Computer games to be given 'tough' new cinema-style ratings

Computer games will be given tough new cinema-style age ratings under proposals to protect children from violent material.

A Government-commissioned report - welcomed by Gordon Brown today - says video games can harm the development of children's beliefs and value systems - and desensitise them to violence.

It recommends that shopkeepers who sell games to children under the age on the box should face a £5,000 fine or a prison term of up to six months.

manhunt computer game

Scenes of gore and violence in computer games such as Manhunt, pictured, can harm children, the Government says

Current ratings, which are piecemeal and partly voluntary, would be replaced with a new legally-binding system with every game rated in the same way as films - which are classed U (universal), PG (parental guidance), 12, 15 or 18.

The age guidance would be printed clearly and prominently on its sleeve in a way that can be understood by parents who are not computer-savvy.

The Prime Minister said today that everything possible needed to be done to give parents and teachers the right information about the computer games played by children.

He said: "If our children were leaving the house, or going to a swimming pool or going to play in the street, we would take all the care possible about their safety - is there proper policing, is there proper safety?

"When a child goes on to the computer and on to the internet or on to a video game we should be thinking in the same way.

He told GMTV: "It's really difficult for parents because we didn't grow up in the computer age, many of us. We've got to make it easier for parents and get the information to them in a more simple form."


Violent and sexual material in games should be censored, according to the new report

Mr Brown, who is known to support cross-party calls for controls on increasingly violent and sexual material online and in games, said the classification system must be simplified so 12 years old becomes a clear watershed.

"We've got to get the classification clearer so that people know 12-plus," he said.

"When someone is trying to sell a game they've got to give the proper information."

Mr Brown added: "I think Britain can lead the world in this because other countries have got the same problems and all of us as parents are worried about our children so let's see if we can make a difference in this."

The report's author, clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron, said today: "I'm making some pretty tough recommendations to the Prime Minister, to the Government, about the video game classification system and about the internet generally and how we can empower parents and teacher and all adults to help children be safe."

She said it was important that parents understood fully what they were buying for their children and were able to make an informed choice.

"I'm asking the Prime Minister to change legislation so that from 12 upwards children or parents can't buy games unless it's for the right age of the child.

"Parents need advice and support and we need to take the issue of digital safety in the UK really seriously."

Her report urges parents not to let children play video games alone in their bedrooms but to insist they only play them in the living room or kitchen, where they can be better monitored.

At present, only about 10 per cent of computer games - those featuring "gross" violence or offensive sexual images - are covered by an age classification system overseen by the British Board of Film Classification.

Other games come under a separate, entirely voluntary European-wide scheme, meaning that less than three per cent of games carry an 18 certificate.

Dr Byron said the current system was too confusing and not tough enough.

She wants a single ratings system, displayed prominently on all packaging materials - like health warnings on cigarettes - as well as on display cases in shops.

Dr Byron, best known for her work as child behaviour guru on TV shows Little Angels and House of Tiny Tearaways, was launching her report today alongside Schools Secretary Ed Balls and Culture Secretary Andy Burnham in London.

It comes just a week after a public outcry when the courts decided to overturn a ban on the ultra-violent Manhunt 2 game.

The BBFC had rejected it for its gratuitous violence and "sustained and cumulative casual sadism". But the overturning of the ban means it can be sold with an 18 certificate.

Later this year, the new Grand Theft Auto IV is expected to be filled with scenes of violence and sex.

"My review is not about making any kind of moral pronouncements, although I do think it is important to look at the desensitisation to violence," said Dr Byron.

"The more violent images that are around, I think it does desensitise society and we need to think about that."

She said all games consoles should include a blocking mechanism so parents could stop children watching unsuitable games on them.

Many children sidestep age classifications by ordering games over the internet, where they merely have to tick a box stating they are over 18.

Dr Byron, who has two children aged nine and 12, said parents should also be aware of the dangers of the internet.

"Parents are afraid to let their children out so they keep them at home - but allow them to take risks online," she said.

She is calling for a massive public campaign to educate parents and teachers about how to get the best benefit from the internet and computers without being exposed to its risks, such as pornography.

Parents will be encouraged to monitor children's internet use.

She said: "You would not send your child to the pool without teaching them to swim, so why would you let them online without teaching them to manage the risks?

"We have to make child digital safety a priority. If you are under 18 you should not be able to buy and '18' game and if you are under 12 you should not be able to buy a '12' game."

Parents could be given guidance - or maybe even computer classes - to ensure that they cannot be outwitted by their more computer-savvy children.

The report is recommending the establishment of a UK Council for Child Internet Safety, reporting to the Prime Minister, with representation from Government, industry, children's charities, young people and parents.

The industry will be challenged to take greater responsibility by drawing up codes of practice for social networking sites like Bebo and mySpace; introducing more effective regulation of online advertising; and improving access to parental control software.

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