Still from Grand Theft Auto IV. No 4.

London - Selling videogames rated for the over-12s to younger children could soon be punishable by up to six months in prison and a £5,000 (about R60 000) fine.

Under proposed changes to the law, the British government is making the 12 rating enforceable on videogames.

Ministers are also proposing a single classification system overseen by the Video Standards Council.

The VSC will assess each game according to the existing Pan European Game Information scheme, which effectively has five categories, from suitable for all to adults only.

It will have the power to legally enforce ratings on games listed as 18, 15, and for the first time 12.

It will also have powers to ban a product from the UK if it feels the videogame is too graphic.

Critics warn the European system may not be appropriate here because of the varying national standards for what constitutes graphic violence or sexual content.

At present in the UK, only games rated 15 and 18 carry legal penalties if they are sold to children below those ages. This is because there is joint responsibility between the British Board of Film Classification and the PEGI scheme.

All games sold in Europe are regulated by the PEGI scheme but any coming to the UK featuring more graphic sexual and violent content also have to be classified by the BBFC Because this type of material is traditionally rated 15 or 18 they are the only categories where selling to younger consumers can result in a prison term or a fine.

This means it has been technically legal to sell a 12-rated game to children under that age in Britain. The latest proposals will change that.

The BBFC will no longer be involved in classifying games unless they are so explicit they are likely to face an R18 rating. This is primarily used for videos featuring explicit sex.

Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey said: “The system will benefit both parents and industry by creating a stronger, simpler age-rating system. It will give parents greater confidence that their children can only get suitable games.”

VSC chairman Baroness Shephard added: “This finally gives us the mandate to undertake the role of statutory videogames regulator in the UK.

“The VSC is fully prepared and ready to carry out the vital role of providing consumers with a single, straightforward games rating system whilst ensuring that child-safety remains our first priority.”

A spokesman for the Department of Culture Media and Sport said the Video Standards Council and changes to the law on age classification are expected to come into effect by July.

Research suggests children are buying 18-rated videogames – such as Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, and Hitman – on the internet because traders don’t check their age. - Daily Mail