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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 August 2006, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Shoot first, ask questions later?
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, Edinburgh

Screenshot of Reservoir Dogs, Eidos
The game puts players in the movie's violent setting
Videogames have long been a target for moral campaigners concerned that violent games could have a detrimental effect on younger players. As the era of high definition gaming and photo-realism dawns, is the industry doing all it should?

Mr White is trapped inside a jewellers surrounded by police; he takes out his shotgun and blows clean off the heads of two innocent bystanders. Within minutes 25 people are dead or injured.

Welcome to Reservoir Dogs the video game. Fifteen years after Quentin Tarantino's cult film caused equal measures of awe and loathing, the film has been turned into a videogame.

Unsurprisingly there are bullets, guns and lots and lots of blood. The game has an 18 certificate and should not be played by younger gamers. But should it even be played at all?

Shooting script

Chris Deering, former head of Sony Europe, said: "Games are an interactive form of entertainment.

"For years books and movies and radio dramas have introduced various themes from children's to romance and violent thrillers. Games are no different.

There is a link between videogames and arousal and a link between arousal and violence
Dr John Sykes, Play Technologies

"There are certain publicly instituted procedures to try and protect young children at least from inadvertent collision with traumatising content."

The UK industry has a two-pronged ratings system with games aimed at younger gamers under the age of 16 receiving ratings as part of a voluntary code drawn up by the industry.

But if they are for 16 year olds and older, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) hands out the ratings.

Jim Cliff, of the BBFC, said: "We apply the same principles and guidelines as we do for film and video but take into account that playing a game is different from watching a video.

"The theme and tone of a game is important and can provide context for the rating."

But the ratings procedure is not always straightforward.

Games have ratings on them for a reason
Matt Lacey, Oxford

Peter Derby of the Video Standards Council which oversees the game industry's voluntary ratings code said a game could receive a 15+ rating from the industry which then required classification from the BBFC which might grant it a lower rating of 12 as its criteria is different.

Only one rating ever appears on a video game box - the BBFC's if it has given the rating - so who is right? Is a game designated as suitable for 16-year-olds by the games industry really right for a 12-year-old because the BBFC deems it so?

And do parents even acknowledge ratings?

Screenshot from Call of Duty 3, Activision
Games are increasingly edging towards photo-realism

Linda, a mother of a recently turned 18-year-old son, said: "I've never really looked at ratings for games."

She said she had let her then 17-year-old son play games with an 18 rating.

There is also anecdotal evidence that some retailers are not taking ratings seriously and are selling some 18 games to children.

Paul Jackson, director general of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers' Association, said the body's members took ratings very seriously.

"We actively enforce these ratings with our retail partners," he said.

Moral panic

Many in the videogame industry have likened the negative press around some violent games - which are for adults only - to moral panics that other historical media received.

"When the Victorian novel became fashionable it was thought degenerate for young women to read them," said Mr Jackson.

Dr Jon Sykes, managing director of Play Technologies and a leading academic on games, said: "If you look at the research - violent people buy violent video games - but so does everyone else.

You can play the game without ever firing a single bullet
Ben Fisher, Volatile Games

"What does this mean? Media does on the face of it make us aggressive. But after a big football match or boxing match wife beating goes up by 3%.

"It's not football that makes us violent - we become aroused.

"There is a link between videogames and arousal and a link between arousal and violence.

"But there is no link between video games and violence. It's just another medium."

Mr Deering admitted that same game developers were pushing the boundaries of taste and decency too far.

"There have been exploitational executions of game design," he said.

But in 10 years in charge of Sony in the UK he said he only ever had to reject two or three titles on those grounds.

Mr Deering said the debate around video games and violence was becoming more "logical and less frenzied".

Games on shop shelves, PA
Many parents ignore ratings on games their children play

"The number of frenzies has decreased considerably," he added.

But he warned that the advent of high definition gaming and photo-real graphics where the virtual and the real are almost indistinguishable on the TV screen could spark more concerns.

"The ability to have highly realistic images, or one day 3D or holographic experiences - that could even be regulated like child porn," he said.

He said the industry needed to be more "self-policing".

"At some point intelligence needs to enter the picture," he said.

But what of Reservoir Dogs? Is the game developer exploiting the film and turning a complex movie about violence and violent behaviour into a trite bullet festival?

"You can play the game without ever firing a single bullet," said the game's developer Ben Fisher, of Volatile Games.

But how many of us will ever play the game in that fashion?

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