By Tom Bergin
LONDON (Reuters) - A British magazine distributed by a joint venture of Conde Nast and Hearst Corporation and aimed at primary school children has been featuring images of adult-rated video games.
The most recent issue of Cool Kidz, which is published by privately-owned LCD Publishing, contained images of five games that carried age ratings of 18 years, under the European gaming industry's PEGI rating scheme.
Screenshots appeared as double-page spreads, for use as posters, and were reproduced in spot-the-difference and other puzzles. Earlier issues also had images from 18- and 16-rated games.
Children's campaigners said the images reflected a growing problem of young children being exposed to violent video games, thereby increasing the chance they start playing them earlier.
It also highlighted what some critics describe as an apparent gap in regulation of children's magazines since LCD does not appear to have broken any law or industry rule.
LCD Publishing, which is based in Exeter, southwest England, said it took its responsibilities to young readers seriously.
"We censor the images we use to ensure that there is no blood or apparent body damage," owner Allen Trump said in an emailed statement.
He said the images used were suitable for children 12 or older, although he added the magazine was targeted at children up to 12 years.
The pictures printed depicted life-like computer generated images of men carrying weapons including assault rifles, Bowie knives, an axe, an anti-tank weapon and pistols.
The images showed explosions but not the visceral, bloody combat or scenes of a sexual nature for which the games are frequently criticized by parents' groups and women's rights advocates.
Cool Kidz is distributed by Comag, which is controlled by privately-owned U.S. magazine publishers Conde Nast, owners of Vogue magazine, and the Hearst Corporation, owner of Cosmopolitan magazine.
All three groups declined repeated requests for comment.
London-based Comag is one of the largest magazine distributors in the UK with annual turnover of around 230 million pounds ($360 million), according to its most recent accounts.
Trump said LCD downloaded the game images from the Internet although he was also occasionally approached by public relations firms seeking coverage of their clients' games.
Games publishers regularly post images on their websites, for use by online and print publishers, thus helping create awareness of their game.
Games firms contacted by Reuters said they were unaware Cool Kidz, which has been published for seven years, had been using their images.
The adult games Cool Kidz featured included Hitman: Absolution, Call of Duty Black Ops II, Assassins Creed III, Farcry 3 and Dishonored.
Representatives for Japan's Square Enix, publisher of the Hitman series, privately-owned Bethesda Softworks, publisher of Dishonored, and Ubisoft Entertainment, publisher of Assassins Creed III and Farcry 3, said they opposed the use but declined to say whether they would take any legal action against LCD.
Call of Duty publisher Activision declined to comment.
Alison Sherratt, senior vice-president of teachers union ATL, said publishers and government needed to do more to limit children's' exposure to games.
"It puts peer pressure on children .. If they see these images, it gives them the idea it's ok, it's all right to play these games," she added.
A spokeswoman for the Advertising Standards Authority said games companies could not advertise 18 rated games in children's magazines and a spokesman for the Video Standards Council (VSC), the UK affiliate of PEGI, said its rules also prohibited this.
However, since the images were not paid-for advertising, or supplied to Cool Kidz by the games publishers, these rules do not apply.
The Press Complaints Commission can adjudicate on complaints against magazines but only in respect of its members. LCD is not one.
The Office of Fair Trade and the Professional Publishers Association, trade group for magazine publishers, said they were unaware of any bodies that had regulatory powers over the content of children's magazines. ($1 = 0.6367 British pounds)
(Reporting by Tom Bergin; Editing by Jon Boyle)