Michael Rawlinson has one of the toughest jobs in gaming. He's the general manager of ELSPA, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, which rules the roost over the games you play and the companies that make them. Not only is he faced with a government that's asking tough questions about how games are rated, but he's also got to defend the industry when the mass media start spouting sensationalist headlines about 'murder simulators'. And if that wasn't enough, he's also the bloke in charge of tackling video game piracy, too. Phew. We sat down with Michael to discuss all of that, as well as hear why gamers should write to your local MP telling them PEGI is a better choice for game ratings than the BBFC.
VideoGamer.com: The ratings system from a parents perspective is obviously very useful. But in the research you've conducted and others have conducted, how widely do parents actually pay attention to the ratings? How much influence do they really have?
Michael Rawlinson: I think that's one of our big issues. That's one of the reasons why I want to back PEGI actually. There's been talk about people knowing the BBFC, but all the evidence that I've seen says that when the parent sees the BBFC logo on a film they take note. So when it's an 18-rated film for violence or sex they say 'oh I'm not letting Jonny watch that as a teenager'. But when they see that logo on a box relative to a game they say 'oh it's only a game I'm sure it can't be that bad'. So they may recognise the logo but their attitude to that logo in the context of the game and all of the brand values and all of the reassurance that a BBFC logo brings in respect to a film gets thrown out of the window when it comes to a game. So we actually think that the government backing PEGI and at the same time PEGI entering into a phase of consumer awareness, and let's be honest we need to tell parents that games are not just for children, we need to get that message across, and we can do that by saying this PEGI logo means this is a game. A game is not just for children therefore take note of the age rating. We've got to find sensitive ways in which to tell them what sort of content is in adult games because for some of them they don't have that experience and they have no idea what a game looks like. You ask a parent what might an adult film contain and they would start to reel off a whole list, gross violence, there will be sex in there, they'll have ideas of what an adult rated film looks like. If you ask them what an adult rated game looks like they may even question whether this is such a thing as an adult rated game, except they might think about Manhunt or GTA that they've read a little about in the papers.
We do need to contextualise it though, that less than three per cent of the output in terms of titles is adult in any given years. In terms of sales through the high street it was about six per cent. In the context of that we shouldn't overplay it; on the other hand we do need parents to take note. It's a time thing. In another five, ten years we won't have this problem because the adults will have been gamers and will still be gamers. I can see the situation where the parents during the day time and the early evening will be playing with their children appropriate games but at the same time when the adult's clamouring for that other product the father or the mother will be saying no, when you've gone to bed mummy and daddy will be playing that game, when you're older you'll be able to play it. So those conversations will begin to happen as the generations move on but at the moment we need to help them.
VideoGamer.com: Is it just a case of getting on GMTV and preaching the message?
MR: Well we were on GMTV. I was on GMTV last Thursday morning. Interestingly I had John Stapleton telling me how dreadful GTA was and how appalled he was that his young teenage son was playing it. Well you're the parent you stop him. It's rated 18 we didn't make you buy it for him.
VideoGamer.com: Did you say that to him?
MR: I didn't quite say that to him.
VideoGamer.com: You should have!
MR: I should have said it but then that would have been rather rude. But I did say it's rated 18 by the BBFC and parents need to take note of it.
VideoGamer.com: Case in point then.
MR: Case in point. Right in front of me. Maybe the BBFC isn't working, I said something like that. But we've got to use lots of different avenues. When we advertise the product, whether that be on television, in print, on the web, highlight the age rating. We've got to make sure it's clear and bold enough. And we do that. We've got to make sure there's information in the store, so when people are buying the products there are leaflets to be handed out, there are posters explaining it and the staff can be knowledgeable and communicate that to parents. I think that's happening and a lot of the store staff are getting that kick back from the parent, it'll be all right for Johnny he's old enough to play it, they're not listening. There's a myriad of ways and I'm not a marketer but what I do know is our industry is full of very clever people that market products. We only need to look at what's happened with the Wii and the DS over the last couple of years to change the way we play games. We've moved tremendously, and we've done that through PR and marketing. So we can do it on this. I'm absolutely convinced we can do it. We've got some broad ideas and we'll work with the industry and with government. The government has tremendous access to children and to parents. And we've got to use every opportunity we can and maybe there's some sort of snappy hard hitting campaign as we had with drink driving and with putting on your seatbelt, around child safety on the internet.
VideoGamer.com: Currently a 16-year-old for example might chance their arm and buy GTA from GAME or Gamestation, much like they would try and buy alcohol if they're the oldest looking person in their peer group. Currently it's a no lose situation for the person trying to do that. If they don't get sold the game nothing happens. But it's illegal to sell it. Should there be some kind of deterrent there?
MR: I think we have to get it into perspective that actually there are many things in this world that are not age appropriate for children. That runs from the youngest to the eldest child. In this country the age of adulthood starts at 18. Are all 18s mature and adult like? I'm not sure they are. But that's the line in the sand that as a society we've drawn. How daft is it you can get married at 16 but you can't buy a porn film until you're 18? You can be making your own at 16 but you can't watch someone else. So there are a lot of anomalies out there. So we shouldn't get too hung up around the edges. We need to set some clear guidelines. Tanya Byron recommended it be illegal to sell a game to someone not age appropriate under the age of 12. That can't be enforced. Because you've got to prove the offence, you've got to send someone under the age of 12 into the shop, mic'ed and wired for sound and vision to record that process but it's deemed inappropriate to use under 12 year-olds for test purchases, so you can't use the under 12 person to go and make the purchase so if you use someone who's over 12 to make the purchase they haven't committed an offence. So technically you've got issues prosecuting. But that doesn't mean it doesn't make sense to make it illegal to sell to someone under the age of 12 because it puts the shop keeper on their toes, it gives them the backing to say no, and they know the shop around the corner will also say no.