Age ratings on games don’t only protect youngsters from mature content – though that is a vitally important function of their application. They also make sure, in limiting games with mature content to adult audiences, that video games as a medium do have the option of exploring mature themes, topics and issues. If we didn’t have the option of giving a game and 18-years-plus rating, mature games simply couldn’t be sold, because they might be provided to young players. So age ratings protect younger players, and game’s ability to offer experiences for a range of age-groups.
Sometimes, though, a game isn’t suitable for anybody, and even an 18-years-plus PEGI rating isn’t enough. In that case, The VSC Rating Board has to refuse a game a rating, meaning it cannot be sold in stores in the UK. It is perhaps the most significant power The VSC Rating Board has in protecting the UK from harmful gaming content. But like any great power, it is wielded with great responsibility. Banning a game is a big decision. Done without thought it could restrict freedom of speech and stifle the UK games industry’s ability to make money and offer careers.
As such, the decision to ban a game is taken very seriously, and it is extremely unusual to see it happen. Indeed, until recently the last time we came close to a banned game in the UK was when, in 2007, Rockstar’s game Manhunt 2 was not granted a rating. In that case, the developer made changes to the game, and later that year an edited version of Manhunt 2 was granted an 18-years plus rating, with the game going on sale in Europe in 2008.
A decade later, we have only just seen the next game banned. And as that case proves, sometimes a ban is the only reasonable option.
The title in question is erotic RPG Omega Labyrinth Z; part of a sub-genre of role-playing games with sexualised and pornographic content. And in this case, the game has crossed the line through what The VSC Rating Board has highlighted as the “sexualisation of children”; something particularly concerning when the gameplay itself focuses on sexualised interactions.
In a detailed statement on the decision not to give the game an age rating - making it illegal to sell in boxed form in the UK – the Rating Board said: “the game clearly promotes the sexualisation of children via the sexual interaction between the game player and the female characters. The style of the game is such that it will attract an audience below the age of 18.”
A little more detail was provided on why this kind of game should not be allowed a release in the UK, in terms of the potential dangers of it seeing release.
“There is a serious danger that impressionable people, i.e. children and young people viewing the game would conclude that the sexual activity represented normal sexual behaviour," the statement continues. "There is a constant theme of sexual innuendo and activity throughout the game that suggests behaviour likely to normalise sexual activity towards children. As a means of reward gained by successfully navigating the game, the player has the means to sexually stimulate the female characters by using either a hand held remote device or touch screen software.”
PQube – which was endeavouring to publish the Japanese-made game in the UK – responded in a statement to games industry site GamesIndustry.biz, saying: “PQube specialises in the localisation of Japanese video games and endeavours to publish them as faithfully to the Japanese source material as possible.”
The publisher has, however, agreed to respect and comply with the rating decision entirely, and will not pursue appeals; having appealed in one other territory. Omega Labyrinth Z will also not see release in Germany and Australia, says the BBC, and the publisher has confirmed that it will not be on sale in New Zealand and Ireland.
This effective ban goes a long way to demonstrating the power The VSC Rating Board can wield when needed. It also demonstrates that players young and old are protected from the rare cases in which the game medium can be harmful. And while it only covers physical sales from a legal perspective, the ban is likely to have a significant impact on any digital release.
Game’s potential to entertain, challenge and provoke thought remains, and should be as free as is reasonable to flourish. But when a game crosses the line, The VSC Rating Board and the PEGI ratings system are here to protect us.