If the Bible were a computer game, what age rating would it be given? Using John’s story of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus as an example, Emma Ham-Riche asks whether there are lessons the church can learn about ways to present Biblical violence to children.

Do any of the images accompanying this post seem familiar?  If they do, it could be because either you, or someone you know, are part of the 62% of adults who describe themselves as ‘active gamers’, defined as currently playing games on a mobile phone/smartphone, consoles, tablet, computer or Smart TV (according to Ofcom’s Adults Media Use and Attitudes Report 2020). 

But, of course, it’s not just adults who are ‘active gamers’. Ofcom’s 2022 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report found that 18% of 3-4 years olds play games online.  This rises to 38% of 5-7 year olds, 69% of 8-11 year olds and 75% of 12-17 year olds who play games online.  At the same time, levels of concern among parents have increased and more are taking action to protect their children.  In the same report, seven in ten parents of children under 16 were concerned about the content their child saw online; the aspects of greatest concern were age-inappropriate content, including violence and disturbing content.

The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system was established in 2003 to help European parents make informed decisions on buying computer games and apps and is considered to be a model of European harmonisation in the field of the protection of children.  The images accompanying this post appear on all computer and video games, as well as all products in the Google Play (Android) and Windows stores.  They ensure that the games are clearly labelled by age according to their content.  Age ratings provide guidance to consumers (particularly parents) to help them decide whether or not to buy a particular product.

As well as being a Priest in the Church of England, as a member of Mothers’ Union, I represent parents’ organisations on the PEGI Experts’ Group.  Other organisations represented on this committee include Nintendo, Rock Star Games and the Video Standards Council from the UK, as well as representatives from universities, government departments and media specialists within Europe.  I’m also a Board Member of the Video Standards Council, who rate games here in the UK using the PEGI system.

My own children, aged 15 and 17, count among the Ofcom statistics quoted above, and, as a result, I count among the concerned parents.  However, my insight into the PEGI age rating system has reassured me that the games industry takes its responsibilities for safeguarding very seriously and stringent guidelines are followed before PEGI allocates an age rating to a game or app.  PEGI makes every effort to ensure that children are not exposed to inappropriate material and parents can trust its robust age rating system.

The rating on a game or app confirms that it is suitable for players over a certain age. Accordingly, a PEGI 7 game is only suitable for those aged seven and above and an PEGI 18 game is only suitable for adults aged eighteen and above. The PEGI rating considers the age suitability of a game or app, not the level of difficulty.

Prior to the release of each version, a game or app is checked against six age categories and eight content descriptors. The age categories are: 3, 7, 12, 16, 18 and ‘Parental Guidance Recommended’ (which is used for certain apps).  Each game is assessed for violence, bad language, fear, sex, drugs, discrimination, gambling and online game play.  In the “real world” parents and others seek to protect children from all of these things, so it is encouraging that in the virtual world, inhabited by an increasing number of children, the games industry seeks to protect children from these things too.

So if parents and the games industry are seeking to protect children from age-inappropriate content, including violence and disturbing content, should the church have a responsibility to do the same?  Consider the description of the Crucifixion and the events leading up to it, that children of all ages hear year after year in the church.  If it were a video game, how might it be rated according to the PEGI system?

If [the Bible] were a video game, how might it be rated according to the PEGI system?

Simon Peter draws his sword, strikes the high priest’s slave, and cuts off his right ear (John 18:10).  As Jesus is being questioned by the High Priest, one of the police standing nearby strikes Jesus on the face (John 18:22).  Pilate takes Jesus and has him flogged, the soldiers weave a crown of thorns and put it on his head, then they torment him and strike him on the face (John 19:1-3).  Jesus and two other men are crucified to death (John 19:18).  The two men crucified with Jesus have their legs broken so that they will suffocate to death, and Jesus’s side is pierced with a sword (John 19: 31-34). 

For a PEGI 3 rating, meaning that a game is suitable for those age 3 and above, the violence depicted is humorous and is set in a cartoon, slapstick or child-like setting.  Think Tom and Jerry!  For a PEGI 7 rating, the violence depicted would be set in a child-like setting, but might be disturbing to younger children.  Whether the violence is likely to be disturbing to younger children is determined by elements such as: the nature of the characters, the severity of the violence and/or dark overtones.  So far, chapters 18 and 19 of John’s Gospel should probably be rated at least at PEGI 7.

However, violence at PEGI 7 should also be non-realistic violence of a minor nature towards a human-like character.  John 18-19 depicts realistic violence towards a human, meaning the age rating should be at least PEGI 12.

But even at PEGI 12, the description of depictions of realistic violence of a minor nature on a human-like character that does not result in any obvious injury or harm still doesn’t fit the violence of John 18-19.  An example of such violence might be realistic but very minor such as a slap or smack and the victim does not show any apparent harm or injury. 

The violence described in John 18-19 is more likely to be rated at least at PEGI 16 because in these chapters we find depictions of realistic violence towards human characters.  This means violence where the character reacts as it would in real life.

The violence of the crucifixion in John 18-19 might even be rated at PEGI 18.  The violence depicted might well be described as gross violence, which includes torture, dismemberment, sadism and horrific depictions of death or injury towards human characters.  Gross violence means depictions of decapitation, dismemberment or torture and other horrific methods of bringing death, severe pain or injury to the recipient.  This would seem to describe the act of crucifixion.

Whether PEGI 16 or PEGI 18, is there something that the church could learn from such age ratings that might affect the way it presents such violence in the Bible, particularly to children?  Many churches even display crucifixes, a physical depiction of what might be described as gross violence using the PEGI criteria.

The answer may lie within Ofcom’s 2022 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report which found that one of the ways in which adults can help children build their critical understanding is by talking to them and playing an active role in monitoring and mediating what the children are being exposed to.

Within the church, placing the crucifixion, and other examples of such violence, in their historical context is one way of mediating the violent images.  The violence of the crucifixion would, of course, naturally be mediated by the ‘sure and certain’ hope of the Resurrection.  A few years ago, I was part of a team taking an Easter assembly into Primary schools which used the recurring phrase ‘It’s [Good] Friday now, but [Easter] Sunday’s coming’ to mediate the violence and ensure that the Good News of Jesus Christ was heard above everything else.

And perhaps that light and knowledge of the Good News of Jesus Christ is how we should always mediate the violence that we encounter in the Bible.  As a Vicar I know is fond of saying, ‘I’ve read to the end of the book, and love wins.’

For more information about PEGI: http://www.pegi.info
For more information about the VSC: https://videostandards.org.uk/RatingBoard/

Emma Ham-Riche is an Assistant Curate in the Diocese of Chichester.  As a member of Mothers’ Union, she represents parenting organisations on the PEGI Experts’ Group, and since 2020 has been a Board Member of the Video Standards Council.

As always, guest blogs are invited to stimulate comment and discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

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