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.