Europe could see its first cross-border age-rating system for computer and video games early next year.

Some European countries, such as Finland, already have mandatory rating systems while others, including France and the UK, have voluntary systems. Some have none at all.

Secretary general of the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) in Brussels Patrice Chazerand said: "Consumers in most of Europe can expect to see logos with our rating system on products by April 2000.

"The only major exception is Germany, which has put together its own rules, largely as a result of recent killings linked to violent computer games."

The federation's age-rating system, called Pan-European Game Information (PEGI), is a set of voluntary regulations to protect minors in the European Union (EU) using entertainment software, such as video and computer games.

The scheme comes in response to requests by various EU institutions, including the European Parliament, to establish a pan-European, self-regulatory mechanism to rate game software.

It also comes in response to complaints from game publishers and distributors - many of them global companies - about the costs and administrative hassles of producing individual product packaging for each country.

The companies maintain that a unified coding system would enable them to achieve economies of scale and thus operate more profitably in the fiercely competitive PC and video game market.

That market is big and growing fast. PC and video games generated sales of 6.7 billion Euros in 2001, or around one third of the global market, which is estimated at 18.1 billion Euros, according to ISFE. The federation predicts European sales will top 9 billion Euros by the end of 2003.

Chazerand added: "It's been a tremendously difficult task to harmonize criteria for a pan-European rating system but in the end we've achieved a broad consensus, with sufficient flexibility to accommodate national differences."