Beckstein Blues/Germany Giggles

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Note: The following post was originally posted at this location by a user known as “Tim Partlett” (presumably the author’s real name). I’m reposting this here because I think it’s a fascinating and well-written look at the problems that face one of Germany’s biggest game development houses.

Beckstein Blues
Note: This is a personal commentary and does not reflect the views of my company in any way.

When I tell people in Germany what I do for a living, they usually react with a mixture of pity and disgust, like I had admitted to them I was a male prostitute. I’ve learned to avoid the subject, and give a vague answer like “software developer”, because this causes me less problems. The attitude has been getting worse lately.

I was sitting in a restaurant one day in Coburg, Bavaria. An old couple asked if they could take the seat on my table. I agreed. They sat down actually at my table, ordered food, and the woman proceeded to chain smoke her way through a packet of Reemtsmas, allowing me to smoke passively while I ate.

Sitting at a stranger’s table in a full restaurant is considered quite normal in Germany. Smoking while other people are eating doesn’t even register here as something one shouldn’t do, and nobody would even think to ask if you might not enjoy it. And health reasons? Who cares; what are those anyway?

There’s a strong link between passive smoking and death. They estimate about 50,000 non-smokers die in the US every year to passive smoking. Under pressure from the EU the German government reluctantly proposed new laws banning smoking in restaurants. This law was due to take effect in the new year, but it got struck down last week for being unconstitutional.

Despite the proven links between passive smoking and a very unpleasant death for many thousands of people every year, nobody in Germany wants to ban smoking. Not the public, nor the politicians. They will find any excuse to avoid EU pressure to conform and save lives. Not so for computer games.

For computer games both the press and public are histrionic, and the politicians are keen to tap into every reactionary outrage. What triggered the latest bout of threats to the German computer games industry was an “amokrun” at Emsdetten last month, but the whole issue has been simmering for some years now, since Robert Steinhauser took out his 9mm Glock and killed 13 teachers and 2 students at his school in Erfurt.

At the time of the shooting, we were already in development of the “murder simulator” Far Cry at our old studio in Coburg. We were just across the state border from Erfurt in northern Bavaria. Tensions in the region were high. While the people of Coburg continued to treat us like mini-superstars, because we were the biggest thing ever to happen to this small German town, it was a different matter for the rest of the state.

In 2004 the Bavarian authorities sent in the state troopers. Ostensibly it was as a response to a claim made by a former employee that we had illegal software installed on our machines. Their remit, however, appeared to be a lot wider. When the small tech team appeared to inspect our computers, they were accompanied by over one hundred flak-jacketed riot police, all armed with Heckler and Koch sub-machine guns.

It was a total overreaction. It was like they expected to find us hunkered down behind our desks, pulling out our shotguns and semi-automatics and shouting “you’ll never take me alive, polizei!” They arrived first thing in the morning, and kicked down our doors. They even raided the nearby private residences, with one of our programmers forced to lay down naked on the floor with a gun to his head after he discovered armed police in his room after finishing his shower.

Because we weren’t all at work at the same ungodly hour that most Germans start, they were forced to set up ambushes all over town. I was caught just outside the office. Others were pounced on in the park. There were reports that they’d even set up roadblocks on the exits to the town. We were all shepherded into our Mo-Cap room, and there we were forced to remain until questioned, prevented from leaving by dozens of armed guards. There must have been two guys (and girls) with submachine guns for every one of us. You can imagine we didn’t feel very welcome in Bavaria after that.

Bavaria is a very conservative state, possibly the most conservative of an already conservative nation. The state president of Bavaria, Dr. Edmund Stoiber, renowned for his somewhat bizarre habit of dressing up in lederhosen and a Tyrolean hat, made it very clear before the raid how much he despised the kind of “killer games” that we made. And it is again from Bavaria where this latest attempt to ban computer games is stirring.

Dr. Günther Beckstein (many important Germans have doctorates; the Germans seem to have a great respect for qualifications), Interior Minister for the state of Bavaria, has drafted a new law so that those “who distribute, produce, obtain or deliver computer games that allow the player to perform violent acts against human beings in a cruel way or a way violating human dignity as primary or secondary objectives, will be punished with a fine or imprisonment of up to one year.” He’s backed by Lower Saxony, our neighbours.

It seems that the politicians are largely just reacting to hysteria in the public and press. The general consensus is that the government won’t pass this law, and even if they did, they would find themselves in conflict with local state laws, and overarching EU laws. EU laws are designed to protect free trade between nations, and so banning something that is perfectly legal in every other part of the EU causes problems. Our current home state of Hessen is relatively liberal, and so far hasn’t made any noises about supporting this legislation, so we aren’t packing our bags just yet.

The hysteria, however, is huge. Even before the latest amokrun the press were fixated with games and their effects on children. Crytek are big news in Germany just on their success alone. Our latest game is currently attracting more development dollars than any German movie in history. You’d think the press would be interested in us purely because of this, but no.

We had Der Spiegel, roughly equivalent to Time Magazine in the US, and the most popular weekly magazine in Europe, run a five page center spread on us a few months back, before the Emsdetten shooting and the latest furore. Even this relatively restrained and respected news magazine couldn’t resist focusing almost the entire article on violence in games. They even printed a picture of children playing some unnamed game at the Leipzig Games Convention, with the words of our CEO, Cevat Yerli, underneath saying how “we don’t make games for children.”

That’s pretty mild. The tabloids have headlines screeching about “killer games”, and stating as fact that children become killers because of playing such games. The TV stations when they covered this issue recently kept playing the youtube video of the “angry German kid” alongside supposedly serious coverage. If you’ve seen the video, you will understand what kind of impression this would give viewers. I don’t even believe the video is genuine, as he doesn’t even appear to be moving the mouse when he is shooting people in between bouts of keyboard smashing. But facts don’t appear to be all that important in the German “killer game” debate right now.

Since the shooting, Der Spiegal returned to the subject again last week, reporting on the violent murder of a homeless man in Cottbus, in deepest East Germany. The man was kicked in the face repeatedly until he died. The autopsy found “a profound demolition of the face”. The opening line of this article painted the obvious bias in it.

A 19 years old man has confessed that he killed a homeless man with kicks and blows to his face. His motive was frustration he stated at court. Right before this act of brutality he had been stopped by the local police and had been playing a violent computer game – losing every match.

At least Der Spiegel had the decency to write about the other factors in the case, albeit almost as a footnote. What they didn’t feel appropriate to comment on in the lede, was the fact that he’d claimed the killing was a result of him playing the game and having drunk a bottle of beer, two bottles of wine and an entire bottle of chocolate liqueur before the incident. Nor did it mention that he was a neo-Nazi obsessed with violence. He’d even scrawled “Heil Hitler”, “White Power Hooligans” and multiple swastikas on the walls of his holding cell before the trial.

Of course, it was the game’s fault that the neo-Nazi caved in this man’s skull. You know what the game was? Maybe Gears of War or Dead Rising, two games recently refused classification in Germany? The usual suspects of CounterStrike, Manhunt or Grand Theft Auto? No, it was SmackDown vs Raw 2006 – a wrestling game.

Wrestling is considered family entertainment in the US, but a simulation of Wrestling is considered in Germany a “violent computer game” with the ability to stir previously innocent neo-Nazi hooligans to acts of immense violence. It beggars belief and its little surprise that Germany is becoming the laughing stock of the European press.

Despite the incredulity of these articles, the lack of evidence, and the bemusement of the rest of Europe, Germans remain adamant that these games are evil. A recent survey suggested as many as 66% of Germans would support a ban on these games. On the other hand, despite the known dangers of passive smoking, the certainty of a nasty and painful death for thousands every year, the majority of Germans are opposed to the banning of smoking even in restaurants.

With a majority of Germans thinking you are evil and the press and politicians baying for you to be thrown in jail, it can make life uncomfortable. Thankfully Frankfurt is a wonderful city, the richest in Europe, where people are more interested in making money than moralizing about the contents of games. When my friend recently dared to mention his exact profession to a woman in one of the great nightclubs here, he was surprised that her reaction was “that’s a fantastic job, you must make a ton of cash.”

I love Frankfurt. I love Germany. I think it’s a great country to live in. I really hope they don’t make me leave.

It’s amazing to me that a country that’s presumably in the first world could even consider backwater legislation like this. “Games that allow the player to perform violent acts against human beings in a cruel way or a way violating human dignity” is such a flexible category… Presumably no videogames would fall under this definition, as videogames typically don’t involve the player performing violent acts against human beings but rather against representations of humans (or aliens).

That technicality aside, it definitely seems problematic to me when a game like BattleChess could reasonably expect to be banned under such a rule, for depictions of “cruel violence.” Indeed, Chess itself could be banned, though any such ruling would depend on whether mere killing constitutes “cruel” violence. Were this bill to pass into law I can imagine with glee the hilarity of German courts ruling, say, the exact amount of visible blood (in metric units, of course!) permissable before an act of violence becomes “cruel,” or whether vampires can be considered human beings for purposes of this law. Dark Ages 2.0, here we come!

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