Violent Video Games

– in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 17th January 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 10:27 pm, 17th January 2005

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the important issue of controlling the sale of violent video games. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts is on the Front Bench.

Hon. Members may recall that I raised at Prime Minister's questions on 15 September 2004 the case of Stefan Pakeerah, a 14-year-old Leicester schoolboy who was brutally murdered. Stefan's parents believe that the perpetrator of that savage attack was influenced by the video game "Manhunt". Stefan's mother, Giselle Pakeerah, has been campaigning to ban the sale of the PlayStation2 game. Stefan's father, Patrick Pakeerah, said:

"The game was like an instruction manual".

Seventeen-year-old Warren Le Blanc pleaded guilty to Stefan's murder and will serve at least 13 years in prison before being considered for release.

Since the tragic attack, I have been sharing the concerns of the Pakeerah family and have received a growing number of letters from concerned parents on the issue. I am grateful for the support of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend Ann Taylor and other parliamentary colleagues.

The intense worry about video and computer games is based on the belief that the violent games are totally inappropriate for all children. Video games have come a long way since the creation of Pong in the early 1970s. Nowadays, there are thousands of games to choose from, and the technology becomes more and more sophisticated every day. In a little more than two years, video game consoles have gone from processing 350,000 polygons per second—a measure of graphic and action quality—to 125 million polygons per second. The increasingly realistic and exciting nature of electronic games has helped to make them immensely popular with children and youths. According to David Walsh, a researcher with the National Institute on Media and the Family, 79 per cent. of American children now play computer or video games on a regular basis. Children between the ages of seven and 17 play for an average of eight hours a week. I am the father of two children—Luke, aged nine, and Anjali, aged seven. They, too, play these games.

For the video games industry, 2004 was one of the most successful gaming years ever. Sales totalled £1.34 billion in the UK last year, a rise of 6.6 per cent. on 2003, according to the European Leisure Software Publishers Association. The game most anticipated for 2004 was "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas", and it has sold an astonishing 1.75 million copies since its release at the end of October 2004. Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a gaming explosion. According to Deloitte and Touche, the worldwide number of game-compliant devices other than personal computers—mobile phones, consoles and hand-held computers, for example—will see a sixfold rise by 2010, from 415 million now to 2.6 billion.

Most of the games on the market are appropriate for young players, and the best of them can bring a lot of benefits. Besides being fun, some of the games provide practice in problem solving and logic, as well as in strategising. However, the few games that feature violence, gore and antisocial behaviour have raised concerns. The virtual reality aspect of games has entered a new phase of reviving history by replaying it. The recent launch of JFK Reloaded, which allows players to simulate the shooting of former American President John F. Kennedy, can be easily downloaded from the internet without any control measures, and be played by children younger than the recommended age limit. This disgusting game, with its appalling content, should not be allowed on the market.

The case of Stefan Pakeerah shocked the city of Leicester. Warren Le Blanc lured Stefan from Glenfield into the woodlands near his home at Stokes Wood Park, New Parks, Leicester, then chillingly inflicted more than 50 injuries with a claw hammer and a kitchen knife. He initially intended robbing Stefan of drugs and cash to raise money to pay off a debt. Mrs. Pakeerah, a senior nurse, remembers her only son as an intelligent, handsome, courteous and amazingly popular young man with an excellent sense of humour and a real zest for life. More than 350 people attended Stefan's funeral, and there are more than 1,200 entries on a memorial website set up in memory of Stefan by one of his friends. It is obvious that Stefan was loved by many people and held in very high regard. Passing sentence, Judge Michael Stokes QC said to Le Blanc:

"You've committed a truly appalling crime and have taken the life of a 14-year-old boy in the most brutal fashion. You and you alone carried out a prolonged murderous vicious attack with weapons upon someone who thought you were a friend."

Stefan's parents believe that their son's killer mimicked a game called Manhunt, in which players score points for brutal killings. The game has been banned in Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand's chief censor, Bill Hastings, has cited the game as the most violent ever made. I pay tribute to Mrs. Pakeerah, a brave and courageous mother, who in her grief could easily have let matters pass, but who has started an impressive campaign on this issue. She will not give up until something is done.

Violence is a recurring theme in the media, and the two combined have often been linked with aggressive behaviour in young people. The current trend in video games is for the players to be the bad guys, acting out criminal fantasies and earning points for attacking and killing innocent bystanders. Although the games are rated 18 for adult audiences, it is common knowledge that they are popular among young people. Nine out of 10 children have a computer or games console. A quarter play video games every day.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I well remember the ghastly case that the hon. Gentleman raises well, and it was a clear example of virtual reality spilling out into violent real life. Does he agree that there are two main problems? The first is the apparent reluctance of the British Board of Film Classification, which has been responsible for such games since 1984, to act to ban them or give them a serious classification unless there is clear evidence of a link, which it is difficult to prove scientifically. The second is that too many of the games that are rated as being for adults only are sold to under-age children through high street retailers who do not realise—as they do when it comes to selling cigarettes or alcohol to young people—the damage that such games can do. Parents do not know what they are letting their children get into.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right and I agree with everything that he said. I hope later in my speech to point out what can be done.

Most games are harmless entertainment, but in many amazingly lifelike popular titles, children are acting out violent experiences on their screens. According to the Video Standards Council, 97 per cent. of all games are suitable for everyone. The few that qualify for careful scrutiny contain the following material. Players in "Grand Theft Auto 3" earn points by carjacking and stealing drugs from street people and pushers. In "Carmageddon", players are rewarded for mowing down pedestrians—sounds of cracking bones add to the realistic effect. The first-person shooter in "Duke Nukem" hones his skills by using pornographic posters of women for target practice, and earns bonus points for shooting naked and bound prostitutes and strippers who beg, "Kill me." In the game "Postal", players act out the part of the postal dude, who earns points by randomly shooting everyone who appears, including people walking out of church and members of a high school band. Postal dude is programmed to say, "Only my gun understands me."

Unlike films and television, which are passively watched, the game lets the player feel the sensation of committing violent acts. Those playing the game are in the game, but there is no pain or aftermath, so children never learn the real-life consequences. The main concern is that children, unlike adults—and rightly so—have a problem in separating fantasy from reality. When young children play those violent video games, they are becoming more and more vulnerable to those violent messages.

Following a public outcry, I convened a meeting with a few parliamentarians and the members of the video games industry to highlight the ambiguities in the current system. Towards the end of last year, in a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the House, Mrs. Pakeerah and I urged him to tackle the menace of violent video games by examining the existing law governing the classification of video games—in particular, their labelling—and requesting the governing board to take a more cautious approach. My right hon. Friend made it clear at the meeting that he was looking at ways to strengthen legislation in the area to protect children. He listened with great care and attention to Mrs. Pakeerah and I am most grateful to him for his real concern about the issue.

I wish to make it clear that the campaign is not about stopping adults doing anything: it is about protecting our children. Following the firm commitment by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to protect children and to review the law governing video games, I value the opportunity to debate the issue in this House.

Over the years, there have been more than 3,000 research studies into the effects of screen violence, encompassing film, television, video and, more recently, computer and video games. However, little research has been carried out on interactive entertainment as it was originally perceived as a harmless and enjoyable pastime. Nevertheless, with the ever-increasing interest and participation of young children in that activity, much concern has been expressed about the effects of such games on them. At the centre of the debate is the question of whether they are detrimental to a young person's healthy development. There are specific concerns about the implications for aggression, addiction, criminal activity and reduced academic achievement.

I understand that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is commissioning a review of existing research to determine whether there is a link between playing violent video games and real-world behaviour. The last such Government study was carried out by the Home Office in 2001, and the results were inconclusive. Research into the effects of long-term exposure to computer games on subsequent behaviour is noticeably lacking and at present remains speculative. Studies to examine the effects of computer games on children's aggressive behaviour and self-esteem only involve measurement of the possible short-term aggressive consequences, so I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to fill that question vacuum and commission new research into the long-term effects of playing such interactive games.

Last week, accompanied by Mrs. Pakeerah, I visited the third largest interactive publisher in the UK, Activision based in Slough, to see how publishers classify video games. Activision is a leading international publisher of video games, with 6 per cent. of the market share; its European headquarters is in the United Kingdom. Its profits for last year are estimated at just over £100 million. Some of its games include "Doom 3", "X-Men" and "Spider-Man".From my visit, I learned that violence in over-18 video games is a staple of the video game industry. It takes between 20 and 60 people to develop an idea for a game and between 12 and 18 months to create it. The entire investment period can take up to three years. During that time, the board responsible for classifying the video game is called in to give expertise about the rating to be given to the game and about its target audience.

At the early stages in the creation of the video, the publisher foresees, using guidelines set out by the video games classification board, which rating the game should receive. Once the creation of the game is complete, using the pan-European game information system, the ratings are carried out by members of the games industry using a self-assessment form. After examining a game, the in-house coder uses an existing set of answers and the game is rated automatically on that basis. An age is established for each content category, based on the answers on the assessment form.

The method may sound fair but in action, as I witnessed when I visited Activision, the game does not end up with the British Board of Film Classification until after it has been produced. Thus, using the Video Standards Council and PEGI guidelines, the publisher will resort to reviewing the game again if it has been rejected. I urge the British Board of Film Classification to take a much more cautious approach in reviewing those games, and also to provide publishers with much more stringent and unambiguous guidelines and detailed feedback about why a video game has failed to qualify for a particular rating. With advances in the technology to create those games, it is only sensible that the guidelines for publishers be updated.

Ten years ago, the average game cost £200,000 to develop, whereas now the average budget is more than £1 million. The level of violence in the gaming habits of young people is disturbingly high, and 65 per cent. of the market is made up of boys aged between 13 and 16 years. On 1 November, the ITV programme "Tonight with Trevor McDonald" revealed from a nationwide survey of 223 children aged between 11 and 14 that computer games featuring drugs, sex and violence are being bought by boys as young as 12 in supermarkets and high street shops. More than two thirds of young people aged between 11 and 14 admitted that they had played games certified 18 plus. Boys aged 12 to 14 were seen in the programme buying adult games from Tesco, Virgin, Dixons, John Lewis, Sainsbury and Asda. The programme highlighted the problem that it is so easy for children to get hold of those games. Something needs to change.

Any shopkeeper who supplies a game in breach of the law can be sent to jail for six months, fined £5,000, or both. The law needs to be better enforced. To date, the retailers caught on the Trevor McDonald programme have not been prosecuted. According to the Video Standards Council, which also represents a large number of the UK retailers shown in the film, because the action was recorded for television, people should not be liable to prosecution. I therefore urge Minister to ask the Attorney-General to review that absurdity and prosecute those retailers for their actions, so that, in future, retailers can fully appreciate the consequence of selling adult-rating video games to children. We need to make an example of one to make the rest take this seriously.

Parents are becoming very concerned about the messages that their children are receiving while playing such games. Parents need to be made more aware that video games are much more difficult and more ingenious than ping-pong and that they contain such violent activity. An interesting approach was launched in Canada last year, ahead of the Christmas shopping period, entitled "Commitment to Parents". A voluntary code was provided whereby parents entered into a dialogue with the retailers, thus enabling progress to be made to the benefit of parents and young children.

Video and computer games will continue to be an exciting and growing part of children's media diets. As long as children have easy access to those games, policy debates will continue. There is much that is pernicious, banal and crude in popular culture. We must question what kind of society allows, if not encourages, youngsters to immerse themselves in such brutal fantasy games. Makers of the more violent games are pushing the outer limits of savagery and depravity, and current provisions have been widely criticised as ineffectual and confusing, so they need to be changed.

I urge the Minister to do a number of things, and I seek her commitment on them. More research is needed into the long-term effects of playing such interactive games and their effect on children. Better regulation is needed, with much more clear and stringent guidelines, including transparent responsibility between the BBFC, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association and PEGI. The current voluntary arrangements are too cosy. A more instructive and uniform labelling system is needed for parents to comprehend. Parents need to be educated, so that they become more aware of the content of games. The law must be better enforced. Retailers must be made aware of their responsibilities and prosecuted when they break the law.

The tragic death of Stefan Pakeerah will be with his parents, family and friends for ever. I hope that this debate can shed light into the current ambiguities and prevent further callous attacks from happening again.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts) 10:47 pm, 17th January 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Keith Vaz not only on securing this Adjournment debate but on the campaign that he has waged relentlessly on behalf of his constituents and, in doing so, on behalf of many parents and many citizens of this country. I acknowledge that the debate follows a meeting with the Prime Minister, questions asked in the House and, as he informed us today, a visit to the industry itself. I thank him for raising these difficult issues, which we ought to address.

I also acknowledge the intervention made by Tim Loughton. The fact that he stayed for a short Adjournment debate shows his commitment, and I thank him for his interest. If he wishes, we will keep him informed of what we are able to do.

I wish to put the issue into a wider context. We are all struck by the fact that this fast-growing, fast-moving industry uses technology that was not around when we were children and parents must become involved in something that is more unfamiliar to them than it is to their children. There is a danger that regulation enforcement follows the trend. As regulation catches up with a new invention, another new invention comes along. I make no criticism of anyone, but bureaucracy and government, both locally and nationally, can be slow and cumbersome in trying to ensure that it catches up.

It is important to recognise that the games industry is a huge British success story. It earns money for us, and it earns us standing in the European and worldwide community. It is a good thing, and we are good at it. Most of the games, not those that have been mentioned this evening, add to the education, entertainment and cultural well-being of our nation—I would not want to suggest anything else—but, clearly, there is an issue with those that are violent or teach people how to commit crimes, and I would not want to pretend for a minute that such games do not exist.

There might be an element of repetition, but I want to go over where we are, what has happened since my hon. Friend met the Prime Minister and where we might go in the future.

The current position on classifying video games is important and it comes in two parts. First, under section 2 of the Video Recordings Act 1984, computer games are exempt from statutory classification unless they depict gross violence, human sexual activity or techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences. As my hon. Friend said, about 30 games—about 2 per cent.—are referred each year to the British Board of Film Classification and they can be given an age rating that can be over 18. I do not have a feel for whether that figure is an indication that an insufficient number of games are being referred and that the relationship is too cosy. I do not have the evidence to go on, but I take the point that it could become too cosy. I want to give more thought to whether the statistic of 30, or 2 per cent. a year, is what one might expect to be referred to the BBFC given the nature of the industry.

As my hon. Friend said, the United Kingdom has been involved in a pan-European system since 2003. It is a voluntary age-related classification system—the PEGI—that the Video Standards Council administers. As we know, these games cross national boundaries and we could find ourselves in the position in which an excellent UK classification and enforcement system went out of the window because games were being downloaded in the UK. As much cross-nation work as we can possibly do is important. That is why I welcome the Video Standards Council's administration of the PEGI system in the UK. As my hon. Friend, said it is an offence to sell video games to someone not of the age to buy them.

Since my hon. Friend met the Prime Minister and representatives of our Department in early December, we have done what we can to improve the system. First, we held a meeting with all the representatives of the trade association, and that was a direct consequence of the meeting that my hon. Friend had. It involved the trade associations for the computer games and video games industries, the BBFC, video games retailers, the Video Standards Council and local government enforcement agencies.

A number of things have emerged from that voluntary meeting. First, those at the meeting agreed that they would consider a new code of practice for retailers selling the games. That will be drawn up together with training and regulation of sales. That sounds good, and it is a voluntary code. That is where we are at the moment, and we need to see how it goes. It is important because the people selling the games will be personally liable for the consequences of any offence if they should be found guilty.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about parents understanding their responsibilities. Many parents who would not dream of letting their child see an X-rated film are less understanding of the need to monitor their child's behaviour and activity with video games. They did not play such games when they were children and they have to rush to catch up with what is happening. My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who shares Government responsibility with my Department for this issue, reminded parents of that before Christmas. Much more needs to be done, and the Government and the industry have to take responsibility to make sure that we inform more parents about what is happening.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Places such as Dixons—to cite just one—are seen as fairly child friendly. Will the Minister support the sort of sting operations that the police and trading standards use for the under-age selling of drink and tobacco? Should they not also be applied to the under-age selling of video games to make sure that the issue is taken seriously?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

I would support that. It is an enforcement issue and I shall come to that shortly. However, I accept that there is an issue about priorities and resources, but I will come back to that point.

Some 85 per cent. of the games that the BBFC classifies carry an age warning. It and the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association are now working to make sure that all games carry an age warning and hope to have that in place by the middle of this year. We are also discussing with the industry the possibility of voluntarily increasing the size of the symbol that indicates the age under which children should not purchase the games so that it is more obvious to parents as well as to young people. If the voluntary agreement is not forthcoming, it will be open to us to examine the regulations because the size of the symbol is set out in regulations. We would not need primary legislation because the regulations could be changed if necessary.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made an important point about enforcement. We have met the Local Government Association and the Trading Standards Institute to ensure that they consider enforcement. It is the easiest thing in the world to have legislation, but unless trading standards people treat the matter as a priority, nothing will change. Trading standards enforcement agencies have probably not caught up with the extent of the new crime of online piracy, so that will need to form part of our ongoing negotiations.

Research is important, but it is not easy to separate the effect of a game on children from the influence of many other aspects of society, such as what they read, what they watch at the cinema and what they see on the street. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will know that, following his meeting with the Prime Minister, we have commissioned independent research from the university of Stirling. We think that that will be with us by February and we will let him know when we receive it. All the research that has been done so far has been inconclusive, but we will work to find out what we can do.

My hon. Friend did not mention the online downloading of games, which is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. I assure him that the Government will address that issue.

I conclude by saying that an industry that is as successful and growing as this country's video games industry—we have every right to be justifiably proud of it—has just as much of an obligation as the House and the Government to do what it can to ensure that our children are protected without fettering the freedom of adults. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.