By Clark Boyd
Controversial video game Manhunt 2 has been granted a mature certificate in the US, lifting an effective ban on the game. But the title has been refused a certificate in the UK. So how do ratings for video games operate around the world?
Manhunt 2 remains banned in many countries
Each year, thousands of video and computer games hit the market. And with global gaming set to grow by as much as 50% in the next four years, there is a good chance that the number of titles per year will increase.
The majority of those games will go through some sort of vetting process before they reach consumers. How they are rated and labelled varies widely around the world.
In the United States, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) evaluates video and computer games.
The ESRB was created in 1994 by the entertainment software industry itself. The idea is to provide consumers with the information necessary to make informed decisions when it comes to buying games.
"It functions very much like the film rating system does in America, which is self-regulation," says Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB. Game publishers voluntary submit their games to the Board to be rated.
Ms Vance says the ESRB regularly conducts research to ensure that the ratings the Board assigns reflect American society.
"Ratings really do need to reflect the cultural norms of our society," she says.
The ESRB requires that game publishers submit written and video documentation for each game. The video must contain a brief overview of the gameplay, including anything that may stray into controversial territory.
Those materials are then evaluated by a group of six full-time raters at the ESRB. The group gives each game an age rating, from Early Childhood (3+ years and up) to Adults Only. Each game is also given content descriptors that help explain its rating.
Ms Vance says the ESRB also randomly tests games that have already been released.
"We can compel companies to take product off the market. We also have the ability to change advertising, force companies to pull adverts and change them.
"And obviously we have the ability to revoke a rating if it's not accurate."
While the ESRB relies on voluntary industry effort, Australia's Classification Board does not.
In fact, it is the Australian government that comes up with ratings guidelines for games. Those guidelines are based on "community standards, and what a "reasonable adult" would think of a given game.
The majority of games run into no ratings problems at all
The Classification Board is an independent body formed by an act of the Australian Parliament 11 years ago. It is made up of a dozen reviewers that are supposed to broadly reflect Australian society.
The Board receives applications from game publishers; it then applies what is known as an "impact test," according to the Board's acting deputy director, Jeremy Fenton.
"What we're required to look at is a range of elements. They include violence, sex, language, drug use and nudity. So we look at those elements in context within the material.
"We're basically asking is it very mild, mild, moderate, high or very high in impact. And the result actually determines where the classification falls."
The Classification Board can refuse to rate a game, which means that the game will not be allowed to be sold in Australia.
In Europe, the ratings systems are a mix of voluntary and mandatory.
Since 2003, there's even been a continent wide effort called the Pan European Game Information, or PEGI, system.
"The PEGI system is not a censoring system. It's an information system," says Laurie Hall, who is Secretary General of the British Video Standards Council, or VSC. The VSC helps administer the PEGI system.
Since 2003, the number of countries participating in the PEGI system has expanded to 29.
PEGI works similarly to the ESRB in the United States. Publishers doing business in the 29 PEGI countries voluntarily fill out an online questionnaire about their games. Then, the system gives the game an age rating, and also content descriptors for things such as bad language and drug use.
But, individual countries can then go beyond the PEGI ratings. In Britain, for example, a game rated for ages 16 and above automatically gets reviewed by the British Board of Film Classification.
If the game's content is too extreme, the Film Board can refuse to classify it. No classification means it cannot be sold in the UK, which is exactly what happened recently with the game Manhunt-2.
Not all European countries, though, have signed on to PEGI. Germany has its own ratings system that is a bit more lenient on sexual content, but very strict when it comes to violence.
For game developers, all of these different ratings schemes can mean a lot of extra work, as a game's content may need to be tweaked so that it can get a particular rating in a particular part of the world.
"You'll have a game that's released a certain way in North America, and then you'll have to have a slightly different version for the PEGI countries, and then a different version still for Germany, which in some cases can change the tone of the game" says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.
Some have wondered if it would not be simpler to devise some kind of global rating system that would apply to all countries. Patricia Vance of the US's Entertainment Software Rating Board thinks that's unlikely to happen.
"Our cultures are different. Our regulatory environments are different. The actual assignment of a rating per se, we don't discuss. You know there are different value systems it varies culture to culture."
It is worth pointing out that the majority of video games do not contain gross sexual or violent content.
For example, only two titles were refused classification in Australia during the past year. In that same time period, 80% of all games rated with Europe's PEGI system were suitable for children under 16 years old. And of the 1,300 titles rated by the ESRB last year, only 8% received a Mature rating for 17 years and older.