Getting rid of zombies is a serious business
Film ratings are big business. The big Hollywood studios go to great lengths to make sure that their summer blockbusters are viewable by as wide an audience as possible.
Hence, the UK has seen the introduction of additional guidance for concerned parents such as "PG-13: contains scenes of extreme savagery and cannibalism". Actually, we made that up, but the point is that the certificate given to the film is crucial to its success. Other films depend on a restrictive certificate as part of their branding.
A tabloid crusade followed the success of video games such as Carmageddon, a racing game in which points were boosted by the style with which pedestrians were mown down, and Resident Evil, the legendary "first person shooter" in which survival depends on the slaughter of a nation of zombies. Despite the technical limitations, some of the scenes depicted were shocking to the more liberal in conscience. A system was introduced by the British Board of Film Classification, using familiar ratings. PEGI, a pan-European voluntary rating system arrived last year. In the USA, the Entertainment Software Rating Board ("the ESRB") was founded back in 1994.
A recent study by Swiss firm Modulum confirmed that adult-rated games are perceived as promoting adult content to children, rather than being used by parents to regulate their children's exposure to such material.
Unsurprising you might think, based on the movie experience - would you have seen Saw if it was rated PG? Nevertheless, commercial success in the gaming world is generally seen as dependent upon lower ratings, and as such Take 2, owners of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, took care to ensure that adult material was excluded from the latest version of the game, San Andreas. This resulted in an ESRB rating of M ("Mature - content that may be suitable for persons aged 17 and older") as opposed to the strictest rating AO ("Adults Only - content suitable only for adults").Of course, understanding the ESRB system requires the recognition that in the USA adulthood is generally regarded as starting at 21 years of age.
But it turns out that the full depravity of the latest Grand Theft Auto title has not been removed from the game, but merely locked away. A software "mod" - separate code that can be used to modify the game -unlocks the game's controls and opens up the steamy adult content within. This material is, therefore, an "Easter egg" - additional functionality within a piece of software that can be unlocked only by those with the necessary knowledge. The ESRB's view is that because Take 2 had taken the decision to exclude the adult content from the gameplay, the code had to be modified in order to reveal this content. Thus at the time that the game is sold, the M rating is appropriate. So, if you consider that stealing cars and shooting other villains is appropriate material for your child but scenes of a graphically sexual nature are not, you may care to make your own arrangements rather than rely upon the ratings system.
Tristan Meears-White is a partner and Matthew Rippon a senior solicitor in the Technology IP and Media Team at Watson Burton LLP. Contact them on (0191) 244-4444.