Tuesday, 13 December 2016

GRA Megamix 2016


 Ever wondered if our video game examiners take time out to play rather than simply examine a video game for content – believe me, the two processes are very different.  In fact, I managed to get some of them off the hamster wheel for a few minutes in order to ask them what their own favourite games of 2016 are.  The result is the GRA Video Game Megamix of 2016 – a ‘top five’, if you like, of games that our examining team found particularly interesting and entertaining to play this year.  You may (or not) agree with their findings, but if you are unsure what to buy for yourself or the children, you might find their recommendations of some value.

And so, in no particular order, we kick-off with:

OVERCOOKED (PEGI 3) – This is a neat local co-op game in which up to four players find themselves in a kitchen where they must turn out endless meals within a four-minute time limit.  Sounds simple, eh?  Mmmm, think Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares and you’ll begin to get a genuine ‘flavour’ of how this game is going to ‘pan’ out (I promise the puns will stop now.)

STARDEW VALLEY (PEGI 7) – Yes, it’s a farming sim! How dull, I hear you cry, but hang on a minute, whilst you do spend a lot of time initially planting, watering and harvesting crops, this game becomes much more immersive as it gradually develops into an RPG where you can explore the environment for other resources to help you build a profitable farm.  The repetitive cycle of farming (so familiar in other farming sims) are interrupted here by many and varied side missions involving fighting monsters in the mines, currying favour with the local townsfolk and much, much more.  I am
I am assured this compelling game will keep you engaged for many hours. 

EMILY WANTS TO PLAY (PEGI 12) – Well, this one terrified the living bejesus out of a thirty-something games examiner, but I don’t see why she should have all the fun…or should that be fear?  Basically, you’re a pizza delivery person who pitches up at a spooky old house just before midnight (you can see where this is going right?)  You ring the bell, but no-one’s in.  Then, like a complete goof, you open the door and step inside. The door slams shut and you’re now trapped inside.  You get a few minutes to familiarise yourself with your eerie surroundings before the bell chimes midnight and the ‘games’ begin.  The ‘games’ centre around Emily’s collection of horror dolls which appear every hour and are determined to kill you.  To defeat them you need to gather clues as to how they operate and what is required to defeat them.  Yes, rather you than me thanks very much.  I got a lifetime’s worth of horror from ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Shining’.  I’m all done with the horror stuff.

FINAL FANTASY XV (PEGI 16) – It’s Final Fantasy 15!  There’s been 14 previous versions!  Something about it must be good.  ‘Nuff said.

WATCH DOGS 2 (PEGI 18) – I’m told that this is a massive improvement on the original and, even better, you get to live in a beautifully rendered San Francisco!  Our hero, Marcus Holloway, is still up to his hacking tricks having joined a group of anonymous hackers who seem intent on wrecking the city’s infrastructure, though they also tackle the corruption and criminal elements within the city too.  Marcus isn’t restricted to digital skills however.  He’s a pretty dab-hand at using an assortment of weaponry to take down foes.  Coupled to all this, is an expensive, open-world game that allows you to zoom around SF a  la Grand Theft Auto whilst taking in the sights too. How can you possibly resist?

So there you go.  Something to keep you entertained over the next few months.  Let me know what you think of our choices (politely!) and in the meantime, a very merry Christmas and New Year to you all.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

NO SMOKE WITHOUT IRE


 The UK Centre for Alcohol and Tobacco Studies, based at Nottingham University, recently undertook a study to discover whether adolescents were being influenced by depictions of smoking and/or drinking in video games.

The researchers looked at 32 of the best-selling video games to determine to what extent they contained tobacco and alcohol references.  They then asked a total of 1,094 11-17 year olds whether they had played any of the most popular video games identified as containing either tobacco or alcohol references. This group was also asked whether and to what extent they smoked or drank alcohol. The study found that adolescents who had played at least one game with tobacco or alcohol content were twice as likely to have tried smoking or consumed alcohol themselves.

The study also concluded that PEGI should be doing more to highlight these content issues in their descriptors.

PEGI does include tobacco and alcohol under its drugs descriptor as it considers these two substances to be potentially harmful and addictive in line with other drugs such as cocaine or heroin.

I think that Notts University probably want a dedicated descriptor, but we could end up like those food packaging labels that are so rammed with information it becomes difficult to work out what it all means.

Rather more usefully, smoking and alcohol is already highlighted in our Additional Consumer Information (ACI) – a text-based descriptor which gives detailed content information that a simple, visual descriptor cannot.  It will, additionally, state the context in which the smoking/drinking is presented and whether these elements are positively endorsed or otherwise.  I think this nuanced approach is rather more credible than simply an image of a cigarette or a bottle of booze.

The ACI can be accessed via the GRA website at any time.  Simply tap in the game’s title and the info will appear shortly after.

If you think that representations of tobacco or alcohol use in video games IS a problem, I’d be really glad to hear your views on the subject.

Monday, 17 October 2016

EGX 2016

Yes, of course we were there!  Whaddya mean you missed us?  We were on the “Askaboutgames” booth stuck between the retro games area and FIFA17 – at times it felt like being permanently tuned into ‘Match of the Day’.  However, it did prove to be a good location with lots of human traffic being collared by GRA staff and having handfuls of ratings information, plus PEGI keyrings and memory sticks, stuffed into their palms.

We attracted a lot of attention, particularly from parents and educators who seem to find the whole game rating business a bit difficult to understand at times - something I find somewhat surprising since, as far as I can tell, it looks pretty straightforward.  I think that maybe some folk still haven’t realised that PEGI 12, 16 and 18 ratings are subject to regulation in the UK.  We spent considerable time explaining how the ratings work and why they exist as a result.

More problematic was the fact that time and time again the same issue of children accessing adult rated games cropped up.  You certainly feel a lot of sympathy for parents who are doing their best, but find their efforts constantly undermined by others.  The typical example is: “I won’t let my twelve year old play Grand Theft Auto, but his friend’s parents aren’t bothered at all which makes it hard for me to say ‘no’ when he asks.”  How you square that particular circle is especially hard.

Lots of folk, including “Deadpool” who appeared to have gotten lost, stopped by to chat and offer comments about the ratings most of which were positive though one man, clearly a lover of conspiracy theories, decided we were some sort of government agents out to ‘get’ people.  Yes, my friend, those innocent-looking PEGI keyrings actually emit rays in order to fry your brain!

I think my most interesting experience was having a crack on the “Whizdish” – a piece of VR technology where you physically move your legs on a circular plastic base in order to ‘move’ through a game; in my case running away from the ghosts in a VR version of Pac-Man.  The manufacturer of this device claims that it helps prevent motion-sickness and I have to confirm that this seemed to be the case.

I think EGX’s new home at the NEC is a major improvement on Earl’s Court and it’s probably safe to state that we aim to be back there next year.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Great Divide?


We occasionally get gripes from consumers about the nature of the PEGI ratings system compared to that used by film regulators.  For example, the recent STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS film was rated ‘12A’ here in the UK and PG-13 in the US (the ratings are roughly equal.)  The game version, however, received a PEGI 16 – quite a step up from its movie cousin.  Some consumers quite reasonably ask how this can be so since, apart from anything else, movies are ‘realistic’ whereas video games are not.

The first thing to understand is that film and video game regulators are not only separate entities, but also view the medium they are dealing with in quite separate ways too.  This affects the method by which they are rated.  As an ex-film regulator, I speak from first-hand experience and must confess that I too was quite surprised by the differences in approach.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributory factors rests with the point that film regulators invariably make contextual judgments when arriving at their decisions whilst game regulators generally do not.  Since films are driven by story (on the whole), it is quite correct that elements within a narrative are taken into account and considered before applying a rating, otherwise there is the potential for a film to be rated for a wholly unsuitable audience simply because it may contain an issue which, at first glance, would seem unsuitable or inappropriate for a certain age group.  As a simple example, most of us would probably agree that illegal drug use is a bad thing and would not want images of such drug use being shown to younger people.  However, if the narrative thrust (and the accompanying images) relay a story that depicts a “drugs are bad” message then it is likely that such a message would be useful for younger people to see – the difference between “Trainspotting” (18) a positive endorsement of drug use, and “Traffic” (15) a negative endorsement of drug use.  Clearly, other elements would also be taken into account – bad language, sex, etc, but the above serves to give a rough illustration of the primary rationale behind a film rating.

Game ratings on the other hand, are approached from a more direct, non-contextualised perspective.  The origins of this being, perhaps, centred on the fact that early, arcade-style video games simply didn’t have discernible narratives, so there was little to contextualise.  For games, ratings generally boil down to the degree and strength of a particular issue – the amount of violence and how it was portrayed, for example.  This is notable in the extremes of MORTAL KOMBAT (PEGI 18) at one end and DISNEY INFINITY (PEGI 7) at the other.

This still rings true for PEGI, the ESRB and other worldwide games regulators and is why game ratings can appear to be more restrictive than their cinematographic brethren.

As games become increasingly sophisticated – many games now feature wholly discernible narratives as a major component of game play - there will probably come a point at which games regulators will have to reconsider their approach.  That, however, is beyond the scope of this wee blog.

In the interim, just bear this in mind and that you should never compare like-for- like as in the case of STAR WARS the film vs game.

Friday, 29 July 2016

PEGIXIT?


Well, what a crazy few weeks that was!  The UK decided to exit from Europe and the Prime Minister decided to exit full stop.  What is going on?

Here at the GRA, however, life and business carried on pretty much as usual though we did receive questions about our role and whether, as a result of Brexit, PEGI would become defunct.

The answer to that is we believe nothing will change.  You see, PEGI is nothing to do with the machinations of the EU. To quote directly from the PEGI spokesperson:

PEGI s.a., as an independent, not-for-profit organisation, is not part of the institutions of the European Union and as such, any outcome of the referendum would not have an immediate impact on our labels being present on game products sold in the United Kingdom. In fact, PEGI already reaches beyond the borders of the European Union, since PEGI labels have appeared (from the very beginning) on games in Norway and Switzerland and are quite prominent these days on the Turkish market as well.

The video game publishers industry, as founder of the system, is obviously quite happy with PEGI as a pan-European solution and the PEGI system is officially recognised by many governments of the 38 countries where it is active. In some countries, it has become part of the legislative framework, and the United Kingdom is such an example: PEGI became the legally enforcable rating system for video games in 2012, when the Digital Economy Act was introduced. For this reason, a potential exit from the EU would not have a direct impact on PEGI.


So as you can see, we’re firmly intending to ‘remain’ and PEGI ratings will continue to grace the covers of UK video games for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Escape from the Hamster Wheel


You probably have a vision of what we do here at GRA HQ.  That vision probably sees lots of minion-type creatures sat permanently in a chair, staring at a monitor and checking through endless video games without thought for anything else other than processing the games on an endless hamster wheel of examination.

You may be surprised to discover that in actual fact we do manage to escape every once in a while in order to do other things.  One particular aspect of our secondary work is to go round the country visiting various educational establishments or other interested organisations in order to explain why and how we rate video games.

It never quite ceases to amaze us how people perceive what we do, and it always a great opportunity for us to blow away some of the myths surrounding the PEGI system.  Our presentation mixes talk with lots of illustrative clips from games we have rated and it is interesting to see how audiences frequently become ‘enlightened’ after a presentation.

We would love to do more, but personnel availability, work load (video game examining) and resources make it difficult to do so.  And in case, if you thought that like Gru we have hundreds of minions beavering away like… well, beavers, you’d be wrong.  The whole office comprises some nine people of which a small handful actually undertakes examining duties.

Basically, we are happy to make presentations to any interested party, but we can’t always guarantee making it when you want us to.  However, if you think you’d like us to come and chat to you about the GRA and PEGI then give us a call.  We’ll try to oblige if we can.

That’s enough scribing from me.  Time to get back on the wheel!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Brain Games



Over many years much attention has been focussed on the alleged ‘effects’ of video gaming such as addiction and a propensity toward violence in real-life as a result of playing violent video games.  It has to be said that after some three decades of research from around the world, science has failed to find a causal link between real-world violence and playing video games.

Okay, I hear you say, tell me something I didn’t know.  And so I will.  Instead of churning over old ground let’s take a look at some of the new and innovative things that are being developed as a direct result of video game play and use.

A recent ‘Horizon’ programme revealed some of the stuff going on out there; stuff which should be, but is rarely reported because, perhaps, it’s less sensational than tabloid stories of disaffected loners rehearsing murderous dreams on their xboxes.

Motor skills – In Holland, a Dutch surgeon, Dr Henk ten Cate Hoedemaker has developed a game called “Underground”.  “A Dutch surgeon has done what?” I hear you exclaim.  “Hasn’t he got better things to do with his time??”   Whoa, steady there!  Yes, technically it’s a game in which you help a girl and her pet robot to escape from a mine.  So far, so dull, eh?  However, the game is especially designed to help surgeons practice their motor skills since the game controller has been adapted to mimic the tools used in micro-surgery.  Now I think that really is smart though I wouldn’t recommend trying micro-surgery at home… could get messy.

Visual abilities – At the University of Geneva they have been testing the visual abilities of gamers vs non-gamers and the results have been interesting.  This has been done by asking test subjects to track the position of multiple moving objects. 

The researchers have found that those who play action games perform much better than those who don’t.  The theory goes that fast action games require the player to constantly switch their attention from one part of the screen to another while also staying aware of other events in the environment.  This, subsequently, is believed to challenge the brain into processing incoming visual information more efficiently.

Brain growth – down at the Max Planck Institute of Human Development in Berlin (where else?) Prof Simone Kuhn has been researching the effects of video games on the brain.  In one study, she used fMRI (functional MRI) technology to study the brains of subjects as they played Super Mario 64 DS, over a period of two months.

During this period it was discovered that three areas of the brain had grown - the prefrontal cortex, right hippocampus and cerebellum - all involved in navigation and fine motor control.

Because the game offers both a 3D and 2D view simultaneously, Prof Kuhn believes that having to navigate the game in different ways is what may be stimulating brain growth.

Mental stimulus – One recent development has involved using video games to tackle mental decline in old age.  At the University of California, Prof Adam Gazzeley and his team have developed a game called Neuroracer.

Aimed at older players, the game requires individuals to steer a car while at the same time performing other tasks.

The team engaged a group of pensioners to play the game and discovered that after some 12 hours of playing, the pensioners had improved their performance so much they were beating 20-year-olds playing it for the first time.

In addition, Prof Gazzeley also measured improvements in the working memory and attention span of the pensioners.  Remarkably, these measurements showed that skills had improved through playing the game and were transferable into the real world.

In may seem incredible, but a time is foreseen when instead of having to take medication for a mental condition, we might just be given a prescription for a specifically targeted video game to be taken three times a day (without water) instead.  Now how good would that be?