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James Blatch of the BBFC talks exclusively to NAGF

The BBFC Talks Modern Warfare 2, Censorship and How They Keep Gaming Standards High

The timing couldn’t have been more coincidental. Just as we get our interview back from the wonderful James Blatch of ratings body, the BBFC, news started to spread of a terrorist bombing at a Russian airport. It was only a matter of time before alarmist arms of the British media created a link between Modern Warfare 2 and the tragedy.

The BBFC’s official stance, as usual, is dripping with common sense and reason. But we didn’t just ask about Modern Warfare 2 [albeit before the bombing occurred]. We wanted to know about how games are rated, the debates that rage behind closed doors and just how grizzly a game has to be before it’s deemed too disturbing for the public.

James Blatch of the BBFC - a keen, level-headed gamer

If any distributor is in any doubt, we are more than happy to help them out. We’re not in the business of forcing work our way – if a game doesn’t need to come to us, we will say so!

1: Hi James, so, who’s in charge when it’s time for a game to get rated? What’s the process? Do the BBFC request it from the developer/publisher or is it compulsory that material be sent your way by law if it’s to be sold at retail?

The Video Recordings Act (1984 and amended in 2010) sets out the criteria for when a game requires a classification. Until last year the law only required the stronger games to come to the BBFC, but in the future most games will legally have to get a classification before distribution with PEGI taking over this role some time later this year.

In legal terms the onus is on the distributor to submit the game and then conform with the labelling and packaging regulations (displaying the category etc). Some games will be exempt, in the same way that some DVDs are currently exempt (such as sport DVDs), in this case there is no formal ‘exempt’ category, it’s just a case of the distributor deciding it doesn’t require a category and not sending it in.

2: How strict are the guidelines that need to be followed when rating games, and how personal are you allowed to get during the process? Do personal or religious beliefs help to influence a decision in any way?

The Guidelines have be drawn up following very extensive public consultations. We must be able to use them to explain and justify every decision we make. Having said that the Guidelines do give us scope for interpretation in some areas. Context is the key element.

The same issue may be placed at two different categories depending on how it’s presented. In terms of our personal beliefs, there is no scope for individual examiners bringing their own set of criteria to the job, however our life experiences are an important part of the ongoing development of our Guidelines. I for instance have two young children and how they and their friends react to films and video games (I’m getting them started on the Wii!) is a great way for me to think about how we approach issues at the junior categories.

Some examiners are religious, others atheist, some are parents, others are single, we can all provide differing real life contexts to issues that come up in works. It makes for lively discussions on occasions…

3: To what extent does the story play a part when justifying some of the more gratuitous scenes that you come across? We point to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where toward the very start of the game you walk in a very cinematic manner through an airport terminal slaying dozens of pedestrians in your wake. It must be tough not to make a snap judgement when interacting with something like that?

(Video courtesy of xCheezbrgr)

Good question. In film the narrative context is vital, it can help justify scenes that would otherwise look gratuitous or on other occasions it can aggravate what might have been acceptable at a lower category. There’s been a lot of debate about how far video game story-lines can work in the same way.

There are some important differences between the two mediums, firstly it’s impossible to ignore the storyline in a film, it is after all the substance of the work. But video games can be played with the user giving scant regard to the narrative, even if the developer intends it to be a big part of the game playing experience. Most games allow you to skip cutscenes, for instance.

That’s not to say they don’t count for something, but we are perhaps a little more cautious about using a narrative to justify strong issues in video games. In the case of Modern Warfare 2, the ‘undercover’ storyline leading to the airport scene was taken into account and most significantly the fact that whatever action the player took, [SPOILER ALERT] the player-character would be killed.

But in the end the level was felt to be at the upper end and the adult category (18) was the appropriate choice. We also noted that the game offered supervising parents the option to disable the level altogether, which seemed like a responsible move but we couldn’t offer a 15/18 category, because it doesn’t exist!

The BBFC logo

The Call of Duty series has been a mixture of real life scenarios (exaggerated for effect of course) and some over the top elements (John Kennedy fighting off zombies!). The airport scene was perhaps less like other aspects of Modern Warfare, that is to say less grounded in the usual armed forces world. That lack of realism meant that the level might have come across as a macabre arcade game, which increases its potential for offence.

(Of course the option not to shoot at innocent passengers in the airport lounge was there, but have you ever met anyone who didn’t SLAUGHTER EVERYONE!).

4: How much influence do media stories have in a judgement? There was a lot of press, for instance, about the Taliban being featured in the latest Medal of Honor game whilst there was a storm of controversy about the possibility of babies getting slaughtered in Dante’s Inferno. Do you have to ignore things like that and, in the case of the Taliban and our earlier point, what influence would religion have had on the overall Medal of Honor judgement if the Taliban were indeed included?

I’ve been at the BBFC for five years and in that time there’s been a steady succession of press stories about our work. But we’re a self confident organisation with very nearly 100 years of experience. We take complaints seriously of course but to react to every criticism would be a mistake.

We need to make the right decision, base it on our published Guidelines and then defend it. In terms of Medal of Honor, the risk was one of offence to some people rather than harm. Even something that is likely to be extremely offensive to people is unlikely to get it rejected (but not impossible). It would be more likely to see its category raised to acknowledge this aspect of the game.

5: Is violence more acceptable in a game if it isn’t happening to a human being? If a robot or alien is being brutally decapitated for instance, does that make it more acceptable? If yes then why?

In simple terms: YES. It’s all about context (a bit of a mantra here in Soho Square). In the Lego series of video games, the player is basically blasting little Lego pieces to bits, that’s something my five year old does with the real thing and on the Wii all the time (so far he seems normal…). But if it were the real Luke and Leia, even without blood effects, we might be looking at raising the category.

(Video courtesy of NeuromancerLV)

6: Give us some examples of titles that were just too foul to ever hit the shelves and why. The more detail the better!

In 26 years of classifying video games only one video game has been successfully rejected and that was the original Manhunt 2 (a modified version was passed 18 on appeal). In terms of DVD, we end up rejecting a very small number each year, in 2010 it was just one, Lost in the Hood, a porn work that featured sexual attacks, so it was at the extreme end of retail DVD.

7: On a more personal level do you take your work home with you James? Are you a fan of gaming? Do you ever look at a title and think to yourself “I would have given that an 18 all day long!”

James and his colleagues help keep us safe at night!

I love my gaming of course. I’ve been playing since I got my first Sinclair ZX80. It’s a little more difficult now with a young family (hence the Wii), but I’ll try and play through the campaigns of the major games and perhaps rack up a few hours on multiplayer. There’s quite a few of us at the BBFC who are keen, so evenings can sometimes disappear in a haze of Xbox Live sessions!

In terms of being an armchair censor at home, I think it’s difficult to switch off completely and yes there have been occasions when I’ve seen something that’s raised my eyebrows. But of course I’m just looking at a small section of the game, while colleagues have considered the entire submission.

An example is Call of Duty: World at War. I was a little taken aback by the strength, at 15, of the opening cutscene in a Japanese POW camp. But by the time I’d invaded Berlin at the end of the campaign I was certain that 15 was the correct classification.

Thanks very much for your time, James!

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