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Rated 12: Games Retail, CitizenCard and the Legally-Enforceable PEGI Ratings in the UK

14 May 2012

Yesterday, the UK Government made the decision for the pan-European PEGI ratings system to become law. The process, which will now grant further powers to the PEGI ratings (Pan European Game Information), will make them the sole classification for video games, phasing out the British Board of Film Classification logos (BBFC), which traditionally have been used for titles containing extremely violent or sexual content. Moreover, the PEGI age-12 rating is now legally enforceable and retail workers that fail to adhere to it could face fines and even prison.

I caught up with Andrew Chevis, CEO at CitizenCard, the UK government-approved, PASS-accredited ID scheme to find out his views on the new system, how younger customers might be affected and what this means for video game retailers.

Rated 12

Legally-enforced age ratings, including the age-12 classification, are nothing new; a number of films have featured the BBFC 12-rating for some time, to the extent that now, the 12A-rating is highly sought after by many studios to broaden the appeal of their films. But this is new ground for video game software; the BBFC has rarely given an age-12 classification to a video game, simply because the content usually isn't controversial enough to warrant it. Until yesterday, video games were exempt from classification, except for in extreme cases where the publisher was expected to submit the game to the BBFC.

But now, PEGI has finally achieved its long-term goal of becoming the sole ratings system for video games. For years, it has been vehemently opposed to the BBFC's role in classifying games with gratuitously violent or sexual content. This is good news for UK consumers – standardisation removes any confusion that may have been caused by two rating systems in the past.

Retail workers will need to be mindful of this while serving the general public; despite the PEGI ratings appearing on video game software for some time, it's fair to say that, until now, they haven't quite held that same censored, authoritative weight of the now-infamous BBFC logos. In fact, back in 2008, TV psychologist Tanya Byron was commissioned to deliver a report to the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families, and one of the key observations in it was that PEGI ratings were sometimes misunderstood by parents as “difficulty ratings”.

Legal Implications

With PEGI now securely and legally in place, a new challenge for retailers emerges: age restricted sales for 12-rated games, for which the age restrictions are now legally enforceable on all games, rather than just the BBFC rated ones. The issue isn't so much letting teenage kids get their hands on the "mature" content that a 12-rated game offers, but ensuring that legitimate sales aren't lost and younger customers don't find themselves in that uncomfortable position of not being able to buy a title they may well be entitled to purchase.

If only there were some sort of proof-of-age card that children and teenagers could get and carry around with them…oh wait, there is. CitizenCard has been a trusted form of ID in the UK since 1999 and anyone can apply for it. It provides a government-approved alternative to the driving licence (always useful for those drunken nights out) and actually costs less. And CitizenCard's Andrew Chevis sees it as the ideal solution in this very instance.

His own view on the situation is a sensible one: video game retailers need to adapt and adopt a 'No ID, No Sale!' policy across the board, ensuring that staff are trained on how to ask young-looking customers to prove they are at least twelve years old. As a former retail worker myself (in a store where video games were sold), I recall the many awkward conversations had with youthful teens as I asked them for their ID, embarrassing some people so much that I'd shortly find myself suffering the wrath of a violent barrage of curses and insults. Yet, no matter how awkward it can be, it's serious business and failing to identify an under-age shopper can not only result in a fine for both the store and the store worker, but can also lead to imprisonment.

Sufficiently educating store staff is vital, and most retailers are particularly hot on this. As Andrew duly notes, the cost and bother of training staff is always far less than the consequences of prosecution. During my own time as a retail jockey, I must have watched training videos on age restrictions a dozen times, mainly because every time the slightest update to the law was made, the retailer I worked for needed to make sure it was covered.

The CitizenCard is an affordable way for children to have an approved form of proof-of-age ID.

Knowing the rules isn't the be-all and end-all though. Providing shop workers with adequate support and guidance for spotting potentially under-age customers is the key to prevention. In my own experience, younger employees, for whom retail was their first job, would sometimes struggle to ask for ID because they felt it was embarrassing. No one in the retail sector likes making a customer feel uncomfortable – it's usually bad for business. But it's nonsensical, in this instance, to place a customer’s needs over your own. After all, it's not them that gets fined and potentially put in prison for purchasing age-restricted software.

Andrew tells me of CitizenCard's own plans for its ID programme. Unlike driver licences, people of all ages can apply for a CitizenCard and the organisation has recently changed the age band on its cards, so that younger cardholders are now classified as either "12-15″ or "Under 12″.

It's an incredibly useful thing to have in today's extra-cautious world, where initiatives like always being ID'd if you look under the age of thirty exist. It can be incredibly frustrating for some customers when they know that they’re of legal age, but have no way of proving it.

The biggest obstacle to all of this though, is parents. To be blunt, there a lot of people in the UK who make no effort to understand age classifications and the legal ramifications behind them. As evidenced by one self-righteous TV personality who, out of everyone, should have possessed at least a limited understanding of age restricted sales, many parents don't actually know what classes as proof of age identification. What's more, they don't realise how it can affect store staff, but then ignorance is bliss for many people.

Common Sense

No shop worker in their right mind would sell the likes of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty to a seven-year old, and usually, it's a case of parents buying the game to keep their kid quiet (even when the store assistant will highlight the mature content found in said title). When it comes to 12-rated titles, I think the issue isn't so much to do with the content, but rather the legal implications - this particular classification is usually awarded to the likes of Super Smash Bros. Brawl or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, games which probably wouldn't warp a seven year old's mind. Retailers need to clearly inform younger customers that it is illegal to sell them the game, but should also be armed with the relevant legal information should the child return to the store with a disgruntled, uninformed parent.

The classification is only problematic because it affects children and teenagers at an age where they are gradually granted more independence, be it to pop down to the local store or take a trip into town. Being able to distinguish whether someone is aged eighteen or over is difficult enough, although there are usually some tell-tale signs. With children, I can see it being a lot more difficult and I hope that Trading Standards will be releasing further information on this to those in the retail industry to help them.

It's not about protecting children from content, but protecting workers in retail from legal penalties.

Otherwise, kids need to be pushed into securing ID from an earlier age. During the eight years I worked in retail, I worked in numerous stores and can only recall seeing a CitizenCard once or twice. With PEGI's 12-rating now in place, younger customers must be more prepared.

As Andrew rightfully points out, children can easily obtain a CitizenCard to prove that they are at least twelve years old. So if you're a parent, look into this. Not only does it save your child the embarrassment and hassle of being asked for proof-of-age, but it also educates them much earlier about age restrictions and the sort of content that they should and shouldn't be seeing.

Andrew goes on to clarify that the change in the law need not have a damaging impact on games retail. "The 'No ID, No Sale!' message is readily understood by older teenagers and younger children will quickly get the message", he says, and this is certainly the case. Older teenagers aren't stupid; Just like this writer did in his younger, more rebellious days, I'm sure there are plenty of seventeen-year olds out there right now trying to illegally procure alcohol or cigarettes.

The fact is, if they're met with enough resistance from shop workers through vigorous enforcement, they'll soon learn that getting their hands on the booze and fags is not worth all the hassle and trouble. Although it's far less likely to crop up, if a child is out alone buying video game software and they're consistently met with age restriction barriers, they will learn more about what games are available to them and won't be able to get their hands on these games unless their parents buy them for them. This could, at the very least, open up a dialogue between children and parents (well, the ones that care about age restrictions) and create better understanding.

Seeing PEGI take its place as the new rating system under the UK government is exceptionally good news. It understands the content, has a number of experts who can accurately provide sufficient ratings, and has traditionally been stricter than the BBFC. The age-12 rating will require some extra learning and vigilance on retail workers' parts, but we need a customer base that is adequately equipped to help these workers make the right choices, without causing any issues.

Source: bnbgaming.com