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Playing the Game

DPA news agency (nda)August 25, 2008

Germany's efforts to regulate the classification and sale of violent video games has brought a number of the country's authorities together to work on a cohesive set of legislations.

A bloody battle is seen in a frame made from Midway Games' "Mortal Kombat: Deceptions"
Puddles of blood suggest this is a violent game but the authorities have other criteria tooImage: AP

Violent computer games continue to spark controversy all over the world and prompt responses by governments and organizations intended to protect youthful players.

Legislation recently passed in Germany in July, for example, makes it easier to put such games on the banned list following the introduction of a rating index.

Yet what does it all really mean? Who sets the age recommendations for "normal" games? In Germany, at least, these roles have been in flux of late.

Games on Germany's banned list cannot be sold publicly. That includes any advertising and sales through mail order. The decision to flag a game is made by the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (BPjM). Since the July 1 revision of the Protection of Minors Act, the agency has been granted even more authority.

That includes the authorization to list games that propagate vigilante justice as the only solution to a problem. The criteria have also been expanded for the automatic inclusion of specific games in the list.

"The chance to list a game has been increased many times over by the letter of the law," said Michael Trier, editor-in-chief of Munich-based GameStar magazine. But Trier said he fears that the revisions of the law are more likely to lead to uncertainty, particularly when there is controversy over whether a game really is predominantly violent.

Network of organizations decide on age classifications

A scene from the Halo 2 Videogame for the Microsoft X-Box
Blasting enemies with a large gun is not for young kidsImage: www.xbox.com

The age classifications for computer games have not been changed under the recent revision but the age labeling system will be significantly broader in future. Some games are currently open to a general audience. The next levels are "6," "12," and "16." Any game assigned an "18" is banned for youths. There are also games that cannot be rated at all. Such titles require action by the BPjM frequently land on the index.

The labeling system is organized by the so-called Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK) in Berlin, with support until now from the Association for the Promotion of Youths and Social Work. Two industrial associations assumed sponsorship from June 1: the German Association of Computer Game Developers (G.A.M.E.) and the German Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (BIU), both of which are headquartered in Berlin.

But can two industrial associations police their own members effectively?

"Yes," said BIU spokesman Olaf Wolters.

After all, the decision-making power lies with the federal states. The Protection of Minors Act calls for the Supreme Youth Agencies of the state to undertake the labelling, he said.

"And they employ the USK," Wolters added.

Independent experts road test dubious titles

A screen shot from a Ubisoft game
Experts turn their well-trained eyes on suspect gamesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The USK functions as a service provider, commissioning a circle of independent experts. These observers first play the game, present their results to a five-person committee consisting of at least four of roughly 60 expert appraisers from the USK, including teachers and employees of the youth agencies. The committee is then completed by a permanent representative of the Supreme Youth Agencies of the states.

"The majority decides, but the permanent representative always has a veto right," Wolters said. The decision on where to draw lines is often difficult, the psychologist added.

"If a game is to receive approval for all ages, then it needs to be friendly and colorful," Wolters said.

The decision whether to apply a "6" or a "12" to a game is often a fine one. The same applies to the thin line between "16" and "18." The more realistic and more drastic the game, the higher the chances that it will go to stores with an "18" sticker on it.