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In Germany, Video Games Showing Frontal Nudity Are OK, but Blood Is Verboten

The country's decency standards make it one of the trickiest markets for software makers.

June 09, 2003|Alex Pham and Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writers

Video game heroine Lara Croft is an adrenaline junkie unafraid of getting bloody. But in Germany, the buxom starlet of the "Tomb Raider" series doesn't bleed -- even if she's being mauled by a tiger.

Although the $25-billion video game industry is global, the games themselves aren't. They reflect the distinct cultures and traditions of different markets, and game publishers carefully tweak their titles to tone down offensive material.

Red blood in a game sold in the United States turns green in Australia. A topless character in a European title acquires a bikini in the U.S. Human enemies in a U.S. game morph into robots in Germany. Violent sex scenes in a Japanese game disappear in the American version.

Of all countries, Germany is one of the trickiest to tackle, publishers say. The country has spent five decades developing one of the world's strictest decency standards for virtually all media, from books and comics to music and games.

If a game features blood splatterings, decapitations or death cries, it runs the risk of being placed on a government list known as "the index." Being indexed means it can't be sold to anyone under 18, displayed in stores or advertised on television, in newspapers and in most magazines. Games containing pornography or glorifications of war, Nazism and racial hatred face the same fate.

Some of the games indexed lie far outside the mainstream, such as "KZ-Manager," a simulation of a concentration camp with Turkish detainees. Others are bestsellers in the U.S., such as "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."

Deciding which games are "immoral" is a job for the Federal Supervisory Body for Media Harmful to Young Persons. Its board is made up of the agency's leader and 12 independent experts in areas ranging from art and literature to churches and welfare services.

Spokeswoman Sandra Kerzmann said the agency is concerned that "violent representations have become more realistic due to improved technology."

In "Grand Theft Auto," for instance, the agency objected to the graphic violence and gore, noting that "blood even appears to spurt onto the screen in individual drops."

Though the agency insists that it merely keeps products out of the sight and hands of children, adults complain that it's difficult to find indexed materials. And it's easy to see why retailers would be reluctant to offer them, even under the counter, given the consequences of violating the law: fines of 50,000 euros (almost $60,000) for each violation and jail terms of up to one year.

That pressures game manufacturers to avoid indexing, lest they be shut out of Germany, which generated $878 million in software sales last year, the second-biggest European game market after Britain.

"The fact that you can't advertise is the kiss of death for distribution," said Christoph Holowaty, editor of MCV Germany, a trade magazine for the video game industry. "You just can't build hype for these games."

That irks some U.S. publishers, who say the free market and freedom of speech ought to trump bureaucratic intervention.

"They do this with good intentions, but they're basically censoring," said Jay Wilbur, a co-founder and former senior executive of Id Software, whose games "Doom" and "Quake" have been restricted in Germany. "They're taking away people's right to decide."

Each country's ratings system reflects its own values, said Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry-sponsored group that rates nearly all games sold in the United States.

"We're here to reflect American tastes and values," Vance said. "For us, it's about giving consumers enough information to make the right decisions for themselves. That's what it boils down to."

In a recent federal appeals court case, a judge ruled that a Missouri law restricting sales of certain games to minors was unconstitutional on the grounds of free speech.

In the U.S., obscenity is one of the few categories of speech historically unprotected by the 1st Amendment, which guarantees free speech. Violence, however, is protected.

In Germany, the opposite is true, Holowaty said.

"Sex is no problem here," Holowaty said. "But violence is very problematic."

Even Kerzmann acknowledged that "the representation of unclothed people is not relevant in the sense of the protection of children and young people."

In the original "Command & Conquer" game, enemy soldiers were turned into robots in the German version. Instead of blood, they spurted oil. In "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," victims in Germany don't bleed and body parts can't be severed. Artists working on the "Indiana Jones" series of games, based on the original movie, which is set during World War II, deleted swastikas and replaced them with generic symbols.

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