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Sonntagskind avatar 8:51 AM on 02.09.2011  (server time)
Won't somebody please think of the children or a German's guide to censorship

Time after time, violent games are the target of bills trying to regulate their availability especially to minors. The latest attempt in that regard is the "California gaming law". This article dips into the matter of censorship in games and what it means to the industry and gamers. The second part explains how games are rated and censored in Germany, the country with the strictest regulations when it comes to gaming.

Why should I care?:

You, my valued reader, are most likely US American...if that is the case, congrats, you live in the "Holy Land of Gaming" far. Those of you who are from Australia might feel the pain, that is living in a country where gaming is considered childsplay and therefore under strict regulation by youth protection laws. In the US, Canada and UK games are rated by the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), a self-regulatory organization administrated by the game industry whose ratings aren't mandatory.
But even in the USA the freedom of gaming seems to be threatened lately by the California Gaming Law. This law was meant to prevent the sale and rental of video games that came with content that's deemed "offensive to the community" or "especially heinous, cruel, or depraved", to underage consumers. Under this law, retailers would need to ask customers for valid ID when selling a "violent video game" or otherwise would be fined 1000$ per infraction. The law most likely gets rejected by the supreme court due to being "unduly restrictive" and the use of "overly broad definitions.". The final decision in this case will be released in June 2011.

It leaves the question, what if the next law appeal contains more precise definitions and gets approved?

What would change?:

Probably not that much in terms of youth protection. Most game retailers already try to prevent minors from buying games with "M"-ratings. From my own experience, there is always a way to get your hands on games like that as long as parents don't care what their children are playing. Even me, growing up in Germany, the country with the strictest gaming laws, was able to play violent games like Doom and Mortal Kombat. The fact that those games were forbidden for someone my age, provided even more of an incentive to play them.

I in no way support the distribution of mature games to minors. Even though it probably is far less harmful to their mental developement as some media channels make it out to be, I totally see the reasoning behind institutions like the ESRB. Higher restrictions by the government don't seem to be the right way to prevent it, though.

Besides not being helpful, I'd say a law like that even harms the industry. Germany is the 4th largest country when it comes to game piracy. One of the reasons for that seems to be that minors just download illegal copies of games they are not allowed to buy.

The major downside would be that, should a law like that get approved, games no longer are a medium protected by the First Amendment. That means they wouldn't come within the provisions of protected speech, which leaves them vulnerable to other anti-gaming bills. That might result in a restriction of creativity for game designers, or force game publishers to dilute content due to the threat of government actions and fines.

A better way probably would be to raise awareness of the issue and teach parents in dealing with this topic. Even consoles themselves are able of setting an age restriction nowadays, the only problem is the parents' lack of concern and/or technical understanding.

Let me give you a short overview about what it means to live in a country where censored games are a daily fare, how games are rated here and what gets censored for what reason.

Censorship in Germany:

Judging by the amount of misguided comments I read, many rumors seem to circulate regarding this topic. For example, that we would live in some kind of police state without freedom of speech, what is simply not true.

New games get rated by the USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle), the German equivalent to the ESRB, before their release. Those age restrictions are mandatory, that means it's a punishable offense to sell e.g. a "ab 16" game to a 15 year old.

USK tags

Games who are considered "severely liable to corrupt the youth" don't get a rating by the USK. In those cases the BPjM (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien) will "index" them. Indexed games aren't allowed to be advertised or even displayed in stores but can be sold to people over 18 years of age.
The government does not directly censor media...publishers are allowed to sell highly violent games but that would severely reduce their customer base because they wouldn't be allowed to advertise them. That's why they often make sure to get at least an "ab 18" USK rating by altering them. Altering involves removing of blood textures and parts of violent cutscenes, vanishing of dead bodies after a few seconds, removing of ragdoll physics, removing of options to mutilate bodies, removing of Nazi-symbols, etc.. From time to time those alterations get ridiculous and even involve changes of the storyline.

What exactly got changed in the German version of a game you can look up on: (cut reports)

Here are some examples:

1. Original Half-Life version 2. German Half-Life version...soldiers replaced by robots

1. Original Team Fortress 2 version 2. German TF2 version...yep, that's a rubber ducky instead of body parts (wtf!)

1. Original MW2 2. German MW2 lose when shooting innocents

Some say, Germany censors violence and Nazi-symbolism in order to repress or even deny World War 2 crimes...that's ridiculous. 'Holocaust denial' is an official crime in Germany (and 15 other countries) and is punished with imprisonment up to 5 years. German schools are under obligation by law to teach children in detail what exactly happend during the Nazi era (1933 - 1945)...and school attendance is compulsory for all children. Homeschooling is not an option.

It is however true that the use of certain Nazi-symbols and paroles in pubic is illegal and is punished depending on the facts of the case with a financial penalty or up to 3 years of imprisonment. The reason is, that those are considered as "Volksverhetzung"(incitement of popular hatred) or as bringing the memory of the deceased into disrepute. Even in the USA there are categories like that, which are not protected by freedom of speech, such as obscenity or fighting words.

1. Original COD:BO Version 2. German COD:BO Version...Swastika replaced by 'Iron Cross'

An exception constitutes their use for education, art, science, documentary reports or media coverage of current affairs. Two years ago, the "Deutscher Kulturrat" (German concil of culture) acknoledged the cultural value of games and classified them as art. So it could be possible that under that premise games will become a more open medium here.

German gamers mostly deal with censorship by importing US/UK versions of those games. Personally I prefer the English versions of games because of the mostly better voice-acting and other drawbacks due to localization. For gamers not fluent in English there's also the possibility to import games from Austria, where you can get the uncut German version. There's also a high amount of pirated games. Owning uncut versions is not indictable. In my opinion that clearly shows, laws like that are not very effective.

Homepages of interest:
Video Game Voters Network

What's your take on the gaming law situation? Do you agree/disagree with me? Is youth protection a responsibility of the government?

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