The trials and tribulations of age ratings for computer and video games

The trials and tribulations of age ratings for computer and video games

Oversight, paternalism, censorship: many players are sceptical about USK age ratings. Some do not understand the meaning behind it, others question the rating criteria. And as if life isn’t complicated enough, many countries are minding their own business. It’s about time we sorted out the mess behind the age ratings.

The idea for this report came about 26 years ago. At the time, Windows 95 conquered the PC and supplanted the previously dominant MS-DOS operating system. In addition, computers were now powerful enough to emulate old classic games. Publisher Activision took advantage of this with their Atari 2600 Action Pack (1995), a collection of 15 old VCS games. Also on board was 1982’s River Raid: a veteran shooter in which the player flew a plane over a river, shooting down ships and other pilots.

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The collection received good reviews, was one of the first games ever indexed in  

We also recommend that you go in and try something new for yourself!

Exciting storyline! And new features

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Now for the climax: both collections received an age rating from the entertainment software self-control, USK for short. And their verdict was: Approved without age restrictions!

For the sake of accuracy, it should be said: images of the cover of the German version for PS2 are circulating on the internet, adorning the sticker “From 6 years old”. However, on its official website USC explicitly says it’s released without age restrictions .And in the end it doesn’t matter whether the collection is released from 0 or 6 years old. The fact is that protection for minors has completely turned 180 degrees in two decades. A game which, according to the official justification of the Federal Centre for the Testing of Works Harmful to Young People (BPjS for short), has “the properties of emotion control and increased aggression” and should “think of the player as an uncompromising fighter and destroyer”, has suddenly turned into a harmless shooter that could be safely entrusted to younger schoolchildren.

Of course, this is an extreme example, but it does show that age ratings are not based on mathematical facts.

The tale of Germany’s strict protection of young people

In Germany we had a very lively discussion about the effects of computer and video games on children and young people. If you just look at the English-language Wikipedia page about “banned games”, this impression seems to exist abroad as well. A total of 38 countries are listed there, a quarter of the text referring exclusively to Germany. That is why we want to make one thing clear from the start: contrary to all prejudices, “our” protection of minors is not the strictest – far from it.

But before we look abroad, let us stop in Germany and briefly summarise: USK was founded in 1994 in cooperation with the Förderverein für Jugend und Sozialarbeit eV and the Entertainment Software Association of Germany. For a long time it served as a youth protection agency that issued non-binding age recommendations. Above all, it could not dictate which games to sell to whom.

The only organisation that could at least begin to do something like this was the BPjS: as a federal body it had the right to index games. Although this measure could not be equated with a nationwide ban, it was subject to massive restrictions. For example indexed games could no longer be sold to young people under 18, the dealer could not offer them for public sale and we journalists also had to be careful not to call the indexed game by its name. Because indexing included a ban on advertising, which automatically included every test and every criticism – regardless of whether it was positive or negative!

Worse, however, was the arbitrariness: because indexing was only done on request, some titles were not checked until years after they were published. The very first Castle Wolfenstein for Apple II computers appeared in 1981, but the C64 implementation with the same content was not reviewed until six years later.

From tragedy to turnaround

That all changed in April 2002, when a 19-year-old boy staged a series of murders at a high school in Erfurt and shot 17 people, including himself, at his former school. It soon became apparent that his main motive was probably expulsion from school and that, thanks to state laws in Thuringia, he did not have a degree. Immediately afterwards, however, the computer and video games were criticised and chosen as scapegoats by loud voices in the press and politicians.

The term “killer games” quickly came into use, and laymen sometimes still use it for all kinds of first- or third-person shooters. Calls to ban these games seemed to become more and more dominant, until a small miracle happened: under public pressure BPjS received an application to close Counter-Strike, which had been celebrated for several years . as a Half-Life mod in 1999. In the end, however, the federal testing agency refrained from indexing it because the tactical shooter’s gameplay was designed for more than just dumb assassination.

However, it was made clear: Counter-Strike is not in the hands of children! BPjS was simply not responsible for accurate age rating, as the voluntary self-regulation of the film industry (FSK for short) was for films. There was no legal basis, so it had to be created, and suddenly USK was in the spotlight. After all, decent work has been done there since its inception, the form of which resembles that of the FSK.

Sustainable mitigation

What sounds like a massive tightening was actually a blessing, especially for adult players. Because in the same breath the aforementioned arbitrariness was thrown overboard: the Federal Centre for Testing Works Harmful to Young People was renamed the Federal Centre for Testing Media Harmful to Young People (BPiM for short), and since April 2003 put the games to which USK gave an age rating in the index.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the USK is not perfect: its work is far more complex than that of the FSK, because it doesn’t just passively watch films. Employees have to play complex games with as much care as possible. And, of course, a manufacturer might cheat by hiding excessively gory scenes of violence in a children’s game of SpongeBob as an Easter egg. But why would he do that? Within a week, the incident will become known and the negative reaction will be unbearable.

More problematic are gradual changes in assessment criteria when you never know for sure: has society changed, so different standards should apply today than 20 years ago? Were the old criteria too stringent and you don’t want to make the same wrong arguments all the time? Or – and this is a deliberately provocative question – is the industry now too big and economically viable to throw a spanner in the works to produce ‘three AAs’?

The fact is that in 2004 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was unbranded and was specifically cut for the German market, just enough to warrant a USK sticker. But less than four years later, GTA 4, the thematically closely related successor, turned out to be far more exciting because of better technology, and to the surprise of many, USK let it through without censorship.

What should never be forgotten: Many producers have made preventive changes to avoid problems with German youth protection. Supposedly, some games, such as Borderlands 2 (2012), have even been softened globally in terms of violence to avoid country-specific problems. This sounds plausible, because three years earlier, developer Gearbox Software had to create a version specifically adapted for the German market in order to get approval for the first installment of the shooter series.

Today, versions adapted for Germany are all but extinct: if ), which meticulously compares censored and uncensored releases, is to be believed, there have been virtually no games cut for the local market since 2014. The last hurdle fell in 2018, after which you can even show swastika symbols in a historical context . Last but not least, previously indexed versions are carefully reviewed and reassessed, including the uncensored version of Borderlands just mentioned.

All this is only topped off by the insane case of Mortal Kombat X (2015), in which even publisher Warner Bros. Interactive never expected an age rating in Germany. They didn’t even want to send the game to USK, and as expected, the game made it to the BPjM table three months after its release. There, to everyone’s surprise, it was again decided against indexing: the game was far enough away from reality due to its exaggerated fatalities and fantasy setting that the “danger limit for young people is not exceeded”. As a consequence: Warner Bros. Interactive unabashedly introduced Mortal Kombat X to USK and received an age rating of 18 and over.

In our view, therefore, it seems that USK’s strict reputation is primarily due to its thoroughness and scope of examination. All of this is considerably lower in other countries.

European unity

First of all it is the Pan-European Gaming Information (PEGI for short), which sets the age ratings for most of Europe plus Israel and, compared to the USK, takes slightly more responsibility. To this day, in many countries it serves as a guideline rather than a law that might prohibit the sale of games glorifying violence against minors.

There is also a lot more trust in manufacturers: they first fill out a questionnaire, in which they themselves provide information about the degree of violence or nudity in their products. There are also videos and the game itself, which are only then checked by other organisations such as NICAM or the VSC Rating Board, or compared to the information provided by the producers.

According to the official PEGI website, such a process takes four to ten days. It is unclear whether the games will be passed completely, as with USK, and it is unlikely.

Also PEGI uses an idea which is good in principle, but when it is implemented you quickly realise that too much detail is not good either. For example, PEGI puts extra stickers on the pack that explicitly warn against profanity, horror or sex. By far the most common label is the “Violence” label, which can be seen in more than half of the nearly 32,000 games tested.

The discrimination label, on the other hand, does not seem to have caught on at all, because according to the official database it has only been assigned three titles: the strategy game Original War (2001), the tactical game SWAT: Target Liberty (2007.) ) and the first-person shooter Patriots: A Nation Under Fire (2007). There are also two extras, which we don’t want to name because the main programme is still indexed.

All five games were released between 2004 and 2007 – and, frankly, we find it hard to imagine any manufacturer voluntarily calling their game “discriminatory”. Not least because the relevant sticker is automatically attached to the release from the age of 18.

The verdict on the other topic is not so harsh: if, according to PEGI, we are talking about drugs in the literal sense of the word, then an age recommendation below 16 is no longer possible.

down under

If we leave the European continent, we quickly stumble upon another institution that clearly has an even bigger drug problem. Juvenile protection in Australia is regulated by the Australian Classification Board (ACB for short) and at first glance is a mixture of USK and PEGI. In other words, all games with an age rating of 15 or older can be sold for free, and all games above that age can only be sold to people of the appropriate minimum age.

There is also a general ban on the sale of all films and games that have been refused approval. And when one looks at the list of these banned games, one often sees the full excuse: “Banned due to the use of drugs related to incentives and rewards”. Loosely translated: Prohibited because of the use of drugs as incentives and rewards.

An excellent example of this is the zombie survival game State of Decay (2013), which is almost unrated in Australia. The reason: the player can improve their character by increasing the amount of illegal substances. Now you can argue about the harshest policy, but it gets even more idiotic: American developer Undead Labs only had to change a few words at the end, or rather replace “stimulants” with “supplements”, and all was well! True to the motto: vitamins instead of drugs.

Otherwise the topic of drugs seems to be an absolute taboo in Australia, which is why even the German RPG Risen (2009) is trapped Down Under. There, though, apart from smoking cokes, another feature was troubling, namely that you can have sex with prostitutes in the game. Incidentally, Risen was given an age rating of 16 by PEGI, while USK limited itself to the comparatively generous “from 12 years old”. How can that be?

111Open world games are at a disadvantage

In the Far East, there is the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO for short), which has been operating since 2002 and operates similarly to the PEGI. It is immediately apparent that there is only one rating for years 0 to 11: CERO A. Conversely, CERO D (equivalent from 17) and CERO Z (equivalent from 18) differ by only one year. However, the legal differences are enormous because Z games can only be sold on presentation of proof of age.

According to the official database, just over 450 games have received this CERO-Z rating in more than 17,500 test procedures. Since open-world games such as Assassin’s Creed 2 (2009) or GTA 5 (2015) are particularly affected, almost all cases come from America or Europe. A few exceptions, such as the chaotic visual novel; Child (2014) or the brutally staged action game Killer7 (2005) were created in their home country.

On the other hand, Japanese kids can theoretically buy blatant games like Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 (2016), precisely because the box “only” has a D rating on it. This, in turn, would cause a storm of outrage, especially in the US – where tight bikinis, provocative poses and jiggling breasts are known to be a major topic of controversy.

No sex in the US

Americans have had to deal with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB for short) since 1994, after the controversial multimedia adventure Night Trap (1992) and the first Mortal Kombat (1992) made headlines and led to congressional hearings.

Also, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the portrayal of sex in the United States is a bigger issue than violence. That’s why almost all adult-only rated games show nudity and explicit sex scenes. The only exceptions are the never officially released thriller Thrill Kill, the original 2007 version of the domestically indexed game from Rockstar Games (which had to be censored worldwide) and the awful 2015 PC game from developer Destructive Creations, which was published in Germany.

And then there’s the drama surrounding GTA: San Andreas (2004): originally the open-world hit received an expected rating for adults, equivalent to a recommendation for anyone aged 17 and over. But then came the infamous hot coffee mod, with which sex scenes could be played out as a simple mini-game.

An unregulated online marketplace

In our article “Games and the Addiction Trap” we have already looked at some of the construction sites in detail, most notably the controversy over lootboxes and game mechanics, which hardly played a role in the assessment of USK, PEGI and co. already. But beyond that, the sheer mass of download-only apps and titles is hardly manageable. What’s worse, more and more games are changing over time. What youth protection officer can cope with this?

The USK itself hasn’t intervened in this problem for a long time, and still only checks games that appear on physical media. Nevertheless, it was instrumental in creating another organisation, which has been in existence since 2013, deals exclusively with online games and operates worldwide: the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC for short) , At first glance, the underlying concept is similar to that of the PEGI. or ESRB: the producers themselves indicate what is in their games. Several age ratings are then automatically assigned, based on the individual rules of the individual countries.


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