New legal guidelines proposed for online games

Internet Rights Forum issues guidelines for publishers and legislators

Video games that include an online element expose players and publishers to a host of new risks for which they must prepare. That's the message from French lobbying group the Internet Rights Forum, which issued guidelines for publishers and legislators on Tuesday.

Some of the recommendations, notably those relating to online advertising or protecting minors, could be applicable across Europe, said Forum spokesman Laurent Baup, while others specifically address French laws restricting hate speech or defining intellectual-property rights.

Among the group's wishes are the inclusion of an on-screen timer to make players more aware of how long they spend online, and changes to the content ratings publishers apply to online games.

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) for PCs and consoles allow participants to chat using VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) or by sending instant messages. Adding such interactive features to a game turns it into a public space where game publishers no longer control all that goes on, the Forum warned.

Deciding whether the player or the publisher is responsible for the content of messages that turn out to be defamatory is a complex task.

Publishers face another challenge: deciding whether such remarks make appropriate viewing for young players. While publishers control the content of offline games, online games are different, in that some seven- or eight-year-olds can do and say things that aren't generally suitable for that age group, Baup said.

Game publishers already use the voluntary Pan European Game Info (PEGI) system to rate the suitability of offline game content for players of different ages. It rates games as suitable for children aged three years or older (3+), seven or older (7+), 12+, 16+ and 18+. PEGI's creator, the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, also operates a rating system for online games, PEGI Online. But confusingly, that system takes no account of content that users might introduce to a game, it merely serves as a warning to parents that a game includes online features, the Forum said.

The Internet Rights Forum wants the PEGI Online ratings system strengthened. The group proposes that no game allowing players to send text messages can be rated 3+ or 7+, and that such games can be rated 12+ only if messages are moderated by an adult before transmission.

The Forum also wants publishers to guarantee that age ratings will apply to in-game advertisements, and to put warnings on packaging if an online game contains ads. Ads in video games are nothing new: offline football or car racing games already plastered with them, but the ads don't change with time. Online games allow publishers to download fresh ads to promote new products, or to target players' interests. Poorly targeted ads can ruin a game's atmosphere (imagine ads for cars appearing in a medieval castle) or expose young children to content of a sexual nature, the Forum warned.

Information about age ratings could also be made available electronically to parental control software on PCs, so that the software can restrict young players' access to inappropriate games.

Parents use such controls to limit the time children spend playing games, but teenagers are often left to their own devices. The Forum wants to make older players more aware of the time they spend online, and called upon publishers to incorporate an on-screen stopwatch in their games, showing the duration of the current session.

Using a character in the game to relay the information may work better with players under 18, Baup said: "We have noticed that the voice of nonplayer characters has more impact."

The Forum proposed the stopwatch rather than a hard limit on gaming time because it's hard to say how much gaming is too much.

"It depends on the circumstances of the player rather than the time spent. It's best measured by the loss of social contact," Baup said.

The Internet Rights Forum plans to create a Web site for parents and teachers, explaining in simple terms for nonplayers what online games are about and what risks they pose. The site should launch early next year.

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