Sunday, August 09, 2009
Video games in German politics
A reader asked me to comment on the talk Dr. Richard Bartle did *not* hold at the Games Convention Online in Leipzig recently, and which he posted on his blog instead. It is a very sensible talk. But as you probably haven't followed German politics much, you might need some explanation of context.
In the last few years in Germany there have been two major school shooting incidents, in Erfurt and Winnenden. Both were committed by adolescent male students. Both students were players of shooter games, most notably Counterstrike. So in their usual brilliance a lot of German politicians came to the conclusion that "guns don't kill people, video games kill people", and proposed a general ban on "killer games" in Germany. Germany already has one of the world's strictest laws on depiction of violence in video games, with games regularly getting a less violent version for the German market, removing decapitation scenes and coloring blood green. There are also strict age restriction rules. But the politician's proposal is to completely ban first person shooters. In parallel to this there is a discussion in Germany on whether games like World of Warcraft are too addictive, should be restricted to adults, and should carry warning labels on the box, like cigarette boxes.
So, would Dr. Richard Bartle have been able to influence that discussion, if he had only been able to give that talk "to a room full of German politicians and journalists"? I don't think so. He just would have been the wrong man in the wrong venue to make a difference. Bartle being pro video games at the Games Convention Online would have made about as much of a splash as the pope announcing he is pro life at a catholic bishop's conference. The people you'd need to convince simply wouldn't have been present, and just would have ignored the news. His claim to fame (in his words) "I co-wrote the first of these [MMOs] back in 1978" means everyone can correctly predict his stance on the issue, and is thus likely to take his stance on it for granted.
In the end, the game that had a positive influence on German politics on video games turned out to be WAR, not MUD. The government responsible for politics on drugs and addiction had organized a conference in Berlin to talk about addiction from the internet and computer games. The issue of games like World of Warcraft are so addictive that legal measures have to be taken to protect the populace against them was discussed. Games company representatives were invited, but Blizzard didn't attend. So it was a public relations speaker of EA who ended up having the big influence, with an argument whose logic even politicians could follow: You can't predict whether a game will be so successful that it causes mass addiction on a scale like World of Warcraft. In a refreshing bout of honesty EA said that they did try to make a game as successful as WoW with WAR, by copying many of its elements, but it was a "glorious failure" (his words). Warhammer Online addiction is obviously not a big problem in Germany or elsewhere, so restricting access or putting warning labels on the game would have been useless.