When ratings become censorship

This topic came to me when I said to our Art Director: "wow, it would be cool if we could shoot off the enemy's limbs". He agreed it would be cool. He also said "but then we wouldn't be able to sell it in Germany". I investigated this topic a bit deeper and it turned out that the whole issue with various ratings is really, really vast. I by no means want to start a Wikipedia here. Therefore I decided I'll just bulletpoint the overview of the situation and then focus on the thing I really wanted to write about.

The general situation: there are at least 9 different rating systems all over the world. Every single gaming market that counts has a different one: Northern America, Europe, Brazil, Australia, Japan, South Korea... Also, in Europe alone 3 countries have rating systems of their own: UK, Germany and Finland. If you want details on all these systems: how they differ, what tiers they have - you will have to do some research on your own. It's not what I want to cover here.

In a perfect world, all these rating systems shouldn't affect games at all. A developer finishes a game, it gets various ratings in various countries and it arrives in video game stores. Unfortunately, it's not so simple. If a developer wants to target their game towards certain age group, they sometimes need to sacrifice the coolness factor in order to meet all the requirements of different rating systems for this age group. This means introducing all the restrictions there are all over the world. Still, most of the time these are minor tweaks without bigger impact on the game and - frankly speaking - if the developer wants to make a game for little kids, I'm pretty comfortable with all these ratings guarding our children at once. Especially since a game doesn't have to be violent to be loads of fun! The biggest problem is with the games rated M or 18+ and the USK system in Germany.

What's so special about German USK? As far as I know, every system has these rules, what's acceptable for every age group. If a game has elements unacceptable for all the lower groups, it just gets an 18+, 21+, M or whatever the highest rating in the system is. USK has limitations even for the highest tier. This means that a game can be "too mature for a mature user" and that it falls out of the highest tier as well. As a result, the game doesn't get a rating and you cannot legally sell it, you cannot promote it. Shops won't take it, Steam, PSN or XBLA won't sell it online. Shipping from neighboring countries becomes the only way to buy this game in Germany.

All of a sudden, a rating system becomes a form of censorship. And censorship is what yours truly really hates. Every censorship kills an artist. As Picasso once said "Where it is chaste, there is no art".

Since pretty much every developer and publisher wants to sell the game, the general trend is to try to meet the rating's requirements as long as the most violent features are not the game's core esthetics. This way lots of games get a special version for Germany where the blood is either green or nonexistent. In cases, where a gore-based feature actually is a big deal for the game, developers and publishers sometimes decide to sell the game everywhere else but in Germany. Whether censorship bans the whole game or just its small part, it's still a rape on art.

You could say "well, sucks to live in Germany". Wrong! Germany is Europe's biggest market in terms of revenue. It's not a market the publishers want to ignore. Not every developer has the manpower to deliver special versions of the game for a single country, so they just censor the game for everyone. Therefore... It sucks to live in the world were German rating system sometimes censors the games for all the nations on the planet.

Of course this system still hurts mature German players the most. They are the ones that have restricted access to some games. Pretty much the same way Chinese have restricted access to the Internet. Don't smile just yet though, my non-German friend. It affects you as well. Every time you play an 18+ game, stop for a moment and think, how much more fun, realistic or shocking this game could have been if the developers didn't have to cope with any restrictions. If the highest rating on the box could buy them artistic freedom.

You probably think I am exaggerating and that in reality it almost doesn't happen. Let me tell you an authentic story then. When The Witcher 2 was about to be released, the studio asked for the ratings in US and in Germany. For Germany, they had to hide the existence of a scene depicting extreme violence and gore. Amount of sex in the game was not the issue. US however, came back with the feedback: "Well guys, you have a lot of sex your game. You might wanna raise the violence level to keep it consistent". Now imagine you are a developer who gets this kind of mixed feedback. How do you react? What decision do you make? Will you always just go your own way, not listening to the suggestions that might boost your sales?

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  1. Why don't you mention the time, when your band-mates tried to censor lyrics to one of the songs and you resisted for quite a few months until... we got used to them? :P

  2. Do I really need a "Prove you are right on easy mode" trophy?

    Nah :)


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