2008 Report, there has been “robust legislation which makes it possible for retailers to be prosecuted for the sale of age-restricted products to underage children“. If the intention is to suggest that this has come into force since her 2008 Report, I think that’s incorrect: the Video Recordings Act 1984 already criminalises the sale of age-restricted products to underage children (with the caveat admittedly that there was a bit of legal hoopla a while ago about that the enforceabilty of that Act, but that’s not the point). Until the Digital Economy Bill comes into force, the VRA 1984 remains the law.
Online and social gaming
Professor Byron says:
“It is important that families have up-to-date advice about new ways to engage in gaming.. This advice should be built on to encompass publishers and hosts of casual online games (games which are free to users as they are hosted on sites funded through advertising) and to look at the issues of bullying and harassment via interactive gaming and casual online gaming…I recommend that the UKCCIS executive board commission the video games working group to examine and report back by September 2010 on whether a code of conduct supported by independent review for online and casual gaming is needed.”
Now, this I do not understand. Is there evidence of a connection between “bullying and harassment” and “interactive gaming and casual online gaming” and, if so, where? In asking that question, I’m not at all implying that Professor Byron is scaremongering, since elsewhere she has taken a considered approach to contentious issues of games, children and ‘violence’. But where is the evidence for this link? Perhaps there is more credible empirical evidence regarding online games, but social games? This is particularly important because Professor Byron has recommended that UKCCIS commences research into whether a code of conduct supported by independent review is required.
IF there is evidence of such a link, and IF UKCCIS/government/the games industry support a code of conduct for online and social games, it will be interesting to see how the following issues are resolved:
- Will it be a legally-enforced or voluntary code of conduct?
- Will it apply just to UK games companies or (more likely) any games company which operates in the UK?
- If the latter, how will you enforce adoption of the code of conduct? How will you ensure that an online game based in the USA or China or India complies with the code?
- If a games company doesn’t comply with the code, would there be any sanctions?
- What is the code going to say about “bullying and harassment“?
- Which games will it apply to?
- Crucially, what burden will all of this place on games companies? None of them actively encourage bullying or harassment and I would imagine most already have guidelines in place regarding them, but ultimately I would bet games companies would be loath to have actively to police their players to stop bullying or harassment.
- What is this “independent review” of the code of conduct to be? By whom?
Parental controls and games consoles
Recently the Home Office commissioned a report by Dr Linda Papadopoulos, entitled the “The Sexualisation of Young People Review”, which recommended that videogame consoles should be sold with parental controls switched on to reduce exposure to the sexualisation of young people and violent content.
Make of that recommendation what you will, but Professor Byron is not a fan. She said:
“I stand by my 2008 conclusion that switching parental controls on by default could contribute towards parents not engaging in, or considering, their children’s safety whilst using their games console and being lulled into a false sense of security that the default setting meant that their child was ‘safe’. Children and young people can just switch the parental controls off without their parent’s knowledge or understanding and play on an unsecured device. Instead, I believe parents need support in understanding how to set up controls carefully (for example, not sharing the password with the child) and how to talk to their children about digital safety“.
She recommends instead that:
“By September 2010, in relation to all internet-enabled devices, the UKCCIS executive board commission the video games and industry working groups to:
a) decide whether we need minimum standards for parental controls, for example clear, understandable set up procedures, password protection;
b) examine whether there should be an independent review process for parental control standards; and
c) work with the public awareness working group to ensure that awareness of video gaming parental controls is included in the UKCCIS public awareness campaign.”
So now the government has two proposals on parental controls from two experts which it commissioned to look into the protection of children and games. Which will it prefer?
Other aspects of the Progress Review
I should also add that the Progress Review does deal with other aspects of child internet safety, e.g. mobile access. More on that in the Review itself.
As with her 2008 Review, it’s great that Professor Byron continues to look at the issue of child protection in games without any of the headline-grabbing but wrongheaded proposals we’ve seen in the past (though I’m somewhat bemused at the ubiquity of kids’ pictures and quotes from mums in the Progress Review!) But I can’t help but feel that (perhaps understandably) this Progress Review sets up questions without giving detail, particularly regarding her recommendations regarding online/social games. More work is needed, hence the September 2010 report date she suggests.
Moreover, in practical terms control now appears to be moving towards UKCCIS and it’s not yet clear how that will work or how the games industry will achieve full representation on it (as Prof Byron recommends). It’s also unclear at this stage what additional burdens all of this will place on the games industry, which hitherto has focused on making the PEGI standard into law, only now apparently to be faced with a further series of enquiries.
Still, roll on September 2010…