House of Commons:
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): 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 the Member
for Dewsbury (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
"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.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): 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.
Keith Vaz: 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.
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for
Leicester, East (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.
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
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
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
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
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.
I also acknowledge the intervention made by the hon. Member for East
Worthing and Shoreham (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
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.
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 BBFC 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
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.
Tim Loughton: 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
Estelle Morris: 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%. 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
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
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.