An October Saturday and Stuttgart is pale with the cold. Outside the State Opera House, the city's grand attraction, a skip sits awkward and incongruous to its surroundings. The sides are spray-painted with graffiti, a hip hop-cum-youth club pastiche probably commissioned to soften the otherwise stark utilitarian appearance of this giant iron dustbin. While the murals may obscure the rust, they do not obscure the function, which remains as it ever was: a receptacle for unwanted rubbish. Except, rather than industrial waste or the assorted debris of home movers, this skip has been put here to collect videogames: "Killerspiele", the name given to violent games by Germany's tabloid press.
Midway through the day, a cameraman from a local television station clambers over the skip's side. He needs a compelling shot for the piece that will run tonight, a story about how swathes of Germany's youths have seen the error of their hobby and brought their perilous playthings to this public burning. Crouching on its floor, he angles the camera upwards, while a young boy in a beanie and a puffer jacket leans over and hurls a copy of Grand Theft Auto in with an echoic clack.
The cameraman captures the premeditated moment from this particular angle because any other would reveal the truth of the situation: the skip is otherwise empty. By the end of the day, that sealed copy of San Andreas will be joined by Def Jam: Fight for New York, OpenArena and Small Soldiers, a sorry clutch of ageing titles that represent the full extent of German gamers' ambivalence to this most uncomfortable stunt. For gamers around the world, it's difficult not to feel a sharp sense of schadenfreude. But there's a story behind every story. And the story behind the skip is a tragedy.
At 9:30am on March 12, 2009, a 17-year-old ex-student of Albertville Secondary School in Winnenden walked back through the school doors he left a year earlier. Tim Kretschmer shot nine students and three teachers with a 9mm Beretta semi-automatic pistol, before fleeing the scene, carjacking a vehicle and finally taking his own life during a standoff with police outside of a Volkswagen dealership. Hardy Schober was the father of one of the eight schoolgirls shot dead at point blank range during the rampage. As part of his grieving process he founded the Aktionsbündnis Amoklauf Winnenden, a support group for those affected by the Winnenden shooting.
The skip? Hardy Schober put it there.
The Men Who Stare At Goats
"Videogames are almost reflexively made a scapegoat after every school shooting." Olaf Wolters is the CEO of USK. The German equivalent of the BBFC, this is the organization responsible for choosing the age rating for every videogame released in Germany. If the Winneden killer's rampage was inspired by a videogame, then it was a videogame that Wolters or his staff had already played to completion, and rated accordingly. Wolters knows his scapegoats by name.
"The reason for that probably lies in the fact that tragedy demands an answer to the question of how such a thing could have happened," he continues. "But it is not a question that's easily answered. And this leaves a great helplessness behind. Against this backdrop videogames provide an easy answer, a focal point onto which blame and responsibility can be heaped." So while the Stuttgart skip remains almost literally empty, it nevertheless overflows with metaphor, a holding pen for scapegoats, real or imagined, to help Germany make sense of the senselessness.
Except that, in the case of Winnenden, there are more relevant scapegoats than Small Soldiers. Tim Kretschmer was the son of a marksman who kept 15 weapons and 4500 bullets of live ammunition in the family home. The gun that was used in the shootings was held in his parent's bedroom, rather than locked up in a safe. Tim Kretschmer may have played Far Cry, but then, in 2009, would it not be stranger for a 17-year-old boy to not play videogames? In terms of the mix of ingredients that went into informing Kretschmer's deadly decision choice, Killerspiele were at most a light seasoning upon layers of sociopathic alienation and unhappy circumstance.
Despite this, the view that violent videogames were a key contributor to this tragedy is far from limited to the Aktionsbündnis Amoklauf Winnenden in Germany. Following the Winnenden shooting a number of retailers stopped stocking 18+ games as a socio-political statement, without any legal imperative to do so. Then, in June 2009, Germany's interior ministers proposed a ban on all violent videogames to be discussed in the Bundestag. Was this an act of political point-scoring in the aftermath of a tragedy? Perhaps. But the strength and spread of Germany's antagonism towards violent videogames is more powerful and enduring than mere electioneering allows for.
While American gamers have grown used to camera-hungry hysterics clambering over one another to draw causal links between school homicide and videogames, in Germany the anti-videogame movement has a more pervasive, persuasive tone. And this reveals itself in the countries' complex age rating system, which goes further than any other to ensure that unsuitable videogames don't get into the hands of unsuitable players. So with such strict controls in place, why the public hand-wringing? Is it mere misguided accusation, or is there a tenable failing in the system?
Age of Consent
With not one but three tiers of adult classification for violent videogames and movies, Germany's age-rating system demands some explanation. Here's Wolters to clarify: "Games submitted to the USK, which are deemed able to affect the growth of young people, receive an 18+ certificate. These titles can be advertised anywhere and sold openly in any shop to adults. The game might be entirely uncut (as for example with GTAIV), or it may have been cut to a certain degree to secure the rating.
"Next we have games that are deemed able to endanger the growth of children. These are denied an age rating and, in most cases, indexed by the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (BPjM). Games without a rating may not be advertised, reviewed, or displayed openly in shops. However, it is entirely legal to publish them, to sell them and to buy them in Germany, usually from under the counter.
"In addition to these two tiers of adult videogame, there's a third category, those that include 'horrible or inhuman violence against humans in terms of § 131 of the German criminal code'. These titles, such as Manhunt and Condemned, are fully banned from public availablity. While possession of these prohibited games is not punishable, their distribution, public display or sale can result in a prison sentence."
To outsiders this can seem like a convoluted system, adult games distinguished from one another by fuzzy boundaries that will no doubt cause yet more confusion to onlookers. For example, how on earth does the USK distinguish between a violent game that can adversely affect the growth or young person and one that endangers healthy development? "These undefined legal concepts have to be interpreted by the consultants during the evaluation of the game," agrees Wolters. "During this evaluation the game is judged in its entirety and we'll then approach the game's publisher with a list of the problematic scenes in order to give them a chance to edit them in the hope of securing an 18+ rating. Many publishers will try to do this as indexed games are prohibited from advertising, review and public display, and are only saleable on the quiet."
Censorship of Fools?
Perhaps it's precisely this sort of under-the-counter practice that gives the videogame industry its unsavoury image in the German social consciousness, all grubby plastic bags filled with unspecified horrors passing quietly from hand to hand. Is it any wonder that the public moves so quickly to pin the blame on these illicit playthings whenever a young person seemingly mimics their violence? More problematically, censorship is illegal in Germany under the fifth article of the constitution. While nobody is prohibiting game developers from making whatever games they want to, surely these strict USK impositions forcing publishers to cut content or be prohibited from publicising their game, is a form of after-the-fact censorship? I put the question to Wolters.
"Neither the indexing of games, nor the confiscating of them represents a censorship. The ban on censorship in Art. 5 of the German Constitution refers to pre-censorship. In other words, a creation cannot be forbidden before it is published. The indexing or the confiscating of games can only be done after they are published and placed on the market. There is no censorship."
Despite this, there are some high-profile voices calling for even more strict impositions against violent videogames in Germany. In June reports were circulated revealing that Germany's 16 Interior Ministers had banded together to ask the Bundestag to ban the production and distribution of violent videogames. I ask Olaf Wolters whether the proposal is mere politicking. "The claim on a general ban on violent games is in first line political activism and is probably not realistic at this time. Firstly, there is no evidence that the existing minor safety policy is inadequate. And of course, a complete ban on games that contain violence would be like a censorship which is incompatible with Article 5 of the German Constitution."
For Cevat Yerli, a Managing Director of Crytek, the German-based developer responsible for games rated 18+, like Crysis, such a ban would represent more than mere inconvenience. It would mean relocating the entire studio to another country, something he has threatened to do publicly in the past in the face of such strong opposition to the sort of games he creates. "No other country discusses this issue with the sort of high intensity that the Germans do," he explains. "When one considers that German law contains some of the strictest protections of minors in the world, not to mention tight restrictions on weaponry, you have to assume that much of the discussion is politically-motivated. I think one reason why Germans use videogames as scapegoat for school shootings more often than other countries, derives from its history in the 20th Century. That's certainly one reason why the debate is a totally different to comparable ones in other countries."
Viva le Resistance?
Of course, as in any democracy there are voices that rally to defend the rights of violent videogames, freely speaking out against what the perceived prejudices have aimed towards them. German parliament ministers Armin Lachet and Andreas Krautscheid are staunch defenders of Germany's current system of videogame classification, and argue publicly that further impositions would be both unnecessary and prejudiced. At a grass roots level too, gamers have rallied together to defend their rights, not only by campaigning against their antagonists, but also, occasionally, by seeking to engage them in conversation.
Peter Schleusser, a 38-year-old construction machine technician from Oberhausen, started a web petition in direct response to the interior ministers' proposals this summer. Within a few short weeks his petition had gathered over 50,000 signatures, a high enough number that Schleusser was invited to the German parliament to debate the issue with politicians. I tracked Schleusser down and asked him how the petition came about.
"I first read about this violent videogame-related resolution on the internet. An online petition seemed to be best way to make a stand against the proposals to me at the time. The petition exceeded my expectations by far. It was a spontaneous decision and I didn't do any promotion. In fact, I first learned about its gigantic success from reading about it in the German press.
"I don't know if the petition will be successful in helping to avert a ban, but I hope so. At least there are now more discussions about it in the public as gamers have come together with one voice. That's a good start. I hope that our resistance continues to grow. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful players are going to be criminalised if there is a ban on 18+ games in Germany."
Despite Schleusser 's valiant efforts in providing gamers with a more united voice on the issues, there are many who argue there's nothing to worry about as any such ban would be unconstitutional. I spoke to Marcus, a German lawyer and enthusiastic gamer, who asked to remain anonymous, about whether he thought the proposed ban had any real chance of coming into effect. "I am quite convinced that the politicians behind this will try to push it through. However, whether such a law would be ratified is far from certain - and even if it was, I am sure someone would take it to the Federal Constitutional Court, and I have serious doubts that this court would find such a law that generally bans all violent games valid."
It is, of course, a polarising debate, and gamers are often as guilty as the tabloids for rushing to extremes and failing to hear the genuine concerns of their opponents. But Marcus believes there is a third way, one that supports conversation and diplomacy in place of grandstanding and rabble-rousing. "While I obviously don't agree with many of the conclusions of the anti-gaming lobby and their over-the-top reactions and proposals, the fact that there is national sensitivity for the issue, and a wide discussion, strikes me as being important. I am all for a very, very strict system that makes sure, as far as possible, that violent games do not fall into the hands of minors. In reality, very few people actually claim that games turn people into killers. That's often a straw-man argument spread by gamers. A more prevalent argument is, for example, that games can teach a behavioural pattern.
"A priori denying any possibility of negative influence whatsoever of violent games strikes me as a little naive," he continues. "The fact that many gamers engage in the same polarised debate as their opponents has not helped the discussion here in Germany. It's important to openly discuss these things. The best results are achieved where both parties are ready to listen to each other, and unfortunately, many gamers are more stubborn than the politicians, undermining the admirable efforts of other gamers (and the gaming press) in Germany to have a balanced, intelligent discussion about the whole matter."
There is a tangible sense that, if gamers simply play the waiting game, they will in time win the arguments. The older generations of Germans who don't play videogames will retire, and with them will follow their reactions to gaming's often grisly depictions, which recall 20th Century history that they, more than anyone, would rather not be used for sport and entertainment. In 20 years the vast majority of Germany's Interior Ministers will have grown up playing videogames, and will share a language and common perspective that ensures new scapegoats will have to be found in the aftermath of school shootings.
But there's a cold arrogance to that point of view. The effects and dangers of violent videogames should be fully discussed, debated, tested and continually checked. We should always be mindful that videogames offer mere fleeting entertainment while life, in contrast, is infinitely precious. The former should never threaten the latter. Hardy Schober's anguish may be misplaced and his tabloid-friendly skip stunt deserving of mockery. But more than that, he deserves a conversation. If gamers cannot afford him that, then in some ways, they really are to blame.