How long until free to play and in-app purchases are regulated?

This is going to be a relatively short post, because two other writers have already a lot of my work for me.

Step 1: read Rob Fahey’s editorial on “How to control free-to-play spending?

Step 2: read this Wall Street Journal feature: “Mom, please feed my apps!

Step 3: let’s have a quick chat… Continue reading How long until free to play and in-app purchases are regulated?

Is Australia getting grown up about age ratings?

This is a guest post by Lachlan Kingsford, an Australian games scholar and the brains behind Nerdy Gentleman.  I asked him to tell us a bit about the latest state of play regarding Australian games classification, which I’ve written about previously.

There is something rotten with the state of gaming in Australia. Unlike other entertainment mediums, games can not be given an R18+ rating or classification. This has two practical effects: Games that are deemed too mature (generally due to violence or sexual references) are banned, making their sale illegal, their importation illegal and in Western Australia, their possession illegal. Other games that have been generally rated R18+ equivalents in other markets (such as The Witcher 2) are downrated to MA15+ to get them through the system. Continue reading Is Australia getting grown up about age ratings?

The US violent games case: Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus

Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v EMA, AKA the Californian ‘violent’ games law case, AKA Arnie vs all gamers, everywhere.  The law, if upheld, would have given lawmakers the ability to ban certain games and place stringent requirements on others. However, the US Supreme Court struck down the law on the basis that games are protected by the free speech provisions of the US Constitution and that the Californian law was unconstitutional.  So far, so good.

Continue reading The US violent games case: Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus

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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EA courts controversy with Medal of Honor ‘Taliban’ playability

News has emerged that the next Medal of Honor game, EA’s wannabe answer to Acti’s Modern Warfare, will permit gamers to play as the Taliban in multiplayer mode.

At which point, various people (including me) raise an eyebrow and conclude that this is quite deliberately intended as a media stunt (as was Modern Warfare 2’s infamous airport level).  So no doubt there will be a media firestorm, which apparently has already been kicked off by Fox News.

But – and this is the reason for me writing this post – it does make me wonder whether games companies are fully conscious of the fact that, by using these kinds of stunts, they are courting increased regulatory scrutiny of games in the future.  Yes, there may well be a valid explanation within the context of the game, and in any event you can always point to that old hoary old chestnut, the “it’s just a game” argument, but most non-games playing people won’t understand.

And generally it’s non games-playing people who write the laws and regulations by which games have to abide.  One of the most important of those are games classification laws, which govern how and when a game may be given an age rating and sold in a country.  More importantly, they are also the people who will apply those rules to actual games.  Now, in the West these days games classification rules are unlikely to ban games altogether, but they add a further level of necessary bureaucracy for devs/publishers.  And things can be quite different elsewhere in the world, where games classification rules are increasingly being used for political purposes.

In brief, as I’ve written about several times before (see here and here), there is a rising tide of hostility to games when it comes to classification regimes, and I don’t think this kind of behaviour helps.  Here’s hoping therefore that the furore over this latest stunt is muted.

Image credit: EA/Softpedia

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FarmViller player runs up £900 debt, could be sued by mother?

The Guardian reports “a mother has warned of the risk of children spending hundreds of pounds on ‘free’ online games available through Facebook after her 12-year-old son ran up bills of more than £900 without her knowledge“.  This raises interesting issues about the extent to which she could recover her losses: in a nutshell, only if she sues her son.  (Which she won’t, obviously, but it let me write a slightly more interesting headline than usual.)

But seriously – the issue of recovering loss suffered through inadvertant spending on a social game is an interesting one and I think this case is just a taste of things to come.  The facts according to the Guardian are that “last month [the mother’s] son…spent more than £900 on FarmVille. He had emptied his own savings account of £288 and had used her credit card to the tune of £625 to pay the bills“.  She apparently tried to obtain redress from Zynga, who refused.  Facebook has disabled her son’s account.  She tried to call HSBC to ask for a refund, but she was “told she would only qualify for a refund if she reported her son to the police and obtained a crime number“.

Sounds rather sensationalist, I know, but HSBC were right: under consumer credit legislation, a credit card company is only obliged to offer a refund to a consumer if the card has been used fraudulently/for criminal purposes, so the mother would have to report her son to the police in order to be able to claim that refund.  Which, obviously, she didn’t want to do as it would involve her son being given a criminal caution!

There might be a bit more of an argument over Zynga’s receipt of the money, but I imagine they may argue that they’re right to have refused a refund on the basis that, while in fact they may have received the money without the authorisation of the owner of the money, they accepted that money in good faith without knowledge that the son did not have his mother’s authorisation to use her credit card.  Is that sufficient?  Hmm. One to think about…

Anyway.  The Guardian article goes on to say:

She does not blame Facebook, Zynga or HSBC, saying that her son was the one using the card and is entirely at fault. But she added: “I do think they need to shoulder some responsibility in this business and put systems in place to stop this happening again. The fact that he was using a card in a different name should bring up some sort of security and the online secure payment filter seems to be bypassed for Facebook payments.”

A spokeswoman for HSBC said that had the credit card been used on a gambling site it would have started alarm bells ringing for “unusual usage”. But because the card had been used to buy Facebook credits HSBC did not consider the transactions to be suspicious, even though £625 was spent in just two weeks

The idea that Facebook’s social games platform did not put adequate safeguards in place to ensure that a child cannot use a card in another person’s name is an entirely valid parental consideration, but is that really Facebook’s responsibility?  Perhaps the mother is right that there should have been some additional security involved which the son could not breach but ultimately, no matter how many levels of security you impose, if a child obtains all the relevant details from his/her parent then it it’s difficult to see why the games company/web site should be at fault.

This incident also may have implications for banks and other consumer finance providers – is it right that spending substantial and unusual amounts of money on social games in a short period of time should not qualify as “unusual usage“?  Looking at it another way, if your card is used to spend a lot of money on social games currncy in a short period with no prior record of such purchases, should your bank give you a friendly call to make sure you authorised the payments?  Answers on a postcard please…

Bottom line: money is pouring into social games companies, but it’s just a matter of time before they have to deal with real issues of consumer credit liability and fraud.  Best for everyone to get the proper safeguards in place now.

[Image credit: Zynga]

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Opinion: games and the Byron Progress Review

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…

Games classification

The new PEGI classification system is of course still waiting to be become law as part of the Digital Economy BillProfessor 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 beenrobust 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…

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Games censorship and classification in 2010, part 1

At the end of last year, I wrote a retrospective on games classification and censorship across in the world in 2009, which – perhaps unsuprisingly – showed a totally inconsistent worldwide approach with different countries adopting hostile or progressive approaches to the regulation of games, virtually all of which was justified by reference to the ‘protection of children’.  Now, with the first quarter of 2010 almost gone, here’s an update on the state of play so far for games censorship and classification.


The Digital Economy Bill proposes a new games classification system based on PEGI.  That Bill is currently bogged down with other controversies and so (despite previous suggestions the games classification bit could be split off into a separate piece of legislation) at the moment we are stuck with the existing fragmentary system. 

Even if and when the new system comes in, will it really change anything?  Unlikely.  We’ll still have Keith Vaz speaking his piece on games violence from time to time.  On the other (rather more important) hand, at least the government doesn’t try to step in actively to intefere with the classification of games in the UK.


Although broadly games classification is based on a self-regulation model in the USA, there are also some legislative safeguards.  GamesPolitics reports that the FTC is consulting on whether amendment is needed to the Childrens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). 

Says GamesPolitics: “COPPA focuses on how website operators or online services deal with the personal information of kids younger than 13. Currently, it requires that third-parties must notify and receive permission from parents before “collecting, using, or disclosing” such info. Additionally, it requires that the information be kept secure and limits operators from collecting “any more personal information than is reasonably necessary.”

One of the areas on which the FTC is consulting is the applicability of COPPA to games and interactive entertainment.  It will be interesting to see whether this consultation becomes a vehicle for any wider discussion of the protection of children regarding games (a pot which, as we know, politicians in the USA are just as fond at stirring as anyone else – take Hot Coffee as an example).


Venezuala has recently passed a ban on “violent videogames and toys“.  We wrote more on that here.  In a word, it seems a bit silly.


Australia has been in the games news a lot recently over its lack of an 18+ games rating, which has been used to reject several high-profile games for classification in Australia (examples of such attempts here and here).  Now, with a public consultation into introducing an 18+ rating, and Michael Atkinson – one of the most vocal critics of such a rating – having just announced he intends to step down from public office, there seems an increasingly good chance that Australia might get a 18+ rating after all.  Then our Antipodean friends can enjoy L4D2 action legally, joy!


Switzerland, not generally known to me as a hot-bed of games activity, has apparently passed a law banning violent video games.  The government has yet to publish guidance as to how the law will work in practice (which rather begs the question of how it was approved in the first place), but MCV reports that “the likeliest outcome seems to be an outright ban on the production, distribution and sale of any games deemed to be unsuitable – most likely anything with either a PEGI 16+ or PEGI 18+ certificate“.

IF that were true (and we don’t know that yet), then effectively banning games for 16+ year olds would be an extremely draconian system completely out of sync with the rest of Western Europe.  In fact, I wonder (without any legal work having been done on this) whether there might be grounds for an EU-level challenge over this?  We’ll have to wait and see what the law actually says first.


Quite clearly, there is no consistency between the games classification laws in these jurisdictions, meaning that games companies continue to face difficulty in marketing their games – which one developer I spoke with this week cited as an increasingly important problem for his company.  The answer lies partly in doing your research so you know the likely classification in the key markets you want to sell in, but ultimately that just gives you forewarning of potential future issues.  It’s not a cure.  An ideal solution might be a more standardised worldwide system that countries could join (either on a legal basis or a self-regulation basis), but really that falls apart on the simplest of analyses, because it’s been tried before (e.g. PEGI) and been shown that the difficulties don’t lie in the classification systems themselves, but rather the fact that at the moment any such system is subject to political whims and the prejudices of a generally ill-informed population (hence the continuing, and in my view baseless, controversy linking games to violence).

Anyway, I’ll stop before I start ranting.  We’ll write another update next quarter about the baffling world of games classification and censorship in 2010.

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Venezuala bans violent videogames and toys

Venezuala has apparently passed a law banning “video and war games and toys prompting violence to help improve child education and prevent misconduct“.
According to the Prensa Latina site (via Slashdot and TorstenFo), the new law “imposes a fine and 2-5 years in prison on the import, production, distribution, sale, hiring and use of video games and toys inciting violent behaviour“. 

Further, “this legislation defines as aggressive every audiovisual material promoting and inciting violence, the use of weapons and toys imitating weapons or stimulating violence and hate.”

Obviously there isn’t nearly enough detail in this press release to have an informed view as to what this new law does or doesn’t do.  BUT, it is interesting that the release is phrased in a way that suggests Venezuala has banned “violent video and war games” per se.  The approach in the US and Europe is rather different: games are age-classified but (other than the most extreme games) no games are banned just for being violent.  So, for example, Modern Warfare 2 was PEGI rated as 18+, making it appropriate for 18 year olds and over, but it wasn’t simply banned just for being “violent”. 

In the US, games classification is adminstered under the ESRB system and the majority of Europe now uses the PEGI system (the UK is due to adopt the PEGI system in the near future). 

How would the Venezualan system work and under whose control?  So far, the only information we have seen about that is the Slashdot source, which said: “Alberto Federico Ravell, former director of opposing news network Globovision, has already come on twitter denouncing the authorities for seizing imported Gameboy, Wii and PlayStation 3 consoles, due to considering them violent“.  Which, if true, speaks for itself really.

If anyone has any further info on the new Venezualan law, please get in touch.  In the meantime, here again is our summary post on censorship and classification in 2009.

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