OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Age certification in a PBEM game

I’ve been running a PBEM since 2000 now, and this problem has cropped up a few times whenever someone has said a naughty word.

A naked man with "censored" written on a box around his groin

I want to allow people to write freely whatever they want, but I obviously don't want children seeing something disturbing

There’s no clear rating system of PBEM games, in terms of what language you can or can’t use, and how much explicit or sexual content you can use. Many PBEM games are public, and all are available to join without having to prove your age, which means young role-players can often stumble upon explicit content.

There are many methods of age verification, but most require some sort of trust on the user’s part. This is why you see sites with explicit content that just have a landing page with a date field, requiring you to specify your age before continuing, or at least if not that just ticking a box to confirm that you’re over the required age.

This is all very ambiguous in PBEM games. I’ve been using a Yahoo Group to run my PBEM game for years, which has no way to allow you to specify your age when you sign up. We do often have members who post with bad language, and honestly I don’t mind – freedom of speech and all that. But that’s because I’ve never been in trouble over it. I’m sure there are PBEM games around that have far worse explicit content that just an occasional swearword, which will allow children to join up.

I want to make something clear before  I go further. I’m well aware that children in primary school have probably heard swearwords that in films would need a 15+ certificate. My aim isn’t to stop kids from reading PBEM posts with swearwords in, or to stop them writing swearwords. Because this will happen, and I think freedom of speech should allow this to happen, if they want to.

Men holding up a banner saying "Free Speech"

I strongly believe in free speech

Users are very capable of lying about their age anyway, and so if they want to read or write explicit content in a PBEM, it will be quite easy for them to do so.

What I do want though is to allow PBEM games to provide a “recommended” age certificate for their game, so that when a user is signing up they can see the age rating, and know exactly what sort of content is expected of them. So if a member knows they have joined a PBEM suitable for family viewing, they know they shouldn’t start writing their character’s dialogue full of swearwords and explain in detail about the character’s sex acts with donkeys.

Putting this into Ongoing Worlds

So for Ongoing Worlds, when a member creates a new PBEM game, they will be asked to set a recommended age certificate for their game. This will force the GM to state the recommended age range of the audience for this game. Obviously this will not strictly stop youngsters signing up for a game that is meant for an older audience, in the same way that you can’t stop a young kid from watching a DVD of an older rating, but it will state the recommended audience that the content is intended for.

So what I have to decide next is which age classifications to use. Different certifications are used all over the world for films and TV shows. Computer games have their own different certifications too. So I have narrowed these down to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) certificates:

Film classifications in the UK

Film classifications in the UK

And the MPAA (Motion Picture of America) classifications:

Film Classifications - US

Film Classifications in the US

I’m personally fond of the BBFC logos. They’re obvious because they provide an age rating, and being British myself, I’m comfortable with them. I can’t ignore however that my audience might be mostly international and possibly American.

The certifications I currently plan to use:

  • G = A general audience. This will be a PBEM which is for all the family. No naughty words, no sexual or violent content.
  • PG = Obviously we can’t tell if a child is accompanied by a parent when visiting the website, so this is more about what the rating stands for in theory than what it actually means. A PG site will tolerate mild sexual innuendo and violence. And mild peril. I love mild peril.
  • 15 = This PBEM will tolerate swearing, violence and quite a lot of sexual innuendo, but not the more extreme “adult” storylines.
  • 18 = Anything goes, a PBEM here could have the most violent scenes you are able to write, blood, guts, gore, and any amount of sexual content that you wish to describe in your story.

These are just a guideline

Obviously these ratings are just a guideline. The owner of a game can select which best represents their game, and it’s up to them how they enforce the rating. The website won’t automatically check each post for bad language and automatically unsubscribe you – this will be up to the owner of the game, who has to power to ban you outright or give you another chance. Posts can be edited, so if someone does write a swearword in a game for kids, it can be edited or the post can be removed.