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Computer Games

For a long time, the impact of computer games was underestimated both regarding their positive and their negative potentials. Today, however, the issue gains all the more attention: among representatives from politics, the economy, culture and science. As a result, the present public debate centering on computer games is determined by many research findings, statements of fact, opinions or societal and political positions. In most cases, it is influenced by specific interests as the games industry with is dynamic and economic value constitutes an important driver for the technology and media industry as a whole. At the same time, digital games have now achieved a higher ranking in the cultural system: computer games are now classified as a cultural good. 

The development of high-tech equipment such as high-speed PCs with high-power graphics cards, third-generation games consoles, portable sets and mobiles phones are currently changing the world of virtual games in a fundamental manner: Graphics are becoming clearer and closer to reality, the options for action are getting ever more complex for players – and thus the options for playing ever more varied. An even more revolutionary impact on the games culture is effected by the fact that games are now almost entirely linked via the internet – also due to the low cost incurred with the flat rates offered. As a result, games are moving into the online environment. Online games are computer games which are usually played via an internet connection alone or together with other people, in the browser or via client-based structures.

KJM in charge of controlling online games

At this point, the Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media (KJM) takes up the issue in the framework of its general supervisory role regarding telemedia services. In accordance with the provisions of the Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Human Dignity and the Protection of Minors in Broadcasting and in Telemedia (JMStV) which for the first time brings together the supervision of commercial broadcasting and telemedia services under one roof, the KJM is in charge of ensuring that the provisions of the JMStV are adhered to even as regards online games. The Treaty also covers online downloading and games trailers. Under its remit, the KJM analyses such media content with a view to the potential harm for minors and regulates public accessibility.

The JMStV also established a system of regulated self-regulation which draws on the responsibility of service providers themselves. Under the system, organisations of voluntary self-regulation for broadcasting or telemedia content can be set up; they are certified by the KJM in accordance with the criteria laid down in the law. Online games are thus dealt with by the voluntary self-regulation organisation “Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle” (USK.online) which the KJM certified. Furthermore, commercially active suppliers of telemedia services including providers of online games which have a bearing on the protection of minors must nominate an appointee for the protection of minors who acts in an advisory fashion as does the FSM.

Responsibilities in accordance with the Protection of Young Persons Act (JuSchG)

The German system for the protection of minors in the media leads the world: The division of competences regarding online media and offline media respectively is laid down in the Protection of Young Persons Act (JuSchG) for the Federal level and the JMStV for the state level; they are the two most important legal provisions.

The JuSchG among other things regulates the protection of minors regarding offline media. It stipulates the responsibilities and procedures for age rating data media such as computer games and for the respective trade via mail order. The public authority in charge is the supreme youth authority of the respective state in each case. In accordance with the principle of regulated self-regulation, the self-regulation organisation in charge of offline games is the “Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle” (USK) – in analogy to the voluntary self-regulation organisation for cinematographic works, the “Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft” (FSK). The procedure for putting data media and telemedia on the list of prohibited content (“index”) is carried out by the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (BPjM) in accordance with the provisions laid down in the JuSchG.

With the amendment in force since 01 July 2008, the JuSchG has been providing for stricter regulation which in consequence affects the protection of minors regarding computer games: The criteria for listing presentations of acts of violence in the index were extended and clarified. Alongside content which is racist or which glorifies war, content which “presents acts of violence such as murder or massacres in a lurid, attention-grabbing manner for their own purpose dominating the action” … are now also covered by the law. How these new provisions will work in practice remains to be seen.

Point of dissent: Age rating for online games?

In the course of the recent evaluation of the legal provisions for the protection of minors in the media, the demand by politics and providers for an age rating system for online games was debated. The claim that online games can on principle be given age ratings was seen critically not only by the KJM: The classical rating system in its view cannot be the right approach as there are varied possibilities of interaction and the games in the internet are dynamic on principle. Thus far, the law resorted to different mechanisms regarding content on the web in order to prevent content that could impair the development of minors or expose them to risks in other ways from being freely accessible in the web: technical or other means of access control or the set-up of closed user groups for adults. In the event of a breach of these provisions, the KJM steps in. Alongside these mechanisms, other forms of control and supervision in the form of minimum safety standards appear feasible. Furthermore, it would appear useful – as provided for in the law – to nominate an appointee for the protection of minors in advance. Additionally, online games can be voluntarily presented to the USK.online for assessment prior to being put online.

The problems with the content of online games

Due to their orientation towards distribution through the world-wide web, computer games can now potentially present fundamentally different problems compared to the analogue world. While the aspect of violence in various types of games has been intensely debated for years, the issue of addiction has only now come to the fore as the increased distribution of games online is gaining the focus of debate. Online games, after all, hold a potentially higher risk of addiction than games which are played on the monitor alone. The online world never stands still and thus escapes control by the player when he or she is not online. For this reason, the demand that the player be online as long as possible is inherent in such games. Invitations for continuing with a game are provided both by the permanently changing games themselves and by the sociality of the games. The organisation of individual players in groups furthers long periods "on the game".

A large number of recent research findings appear to indicate that the aspect of addiction regarding online games is a problem not to be taken lightly. However, from the perspective of the protection of minors in the media, content which furthers addiction is difficult to assess correctly since the problem potential has thus far been attributed to the content itself and not to the behaviour of the user. All the same, this dimension requires consideration regarding the criteria for the supervision of broadcasting and telemedia services by the KJM.

The communication features of the oft-quoted Web 2.0 which can all be part of online games present a focal problem: cyber mobbing and cyber bullying are experiences reported by adolescents. Content containing violence or pornography is also transmitted. The anonymous nature of online communication not lastly furthers sexual harassment. In addition, the issue of data protection in connection with online games should be taken into consideration as regards personal data.

In addition, the business models underpinning online games must be viewed critically for some cases as far as the protection of minors is concerned. Apart from the classical subscription model which works with monthly fees, so-called “games for free” are also highly popular. These mostly concern browser games funded through “item selling”, i.e. the sale of virtual goods or useful skills for the game. In many instances, payment can be effect via the telephone line, but also by means of sending an SMS which have differing price categories. Here, consumer protection comes into play.

Dialogue with the industry on the protection of minors

Ensuring the effective protection of minors for online games is a key responsibility as minors are very intensive users of this type of content. In this respect, the FSM and the respective appointee for the protection of minors in the industry who can act in a consultative function in advance are called upon to act. At the same time, there should be a regular and transparent exchange of views and experiences with the bodies in charge for aligning measures and discussing criteria. At the European level, regulatory mechanisms should be developed for establishing binding standards for the industry.

Children and adolescents must be supported by all those involved in helping their development joining forces. Minors are entitled to play without running the risk of being impaired or endangered in their development. However, the issues presented by online games cannot be resolved by legislation for the protection of minors alone. An important second pillar to be involved is media literacy. But especially as far as computer games are concerned, parents and teachers still do not take their responsibility seriously enough as they are frequently not familiar with computer games. As a result, information and education are needed to promote knowledge of risks, but also of the potentials of online games.


Literature (in German)

  • Olaf Zimmermann, Theo Geißler (Hg.): Streitfall Computerspiele. Computerspiele zwischen kultureller Bildung, Kunstfreiheit und Jugendschutz. Redaktion: Gabriele Schulz. Berlin: Deutscher Kulturrat 2007. Der Band versammelt 35 Diskussionsbeiträge. Viele Texte sind auch online lesbar unter www.kulturrat.de.
  • Maria von Salisch, Astrid Kristen, Caroline Oppel: Computerspiele mit und ohne Gewalt. Auswahl und Wirkung bei Kindern. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2007. Langzeitstudie zur Computerspielnutzung von Kindern.
  • Harald und Andrea M. Hesse: Computer- und Videospiele. Alles, was Eltern wissen sollten. München: Herbig 2007. Informationen und Tipps für Eltern zum Umgang mit Computerspielen im Kinderzimmer.
  • Inka Brunn, Hardy Dreier, Stephan Dreyer, Uwe Hasebrink, Thorsten Held, Claudia Lampert, Wolfgang Schulz: Das deutsche Jugendschutzsystem im Bereich der Video- und Computerspiele. Endbericht 2007. Hamburg: Hans-Bredow-Institut. Das Hans-Bredow-Institut prüfte mögliche Wirkungen von gewalthaltigen Spielen, die Kritik an der USK, die Umsetzung der bestehenden Gesetzgebung und die Möglichkeiten und Folgen gesetzlicher Reformen. Unter: www.hans-bredow-institut.de.
  • Konrad Lischka: Spielplatz Computer. Kultur, Geschichte und Ästhetik des Computerspiels. Heidelberg: Heise 2002. Einführung ins Thema Computerspiele.