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Legal Eye: Ratings game

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While video games may be a relatively new phenomenon, the industry has had to address the same age-old concerns about decency as other entertainment genres. It only took 12 years from Pac-Man (1980) to Mortal Kombat (1992) for complaints of excessive violence to be raised. To put things in perspective, Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code was adopted in 1930, a mere 20 years after the first movie was made in Hollywood.


Taking its cue from the movies, the video-game industry chose self-regulation over attempts at legislating decency standards. Some of the early skirmishes took place in the United States. In 1994, the US Congress considered a bill entitled the Video Game Rating Act of 1994, which would have created a federal commission for the rating of computer and video games. The gaming industry quickly worked out a compromise. The bill was scrapped, and a self-regulatory body, now known as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), was established in that same year.

Europe’s equivalent rating system is the Pan European Game Information (PEGI), which was launched in 2003. The PEGI system replaced a number of existing national European rating systems. Currently, it boasts use in 30 countries, including in Poland, most other countries in Europe and also Israel. Moreover, PEGI’s website claims “enthusiastic support” from the European Commission for this industry effort at EU harmonization.

Both the ESRB and PEGI are voluntary, industry rating systems. Both are keen, however, to point out that all of the major video and computer game producers and retailers adhere to the rules of the systems. While I have not attempted to confirm its veracity, PEGI claims that it would be hard to find a computer or video game in Europe without a PEGI rating.


The PEGI ratings are based upon suggestions as to appropriate age levels. They do not attempt to review whether a game is good or rate its difficulty. They do provide additional descriptions about the particular moral hazards that could be encountered in the game.

PEGI’s age categories are divided into 3, 7, 12, 16, and 18. PEGI 3 means that everyone can play. In this category, some cartoon violence is allowed, but otherwise it needs to be family-friendly. Not until a PEGI 16 rating can tobacco, drugs or criminal activity be depicted. PEGI 18 is applied to games where the level of violence could create a “sense of revulsion” in the viewer. In other words, it’s gross.

In addition to the age ratings, PEGI also considers the potentially inappropriate elements in a game. The packaging of a game should include a warning about why the game received a particular age-level rating. The warnings include violence, bad language, fear, drugs, sex, discrimination and gambling.

The ESRB uses slightly different age categories and a more extensive list of potential warnings, but the overall concept is similar.

No censorship

The key in the ratings system is to provide appropriate consumer warnings, but to avoid censorship. Again, the gaming industry took its cue from Hollywood. The introduction of a seal of approval requirement from the ratings board in 1934 effectively introduced censorship, albeit self-inflicted. Regardless, some movie icons, became victims of the new morality. Changes in attitudes and box office successes of non-approved films lead to the eventual demise of censorship.

Warnings, but not censorship, ultimately made good business sense.

Source: Judith Gliniecki, Warsaw Business Journal, 21st November 2011

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