Video Game Age Ratings in Europe (Part 1 of 3: The Basics)


March 24, 2016 Leave a comment
Content rating systems are used to classify games for suitable age groups in most countries with relevance for the games industry. Age ratings can create restrictions on marketing and distribution of games, but also help consumers make better choices and provide legal certainty for publishers.

While PEGI has established itself as the main rating system in Europe, some jurisdictions use modified versions, and Germany has a different approach altogether. The German USK ratings are non-compatible to PEGI and merit a closer look for anyone distributing content in Germany, whether online or offline.

Ratings in Europe

With the exception of Germany, most countries in Europe use the rating system PEGI (Pan European Game Information). PEGI rates games into the following five categories: 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+, and gives additional guidance through content descriptors.

Rating Procedure

The process for PEGI ratings is similar to North American ESRB ratings: publishers submit a questionnaire with information on the games content. Based on this questionnaire, a provisional rating is assigned.

NICAM or VSC (depending on the provisional rating) then check this classification by reviewing video sequences and playing parts of the game. PEGI reviews for games 3+ and 7+ are conducted by the Dutch NICAM institute, while the British Video Standards Council (VSC) (acting under the alias name of Games Rating Authority (GRA ), reviews 12+, 16+ and 18+ rated games. Based on PEGI procedure, the British VSC/GRA also grants age rating certificates for the UK.

As the goal of all ratings is the protection of minors, they do not take into account educational merit, difficulty or quality. For example, complex flight simulators will generally be rated as suitable for all ages, even though they are not intended to be played by 3 year olds.

Enforceability and Sanctions

Regulation on enforceability has been introduced in the UK, which requires a rating for games only suitable for age 12 or higher, and entirely prohibits the sale of such games without a rating. In the Netherlands, selling or renting games classified as 16+ or higher to younger persons constitutes a criminal offence (Art. 240a Wetb. v. Strafr.). Just recently , France also made ratings for games mandatory. In Austria, regulations differ between the federal states.

Ratings in Germany

German law is rather strict when it comes to age ratings. For these, youth protection authorities rely on age classifications provided by the USK , a self-regulation body established by the games industry. Video games are rated in five categories: “without age restriction”, 6+, 12+, 16+ and “without clearance for minors” (i.e. 18+).

Rating Procedure

The German rating process takes a different approach than PEGI and ESRB. Instead of relying on content categories, the “potential to impair” the development or education of minors is regarded as the essential criteria for age classification. For classification, publishers have to submit a market-ready version of the game to USK. They also have to supply all relevant accompanying materials (packaging, manuals etc.).

Game testers then play through the entire game – an approach unique to Germany – and then present the game to a classification committee. The committee is the body responsible for classification; it reviews the game and gives a recommendation after the game tester’s presentation. This recommendation has to be formally accepted by a representative of a governmental authority, who then issues the formal authorization to affix the relevant rating symbol.

The “Index”

Games considered harmful to minors are denied classification and can be listed on the so-called “index” (formally the “list of youth-endangering media”) by federal authorities, resulting in severe distribution restrictions. For instance games included on the “index” may not be publicly advertised. This applies mainly to games including graphic violence, explicit sexual content or references to Nazi material. Roughly 600 games are listed on the German “index”. In comparison, the number of games rated AO (Adults Only) by the North American ESRB is rather small and consists mostly of adult games with pornographic or strong sexual contents.

Enforceability and Sanctions

The federal Youth Protection Act (JuSchG) states that video games distributed on physical media (e.g. DVDs, CDs or cartridges) may not be made accessible to minors unless they have a state-issued age-rating. German ratings are enforceable in retail (§ 14 JuSchG) and online. Retailers, including online stores, may not sell or rent any game to a minor below the relevant age limit.

Outlook: IARC Ratings for Apps

On an international level, a group of rating organizations including the USK, PEGI, ESRB and others has created the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), which operates an international rating framework for (participating) app stores; this system, therefore, applies for digitally distributed (mobile) games only. We will take a closer look at this system in the upcoming part 3 of this miniseries.

But first, stay tuned for part 2 of the series, in which we will take a closer look at the impact of Virtual Reality hardware on age ratings.

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Felix Hilgert

Felix Hilgert

Senior Associate at Osborne Clarke
Felix is a lawyer with Osborne Clarke's IT Team in Cologne, where he acts for companies of all sizes, from start-ups to market leaders.

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