Once Upon a Time in Germany, Part One
While France considers games as art and even ponders supporting the development of entertainment software by granting tax credits, parts of the political German landscape are busy trying to harm the potential of their own market and industry. Welcome to the "Killerspiel" debate!
The term "Killerspiel" means "killer game" and broadly refers to software products that contain a high amount of realistic, graphical violence. In Germany "Killerspiel" has become synonymous for the debate of politicians of how to cope with controversial titles.
Germany is already well known for having stricter regulations for violent content in videogames. However, these restrictions also happen to be the reason for some misconceptions about this market, the rating process and the 'Index' being the most common ones. Let's get things sorted out before we get into detail.
In Germany games are being rated by the USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle). Up until a few years ago, this was a fully voluntary procedure as it was up to publishers to submit their games. That was changed in the aftermath of the killing spree in Erfurt in 2002.
Since then an age rating is an obligatory requirement for a game to be sold publicly without restrictions. Adults are free to purchase titles without rating though. Ratings aren't pÃ¼re recommendations, they're legally binding. Should someone be caught selling an "AO" title to minors, that person could be fined with up to â‚¬50,000 (roughly $65,700).
The Index is a list of games that contain illegal content or feature a notable amount of violence. In order to be 'indexed', the level of brutality displayed needs to be high, it also matters whether violence is the only option for the player to master a problem or not. If you want to read the full criteria, hit this link.
Still -- and here comes the misconception -- a game being listed on the Index doesn't mean its banned. Unless it contains content that really goes beyond brutality or legality, such titles are still available for adults. There are some severe restrictions though as nobody (including the press) is allowed to publicly advertise or distribute theses games. Which means you're not going to see them on store shelves unless a shop has a section only accessible to adults. Previews or reviews aren't legal either unless a magazine can ensure that it's only directly available to people who are 18 years old or above.
Nevertheless, the reality is that adults can obtain these games legally. Also, with the exception of reviews, all games get the usual coverage since by the time previews are done, a game is far from being rated. It also should be highlighted that the BundesprÃ¼fstelle (BPjM - Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons), which is in charge of the Index, does not evaluate a software product, book or movie until it has received a complaint/inquiry by one of the legal authorities. This is not automatism.
Since publishers like their products to be as readily available as possible, they usually downgrade the level of violence portrayed in the German versions of their titles. The standard procedure includes the removal/modification of blood/gore effects, ragdoll physics, swastikas in WW2 titles or, in some cases, the substitution of human enemies with less humane opponents. Which occasionally results in absurd experiences such as the freaky robot textures that were applied to the evil soldiers in the German version of Soldiers of Fortune II.
Most of these games receive a "16" or "18" rating, which means that they can be legally purchased by people of the respective age group or above -- there are no other restrictions regarding advertisment or sale these game. To name an example, the German version of GTA: San Andreas, which happens to be an M-rated title in the US, got a "16".
While there are stricter rules regarding violence, most games are actually still available to German players and those who prefer the original versions, also have plenty of ways to get ahold of them. Nevertheless, the status quo is currently under a attack. Read part 2 for more information on how a certain party intends to completely ban the "Killerspiele" and other politicians are responding to this initiative.