Once Upon a Time in Germany, Part Two
Whenever a tragic and shocking incident occurs and receives public attention, you can count the seconds until certain parts of the political spectrum pop up to proclaim that the existing laws are far too soft. Swinging the ban hammer seems to be a particularly popular knee-jerk reaction.
In the first part of the article I detailed the basic age rating concept and Germany and (hopefully) cleared up some misconceptions. However, the system in its current state is under fire as some politicians aim to tighten the rules. Conservatives and videogames -- a match often enough not exactly made in, well, heaven.
Despite Germany's already stricter regulations regarding violence in videogames, there are political groups that demand further limitations, naming isolated events such as the massacres in Erfurt or Emsdetten as examples of how such titles may influence individuals.
While the criminals, like the two teenagers responsible for the Columbine massacre, used to play videogames, blaming games and music is a traditional, dangerous trait of hasty causal logic. Naturally, putting the blame onto a single entity is an easy, satisfying solution, which, like stereotypes, helps you avoid complexity.
The "Killerspiel" casa was never really closed. The CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union - Christian Social Union), a party as conservative as its name indicates, keep pushing their agenda for stricter laws. But who exactly are they?
The CSU, which governs the federal state of Bavaria, has scored an absolute majority in every selection since 1962. Being the sister party of the CDU, they're also part of the current German government formed by the grand coalition consisting of SPD and CDU/CSU, which, very roughly translated, would be like the Republicans and the Democrats working together.
The CSU recently filed in a draft for the modifaction of the Jugendschutzgesetz, the bill regulating all things related to media consumed by minors among other things.
A notable addition is clause 131a (Â§131a) on "virtual killer games", or as the following paragraph defines it: "games that either display or let the player participate in cruel/gruesome and inhuman acts violence against humans or being resembling humans." Persons to spread, distribute, make publicly available, order, advertise or provide such games to minors may face a prison sentence of up to 1 year or a hefty fine.
More interestingly and debatable, however, is the point that clause 131a also prohibits the production of games that meet the definition. Should the draft get greenlit by the Bundesrat, the parliament (Bundestag) and the Federal President, the three elements central to the legislation process, it certainly would have quite an affect on the game industry in Germany.
The most prominent representant would be Crytek, who are located in Frankfurt and currently have roughly 120 employees in their ranks. Their FarCry was the most successful title of a Germany-based developer so far, and Crysis is one of the highly anticipated games for PC and -- yes, contrary to public denials -- console systems. Due to the focus of their project, they inevitably would have to move to another country, should the CSU draft become reality, as they are unlikely to drop current projects in favor of 'non-violent' titles.
It would also put pressure on Replay Studios (Sabotage), Acony (Parabellum) and 2-3 other companies/projects I'm not at the liberty to talk about as they haven't been announced yet. To this day there had not been any such restrictions to the development of computer games other than the natural prohibition of illegal content such as racist/nazi propaganda and the like.
An additional clause (Â§118a) in article 2 would make the hosting or participating in games that "may harm the dignity of the human being by simulating kills or injuries with guns or imitations of guns" an administrative offense. Same for people who provide the location for such events. This clause is specifically aimed at people who play Paintball or Laserdrome matches. Culprits may be fined with up to 5,000 Euros (roughly $6,500.)
Another addition even affects parental responsibilities: "There's no reason for legal guardians to make acts of excessive violance available to their (underage) children. Therefore, this privilege will no longer be granted." Basically making it illegal for parents to provide content not officially and legally suited (according to the rating authorities) for their kids.
The CSU also expresses their dissatisfaction with the work done by the USK (see first article) Citing general criticism regarding the rating process -- despite it being mostly the CSU and groups politically close to the CSU to complain -- they demand stricter criteria and more influence by governental authorities. They also indirectly question the neutrality of the USK in its current state.
Unsurprisingly, they also want it to make easier for games to receive the infamous 'index' stamp I described in the previous piece. At this point, 66 percent of the board members need agree on such decision. According to the CSU, a simple majority would be enough. Also, all games, where committing crimes doesn't have any negative consequences on the outcome/success of the player, should generally qualify for the index if it was solely up to the CSU.
If it was. Fortunately, it isn't.
Not even two weeks after the Bavarian initiative, the Ministry for Family Affairs and Youth, headed by the CSU, announced a crash program to tighten the current restrictions. At first, it may seem as if both, the Ministry and the CSU, are aiming in the same direction. A closer look, however, reveals a conflict within CDU/CSU.
While the crash program also intends to lower some of the Index criteria by also covering titles that are dominated by violence instead of those that glorify brutality, the Ministry also plans to enforce the current rating-relevant sales restrictions more efficiently in combination with projects to educate minors and parents about the ratings. A refinement of the classification criteria is part of the program as well - a move likely to be appreciated by publishers as the current criteria tend to be somewhat cloudy occasionally.
Neither does the secretary in charge, Ursula von der Leyen, want to completely ban a whole range of entertainment software, nor does she intend to create any additional restrictions for game developers. The crash programm doesn't add to the Bavarian draft - it competes with it.
The BIU, the German equivalent of the ESA, responded quickly and threw their weight behind the crash program. The group, representing publishers such as Electronic Arts, Vivendi and Take Two, generally welcomed the initiative, announcing full support for the demand for clear rating criteria, strict enforcement of age restrictions and increased efforts to inform customers.
In hindsight the announcement by the Ministry seems deliciously timed. Other groups and two of the opposition parties have openly condemnded the CSU proposal while, at least to a certain extent, agreeing with the competing draft.
Interestingly enough, while even people within the industry are debating whether games should be considered art or not, the German Culture Council (Deutscher Kulturrat), a politically independent organization, joined the discussion on their own and warned politicians, stating that the freedom of opinion and art could be at stake.
Not only that, the call for the irrationally high restrictions already met heavy resistance in the Bundesrat, where it had been forwarded to four committees to debate the bill - the committees on inner affairs, legal affairs, family affairs and culture. The latter three already counseled quickly and decided to postpone the bill, effictively putting it on hold. And since all four committees would have to work out a draft and greenlight it together, it's a clear indicator that the Bavarian draft in its current form has a rather slim chance of being passed on to the German parliament (Bundestag), the second of three institutions it would have to go through.
The CSU, it seems, overestimated the momentum of its construct. Not only does the intention to ban titles and prohibit the development of them go beyond what others are willing to accept, it completely and utterly lacks any form of appropriate justification. The draft concedes that "a few effects" have not been analyzed completely, claims, however, that there are numerous scientific studies that prove that games can have a bad influence (especially) on minors.
Not only does the document fail to name a single study to undermine this, it's a simple claim not backed up in any way, it factually contradicts the reality of science. Direct causal links or any solid negative longterm effects of videogames on the general behaviour of human beings have yet to be shown. (I recommend taking a brief look at this meta-analysis, just to name one example.)
A legislation without a valid reasoning does pose a constitutional problem. Even in the unlikely case of the Bavarian bill making its way through all institutions, someone certainly would file an action at the Constitutional Court within no time. Given the facts, the judges probably would have an easy time coming to a conclusion.
Chances are that Germany will see some changes induced by aforementioned crash program later this year, but it'll be changes both, the politicians and the industry can arrange with, if not even embrace them. For all we know, this could have been one of the last major battles of this kind. The younger, upcoming generation of politicians are notably more open-minded about new technology and media, a good number of them probably played games at some point in their past, and do not consider them a mysterious force to be not understood. It wasn't even a year ago -- I was still working for a certain developer -- when we got a visit from member of the Bundestag, who wanted to get some insight into how a game is being made.
Undoubtedly, there is an increasing awareness of what the games industry is about, and what it's not about.