Byron Review: 8/10

By John Walker on March 30th, 2008 at 8:17 pm.

byron review blurry

The Byron Review has been published, and the results are perhaps surprising. Surprising, if only because it doesn’t appear to be a sensationalist response, nor indeed one ignorant of the realities of videogames and modern media. If there’s one overall conclusion to be drawn from a lengthy report, it appears to be that parents need to take a greater degree of responsibility. The full report can be read here, with links to shorter versions and other related information here.

The report focuses its real concern on the internet, and this would seem reasonable. However, in the extensive coverage of gaming, Byron’s conclusions are that we need to educate parents, and to revise and reinforce the current system. Rather than, say, ban all forms of gaming and imprison any involved on the Sun.

“The voice of better informed parents should then drive industry investment and continued innovation around child safety in video games.”

Most pleasantly surprising is Tanya Byron’s respect for young people, and her understanding that they are an authority and authors of their own existence. While her conclusions put the emphasis of responsibility on parents, she doesn’t treat their offspring as unwitting victims.

“Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.”

It’s like she’s… on the side of reason.

If I may draw my own inference from one of Byron’s comments, it would seem that there’s an endemic thinking among parents that age ratings are for other people’s kids, and not their special little bundles, about whom they know better.

“Overall parents feel that deciding what games are appropriate has to be their decision because it depends on their child, but that they would welcome clearer and more specific guidance explaining the rationale for the age ratings. In particular, some parents assume that the ratings would be too conservative and hence ignore them. There is a desire for more granularity so that they can decide what to allow on a case by case basis.”

This seems like the biggest block there could possibly be for an industry unsure of how to regulate itself. If each parent feels themselves the expert on their own child, then the BBFC/ELSPA could lock the games in a safe marked “EIGHTEEN ONLY”, and it would still be handed over to each and every seven year old. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Byron targets parents rather than developers/publishers.

When it comes to violence and young people’s responses to such content, Byron goes into great depth discussing opposing research methods and the failure of both to provide any helpful evidence. She concludes,

“It would not be accurate to say that there is no evidence of harm but equally it is not appropriate to conclude that there is evidence of no harm. Relatively small and short-term effects of playing violent video games on young children‘s behaviour and attitudes have been demonstrated, but many questions remain about how to interpret this at an individual level or it’s meaning for behaviour and attitudes in the real world. Research has not taken a strong developmental perspective and I believe this is a key factor, as children of different ages have different levels of skill and understanding about the world (e.g. critical evaluation, ability to make judgments) which will impact on how they interpret content, their behaviour and their understanding of the world.”

Praise her to the hills, Byron then goes on to recognise that so-called “addiction” in videogames is a very shaky area on which to draw conclusions, but instead uses the far more useful term, “excessive use”. Tending to agree with the conclusions found in my own studies into the issue, again the emphasis here is put on parental responsibility, recognising that unmonitored children are likely to do pretty much anything to excess.

The conclusions for reforming the current systems are lengthy and involved, and you should hoof your way over to read them for yourself. To lazily summarise, it comes down to: educate the parents, and clarify the ratings. In the meantime, how has the media responded to the publication?

The theme appears to be to respond to the notion that responsibility lies with parents, by asking parents to write their thoughts. This works quite well when that parent is a sentient human with half a clue what is being discussed, as is shown by this BBC article.

“I suppose the key moment was when he stopped using the household computer in the living room – where we could watch what was going on – and got his own in his room when he was 15. Too early to allow unfettered access? Well I suppose it’s a question of trust – and we thought our son was pretty sensible. He is impatient with the idea that he and his fellow gamers can’t distinguish between virtual warfare and the real thing – and I think he has a point.”

Things take something of a downward tilt when, guess who, the Daily Mail has a go. Hiring Earth’s leading authority on gaming, the Mail asked Anne Diamond to sit down and play some of those games so popular with the young people today. Her response, according to the accompanying photograph, was so violent that she brutally stabbed herself with the offending games.

It's not worth it, Anne!

Image copyright Daily Mail.

(This is genuinely the picture they’ve published – we’ve not doctored it at all. Nor indeed the following text).

“Just reviewing these games, made my hair stand on end. I have never got into computer games.but my sons all love them. I have to guard constantly that they don’t use my ignorance to play games that I wouldn’t allow in the house, if only I knew their content. Some of the games were so mindless it would be hard to see them as a destructive influence. But others were sickening in their gratuitous use of violence and bloodthirsty imagery.” [sic]

So, well, a mixed response. But overall, I think it’s safe for the gaming community to let out a collective sigh of relief, that this Byron Review has tackled the issues intelligently, with a depth of research, and without sentimentality or sensationalism. Next up: how the government applies it. There’s a version of the report written for children (you can tell because things are at jaunty angles) as well, which is here. Let us know your thoughts on the report, and the content within, below.

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33 Comments »

  1. Nitre says:

    Best photo ever.

    On a side note, the ‘reviews’ of that woman from the Mail really annoyed me.

  2. Chris Evans says:

    An extract from my thoughts on the Review.

    Overall though the Byron Review seems to be a very positive report. While some of the recommendations may not be going towards the best future, many of the recommendations are going to improve the games industry and the internet especially in relation to young people in the UK today.

    At the end of the day we have to wait and see how the government goes forward with this, as ever with political things, time will tell.

    Very good write up by the way John =]

  3. Larington says:

    My concern is that harsher enforcement of ratings in games may be largely pointless, I’d cite the scale of piracy of say, CoD4 as my reason behind this. Not allowed to buy it from the shop? Pirate it.

    Thats my big concern, that children are bypassing the regulations by not even going to a retail store/steam/other-online-download-sellers-who-haven’t-gotten-the-same-notoriety.

  4. Noc says:

    I think the main problem with the report is that it isn’t sensationalist.

    It’s a series of reasonable conclusions drawn from a level-headed analysis of available data. Which means that it won’t whip the masses up into a frenzy, which means it won’t be a big election issue, which means that things’ll probably stay the way they are for a bit.

    Then someone else’ll try and arouse public ire, and people will say “What about the Byron report?” and they’ll reply “Who cares about the Byron report?” Because people won’t, since it isn’t inflammatory.
    [/cynical ramble]

  5. Chris Evans says:

    Noc – they only way the report could have been sensationalist and still on the side of us gamers would have been if Dr Byron recommended that the BBFC stop all ratings of video games and leave everything to PEGI.

    My take at any rate :P

  6. Andrew Armstrong says:

    This is 7/10 at best on a videogame scale (so actually 5/10).

    There are some niggling problems:

    - The actual industry-run PEGI is now dead, and the biased (film-run) BBFC now has near total control on game ratings. This is poor, and doesn’t bode well.

    - The industry is meant to fund the education drive, not a drop from the government. This will be fun, considering the time scales they want. It’s pretty much all Take take take, really.

    - The Byron report sidesteps CENSORSHIP, shockingly calling it Dialogue. Ridiculous.

    - It implements several dangerous precedent-setting laws for the internet – banning of suicide sites anyone? I can’t wait for further developments here.

    - The government is implementing all the changes, bar none, with no interest in discussions on it. Not the best laid plans if it can’t even be discussed in parliament.

    So, it’s not all good. There is some variable research in there, and yes, a lot of it is on “the internet” not specifically games, so it’s hard to judge it as a package. There’s other bits and pieces too, but it gets a bit nitty-gritty. All I can say is “It could be worse”, hah.

    Media sensationalism will happen over any entertainment. It used to be “Video nasties”, now it’s games.

  7. Jim Rossignol says:

    That Anne Diamond picture is some kind of warning to us all.

  8. Janek says:

    Certainly brings a new meaning to the phrase “violent games”

  9. Optimaximal says:

    That the Daily Mail can’t photoshop for shit?

  10. Seniath says:

    - The actual industry-run PEGI is now dead, and the biased (film-run) BBFC now has near total control on game ratings. This is poor, and doesn’t bode well.

    My understanding is that PEGI will continue to be used, but will be consigned to the back of the box. It will still exclusively rate 3+ and 7+ games, and refer games to the BBFC as needed.

    The_B (who is currently snoozing, aww bless) and myself also had some stuff to say on the matter. On the whole, I feel it’s a Good Thing. Of course, we knew it all already, but now hopefully the plebs will know too.

  11. sinister agent says:

    They still haven’t published my comment. I offered to clean the picture up for free, and everything. Cowards.

    Mind you, they probably don’t have internet access at their offices since they burned all their demon boxes on a ruddy great bonfire.

    Somewhat reassuringly sane work from Byron, there. A tip of the hat is called for, I feel.

  12. Will Tomas says:

    That photoshop job is simply appalling. What happened there?

    No wonder she looks so displeased…

  13. Robert Seddon says:

    I take a rather harsh view, partly because I thought the report overegged the premise that (many) parents are such helpless ‘digital immigrants’ that among their problems are consoles’ parental controls’ instructions being ‘concealed in a cumbersome manual’, and so it invites parents to keep regarding themselves as innocent bystanders in need of government ‘empowerment’; partly because the terms ‘harmful’ and ‘inappropriate’ are used frequently with no serious attempt to define them; and partly because, generally, the report avoids addressing the hard philosophical questions and matters of legal rationale at all: ‘I fully appreciate the view of those that disagree with “banning” video games and believe that adults should be free to choose what games they play, so long as existing laws applicable in the UK, such as the Obscene Publications Act are not contravened.’

    I agree that the report has many points in its favour, especially compared to other commentaries we’ve seen. However, while it’s okay as a review of the scientific literature, in terms of rigorous normative argument about how to apply scientific evidence in law and social policy I found the report disappointing.

  14. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Well, at least they didn’t try and combine her features with Marcus Fenix or something equally silly.

  15. dartt says:

    I thought I’d finish what the Daily Mail’s art team started.

    http://www.darttweb.co.uk/uploads/anne_diamond.png

  16. Andrew Armstrong says:

    My understanding is that PEGI will continue to be used, but will be consigned to the back of the box. It will still exclusively rate 3 and 7 games, and refer games to the BBFC as needed.

    Correct, making it nearly useless. It still has an off chance (with very poor odds) it could be used as the primary system as some point, but it is nearly impossible now. The government has research proving it’s not a good idea, so no no no! There are people who have said the system has been entirely short changed by this, and damn right it has. It’s basically a big middle finger to self-regulation (which the TV, film, music and book industries do with their own organisations (with or without laws), the videogame industry instead has to rely on the BBFC, which as in the title, is film-run, and I think is obvious how it second-rates videogames).

    The avoidance of philosophical problems is a big issue. It is a “think of the children” report with no mention of the effects on adults – that they should be allowed to buy whatever is produced, and not have censorship at all (apart from the banal and frankly still rubbish obscenity laws, but we’ll let them have that if they only gave us the right to publish without censorship).

  17. Ben Hazell says:

    Aren’t “film style” BBFC ratings already part of the problem?

    Games and films are different, and the ratings shouldn’t confuse the formats, lest parents apply standards from one media to another.

    Letting your kid watch a 15 rated film is different from letting them play a 15 rated game.

    I understand the power of the film rating logos… but they’re not working already, so this would seem a useful time to enforce a new system, free of confusion.

  18. Monkfish says:

    I’m truly perplexed by the Daily Mail’s pic of Anne Diamond. I’ve been staring at it for hours and I still can’t work out what on this Earth they were trying to achieve with their photoshop handiwork.

    Even emergency clone Alec would’ve done a better job.

  19. Ben Abraham says:

    Dartt –

    Brilliance. W0rd.

  20. The_B says:

    RPS: More tangible than Anne Diamond.

  21. Muzman says:

    There was an Australian government report along similar lines a few years back (not that I’ve read the new one in full or anything) and the response was fairly predictable. Like people are saying, It’s a bit cynical but you can’t really tell the public there’s no or minimal issue where they think there is one. Issues are so much more fun. Gordon Brown will be asked about it and he’ll say something like “It’s an interesting report and something to be very proud of but clearly this is still an area of concern for many people” and carry on with whatever hamhanded censorship scheme they’ve got planned (if history is any guide)

  22. Tim says:

    Anne Diamond?

    Wasn’t she the one who said the fall of the Berlin Wall was a good thing because it meant East Germans could go shopping?

  23. Bobsy says:

    Rather than, say, ban all forms of gaming and imprison any involved on the Sun.

    This sentence threw me for some time due to the capitalisation. Is forced labour on the nation’s biggest tabloid so bad?

  24. AbyssUK says:

    I bet it was because she was holidng a PS3 and actually all the games shown are 360 games.. so they attempted badly to cover up the console and add in games over it. But why the microsoft hate I don’t know, for fairness a few Wii + PS3 games should at least be displayed.

  25. phuzz says:

    One day I’ll work out how to put a mail bomb in every copy of the Daily Mail, and the morning after the world will be such a nice place :)

    Anyway, I expect mainstream reporting of games to change over the next 10ish years as the older journalists who still handwrite everything are replaced by people who have actually played a computer game.

  26. James T says:

    I thought I’d finish what the Daily Mail’s art team started.

    http://www.darttweb.co.uk/uploads/anne_diamond.png

    She got 99 problems, but a game ain’t one.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    I applaud Gangsta Diamond.

    KG

  28. mrrobsa says:

    Looks like the Daily Mail isn’t posting anyone’s comments because mine still hasn’t come up either. Maybe they won’t print it because I accuse Anne of being less knowlegable than almost every post after her story, and for calling them out on their rubbish rubbish phtotshopping.
    Plus! Did anyone else reading BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones (^link further up in posts^) think that he was pretty feckless considering he’s BBC’s go to guy on this stuff?
    Rota-quote: “I’ve realised that I’ve only just got to grips with games classification and I’m pretty ignorant about where my sons are surfing.”
    ‘Only just got to grips’ with game classification? I’m surprised this guy can find the internet to post his guff (His accompanying photo does look like a confused middle-aged man trapped inside a web browser).
    I’ll write for you BBC! And I can understand classifications too! This one says ’12 – Contains one use of strong language’
    Tit.

  29. Electric Dragon says:

    Somebody posted this link on Charlie Brooker’s latest invective. I’m tempted to tell them all about my radiator-and-gas-tank-fuelled-gravity-gun rampage through the quaint little town of Ravenholm.

  30. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah. Someone’s linked it to us too. It’s tempting to go in and find out which paper is doing this.

    KG

  31. Crispy says:

    “Aren’t ‘film-style’ BBFC ratings part of the problem?”

    The message here is clearly very ambiguous, with ‘rating’ being a noun for both the process of deciding on a classification and for the fruits of this process: the classification itself.

    If it simply means that the classification will be applied and displayed in the same way film ratings are displayed, using a homogenised display system for ‘front-of-the-box’ notification: fine.

    If it is used to mean ‘the classification process’; that the BBFC will analyse the varying degrees of adult content in games using the same process they apply to films, clearly this is a doomed system. In a perfect ratings system, games would require exhaustive, systematic testing with every item acquired, every geographical nook and cranny checked and an invasive check on the game files to rule out the possibility of any hidden content (a la Hot Coffee).

    In a lot of cases, the QA testing process already assumes this role. The amount of stories I’ve heard from testers about penises drawn on walls by texture artists, rude messages to publishers scrawled in hard to spot places, naked ladies, etc. is seemingly as neverending. There are at least a couple of instances in each game, all of which, once found, are reported in view of complying with the rating the game is being aimed at. Sometimes the content is less obvious, like corpses left hanging from hangmen’s posts needing to be removed.

    The point here is that if, for some reason, these items were overlooked by the first-party QA system, they would need to be picked up by the third-party rating system (i.e. the BBFC). Depending on the size of the game, this becomes a task demanding days of work per title, including cross-platform checks (since in some cases, different platforms would have to use a whole different set of game assets). This simply isn’t practicable, which is why I would recommend first-party self-regulation, followed by a roadrunner check by the BBFC, followed by retrospective punishment with significant fines/legal action taken for anything later found to undermine the rating given.

    Apart from completely ignoring the issue of how the ratings process is to be best formulated for games in an accurate and bespoke manner, the report has been carried out with a good deal of sense, impartiality and dignity.

    The next step is to put together a ratings system that can do the same, and judging from the BBFC’s recent behaviour, this will need some addressing.

  32. alphaxion says:

    When the news of the byron report being comissioned first broke, I sent this email to them

    http://www.pissheadnerds.com/forum/viewthread.php?forum_id=2&thread_id=3

    And, while the gaming side of it came off better than I thought it would, they still didn’t pay any attention to the way in which games are played.

    Then we have the report linking up with a number of other government inquiries that all seem to be saying the same thing “we need to restrict your net access because, you know.. there’s dangerous stuff out there”.

    Their suggestion of placing “parental control software for restricting net access onto every new computer” is so technologically unsound and pointless – software will never work. A person browsing the net with you will, until the parent either feels you can be trusted or feels you are mature enough to no longer be supervised.

    Yet more demands for censorship using someone elses definition of what is “acceptable”.

  33. Nick says:

    I applied writing a few lines about how computer games made me stalk and murder sensationlist journalists.