A popular German online game, called Pennergame, is coming under fire for inciting prejudice against homeless people. Its name is certainly hardly flattering. "Penner" is the German word for "bum" or "dosser."
Pennergame is attracting 10,000 new users a day
One Hamburg politician, Ksenija Bekeris, has accused the game of violating human dignity and would like to see it banned, saying it contravenes the German constitution.
But with millions of clicks a month and more than 880,000 registered users to date the game is proving extremely popular in Germany. Farbflut, the company that makes the game, said that it is a caricature that is clearly not intended to depict reality.
The point of Pennergame is to advance from being a homeless person on the streets of Hamburg to owning a mansion in the northern German city's wealthy Blankenese district -- by hook or by crook.
Pennergame's inventors, Marius Follert and Niels Wildung, are experiencing meteoric careers of their own. Follert gave up his screen designer training program and Wildung dropped out of school to pursue their dream. PR spokesman Steffen Peuckert attributes the game's success to its ability to put a traditional rags-to-riches theme in a contemporary context.
True to life?
Such sights are not uncommon even in prosperous Germany
So what do people who have been or still are homeless think about the Internet game. Birgit Mueller, editor-in-chief of the Hamburg homeless newspaper Hinz und Kunzt, calls the game "tasteless."
"I am shocked the inventors are still pretty young and they have wheeled out every cliche that there is, as well as adding a few of their own to the standard ones," she said.
"Its name is also pretty hardcore," she added. "'Penner' is not a nice word and if you ask a homeless person if they get called that name, then everyone I asked said 'no one calls me that.' It is clear that homeless people perceive that as a humiliation."
Players are told that they are untalented bums who hang out at Hamburg's main railway station and can neither read nor write.
Peter knows what it is like to rough it at Hamburg station and sleep on a park bench. He has been working for Hinz und Kunzt for the last three years, earning a small amount by selling newspapers.
"You live through it again," he said. "I have slept by the (River) Elbe, collected bottles, just like in the game."
Reinforcing cliches about the homeless
Can a game like Pennergame avoid seeming callous?
The options for rising up the social ranks are highly restricted in Pennergame. Players are told: "It's your goal to become rich at last. Learn to read and write so that you can finally prop up signs in front of yourself to get more attention. Buy a dog to attract sympathy. Become a con artist and steal watches, wallets and jewels from other people."
Other money-spinning possibilities include breaking into a chewing gum machine (max. 5 euros, $6.24), stealing tips left for toilet cleaners (max. 10 euros), raiding a launderette (max. 20 euros) or a kiosk (max. 25 euros).
Hinz und Kuntz newspaper seller Gerrit denies this aspect of the game bears any relation to his experiences.
"I haven't raided a sausage stand, and we also never formed any proper gangs," said the 33-year-old.
Tasteless criminal connection
Mueller is also not amused by the mention of homeless people carrying out armed raids. She criticized Pennergame for spreading negative and false images.
"It's been a long time since homeless people have been brought into close association with criminal people," she said. "Of course, homeless people aren't better than anyone else. There are also homeless people who end up in prison, but mostly because of other crimes, like fare dodging or theft, but armed gangs... I haven't heard of anything like that."
But she said she can understand the appeal the game has for young people.
"Homelessness takes place in a kind of subculture and subcultures are always interesting because the conditions are chaotic, because different rules apply," Mueller said.
The ambitions of many homeless people are much more modest than owning a mansion.
"Having a career means getting one's life under control, having a flat, having some kind of long-term prospects, some kind of point to your life, that is the highest form of career," Mueller said. "Homeless people can make jokes about one another, but I don't think it's right for two young men look down their noses like that."
While Pennergame has offended many sensibilities, it might not be having the purely negative effect that its critics fear. Farbflut press spokesman Steffen Peuckert says the game has also drawn many young people's attention to the theme of homelessness.
"The users' feedback has been completely positive in this respect," he said. "We have had e-mails from people saying that they have started noticing homeless people or people collecting bottles much more since they started playing the game. They are becoming more conscious of the problem. Some of them have even asked where they can send their donations."