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.
VideoGamer.com: Much of the work you do is trying to ensure that people play age appropriate games. Is it the case that you'll never stop under-18s playing GTAIV?
MR: I don't think you'll ever stop it. Not 100 per cent. Of course you won't. Like we can't stop kids under 16 smoking, or drinking alcohol. It's just not possible. At the end of the day we provide an age rating system that reflects the framework of development of children, which is a guide, it's give or take, but we have to put some hard markers on the sand for the shops. But as a parent you've got comparison of your child to other children in your peer group and you can see whether your child is ahead of the curve or behind the curve and then you have to use your judgement as a parent on whether you think they're ready or not ready, and the age rating there is a guide. So you've got on the one hand a legal system for supply, a labelling system as advice and guidance and you've got parental control that implements what is or what isn't appropriate. That's the system. Whether it's with or without parental knowledge children will play games below the age stipulated. If that's right or wrong it's for the parents to know. I guess I'm not advocating that a 12-year-old should play GTA. A 17 ½ year old? It's a different matter.
VideoGamer.com: One of the criticisms in the past of game publishers is that they have marketed their games in areas that would make you think the key demographic is below the rating given. Is that still happening.
MR: No. It shouldn't be happening. It's against the code of conduct under PEGI. PEGI says as a publisher, if you're rating a game under PEGI you must market it in accordance with the age rating. So you must not miss-market it. I think the industry has matured. It was a bit rock and roll when it started, there's no doubt about that. But nowadays it's run by men in suits who are respectable and have got families and who want to do the right thing. You might get it occasionally but you're not going to get it from the mainstream. What you'll get is the appearance of a game wanting to look a bit edgy. It may come through the PR more than through the marketing. If a game can get a bit of controversy around it and the press start writing about it, that's great. Keith Vaz has done more to sell Rockstar's games than Rockstar has. The original Manhunt was released, did diddly squat and fell right off the radar until the Stefan Pakeerah incident came and Vaz started shouting from the rooftops and then everyone went and bought the stuff.
VideoGamer.com: That's not the game industry's own problem, that happens with other things, too. If kids are told not to play something that's what they want to play.
MR: Of course. We did some research after the Pakeerah incident around adult ratings. The research company came back and had this wonderful phrase called 'the magic 18'. The 'magic 18' means this is a real game with real interest. It's just like a magnet. The kids want that proper game. A 16 rated game with a bit of shooting is not a proper one. If you go into a book store, how do you choose what's a good book or what's a bad book? How do you choose where the gory book is and where the titillating book is? If you're a young teenage kid and you want to go out and read about violence or get stimulated by the sex book, how do you find them? Not easy is it? Because there's no big labels on the front saying violence, sex, 18. It's not there. The only way you get it is by reading the cultural magazines on a Sunday or reading the book reviews or by going on the specialist websites that tell you. Wouldn't that be a better way to market a product? In a more level headed way. But we don't do that and we're forced not to do that. We're forced to go and stick a label on it that says it's 18 which acts as a magnet to the under age gamer.
What we're saying is it's got a rating, let's make that rating right, let's raise the awareness of parents that it's got a rating and what it means and empower them to parent their children and say yes or no. And to be firm. Parenting is tough. Telling your child no is not easy but no one asked them to have their kids. They've got to do their job. I don't remember being told no more than once by my mother.
VideoGamer.com: Anti-piracy forms a big part of your work. In terms of the UK how big a deal is piracy? Is it as big as some publishers say it is?
MR: Piracy is changing. More and more people can do piracy in the comfort of their own home. They can download stuff. They don't need to go and buy it from a car boot sale. We see less piracy in the old traditional ways. That doesn't mean it's gone away. It's just moving. We're desperately trying to tackle the chipping issue, because most of the consoles won't play a pirated game unless it's been modified itself. So if we can stop the consoles being modified then they won't be able to play the copied product and we can track it down. So that's our focus more and more. And we're trying to focus on the bigger players. We're trying to focus on those people who are running it as a business at the top end. We'll never tackle the kids that are copying a disc in the playground and sharing it with their mates. That's just too difficult. But if we can cut off the supply of modified consoles, chipping, that's a real positive start. If we can look at some of the auction sites where you've got prolific users with multiple user names and we've got some clever stuff that's able to pick that up and find them, that's good.
We take the approach that we always try and prosecute. Once you get a prosecution under a copyright or trademark offence Trading Standards can go for something called The Proceeds of Crime Act. What that says is if you are convicted you have to show that you got your income, your assets, your lifestyle from legitimate means. So if you're prosecuted and you've got a house in this country and a holiday home in Spain and you've got three cars in the drive and a few million in the bank you've got to prove that you've got all of those assets legitimately otherwise we'll assume you got them through criminal means. If you can't prove it then the court will make an assessment of how much you got through illegal activity and will put an order on you to pay that money back to the courts. If you can't pay that money within the time frame that the court says you get put in prison. And when you come out of prison you still have to pay it. And if you can't pay it you go back in prison again. It's the most draconian piece of legislation this government introduced to fight criminality. And do you know what? Criminals absolutely hate it, because it hurts them in their pocket.
VideoGamer.com: And what about PC piracy - games people download rather than buy. Is that a focus for you?
MR: The peer to peer stuff is done more on of an international basis than through ELSPA. We'll follow up leads that come into us. But this stuff can be tracked on a world wide basis. Our colleagues in America have got a big operation over there, so they're leading on that. But if they need help in the UK then they'll feed it through to us. So that's more of the route we take with that. But thinking about how gaming is moving and online, the gaming experience is that interactivity with other players, and your Xbox and your PS3 can detect if it's a copied product so they can block you at network level anyway. So unlike a movie where you don't need that connectivity, or music, we do have that extra piece of weaponry in our armoury so we have the potential to protect ourselves going forward. Not for everything, but for more and more things. Product will be sold online, it will be episodic, you'll need to have the product to get the next bit, so we have the potential to protect ourselves.
VideoGamer.com: What's the biggest challenge facing UK games development right now?
MR: From the UK heritage, we were at the forefront of creating games, through the Sinclair Spectrum and bedroom coders and all of that. It's become global. Publishers control a lot of the interests. The UK creators are increasingly under pressure. There's a lot of investment and support going into the Canadian market, a lot of product being made over there with tax incentives. I'm concerned that the UK games production code writing will go the way of other industries like hovercraft. We were at the forefront, then we lost it. We got to that point and we got cold feet and it all went abroad and someone else made the big bucks out of it. In terms of our industry we're still in the teenage years. We haven't grown up yet. We might be getting to the top end of teenage years.
VideoGamer.com: We might be able to play GTA soon!
MR: We might be! But in terms of where it's going, the future's ahead isn't it? You look at the Ealing films of the 50s. Now where's the UK film industry? There's some sense of a revival but actually the heart of the film industry is in the US and if the US doesn't want to bring their money to the UK, they don't want to bring it. We haven't got any of our own money saying we're backing Britain. We're reliant on someone else. Where's the game industry? Who controls the game industry? Sony, Japanese, Nintendo, Japanese, Microsoft, America, EA, America, Activision Blizzard, America. Where's the British publishers? Eidos and Codemasters.
VideoGamer.com: What can be done?
MR: We're trying to tell the government wake up and smell the coffee. You give incentives to the film industry to get people to come and invest here and you tell us that it's wonderful. I don't understand why they won't do it for the games industry but they seem incredibly reluctant. But we're really banging the drum on that. We're getting the evidence that shows that if they do that it will work, there's market failure and people are leaving this country. As publishers are investing in development what they're doing is growing their overseas businesses at a much greater rate than in the UK. Where the UK studios could double or triple or quadruple they're just sort of adding one or two staff. The differential is increasingly rapidly. We're gathering evidence to show the government that and if they did something they would reap the rewards. We're not asking them to prop up a failing industry, we're asking them to support a successful industry which will nurture talent and skills and creativity and economic value as well.
VideoGamer.com: So it's not too late?
MR: I don't think so. But it's almost too late.
VideoGamer.com: What's the knock on effect on the average gamer though?
MR: Well, that's a difficult one to answer. One could say quality. Although I think there are still some good games coming out from overseas. But we did make very good games, there's no doubt about that so there may be sort of a levelling off. What's the most successful game worldwide ever? GTA. And where was that made? We can still make the best games. If we lose it we lose it. That's a big issue. Otherwise to gamers? If they're made in Canada or America or Japan it won't make them more expensive per say. So it's difficult from a consumer perspective to say what they're going to lose except when it's gone it's gone. It's like the coal mines. Once they became not cost effective to run then the doors shut, even though there was still some coal in the ground it stayed in the ground and I doubt we'll ever go back and reopen. Once it's gone it's gone. Once these businesses shut their doors they're not going to get them are they? That's the concern.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time Michael.