October 25, 2016
By Erik Shuster, Conor Kelley, and Pallavi Chetia
How Doom was censored by the German government…
Who: The German Government
What: The Video Game: Doom
Why: For depictions of violence and Nazis
In 1993, id Software released Doom, a revolutionary video game in both technical aspects and gameplay. Doom’s science fiction, horror-themed storyline centers around an unnamed marine who must fight the invading hordes of hell after a teleportation experiment runs amok and the world falls apart (Wolf 168). At its release, Doom was wildly popular with id Software, making approximately $100,000 a day from sales. Even more impressive is the fact the Doom only cost $9 at release, meaning that over 10,000 copies were sold each day (Elise).
Many critics attribute Doom’s success to its technological achievements, which included 3D graphics, networked multiplayer, and expandable game files (Wolf 168). However, these advancements along with the game’s use of violence made it quite controversial in multiple countries. Notably, Germany censored Doom and it’s sequels from its 1993 release until 2011, with the 2016 version of Doom being the first uncensored release of the franchise ever in Germany.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9HvAXZgGeQ Game play from the original Doom (1993)
More broadly, Germany’s maintains a history of censorship, and has filtered video games that reference Nazism and WWII as a whole. The country holds that video games are not art and thus protected under free expression legislation. Germany has required games such as 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, Call of Duty: Finest Hour to make modifications to the game in order to meet the local censor requirements. In Wolfenstein’s case, every scene that contained a swastika was replaced by the game’s logo. Instead of “Nazis,” the enemies were called “The Regime.” Even Hitler’s image was replaced.
Thus, the controversy surrounding Doom was hardly unique. Indeed, Public controversies about digital games have a history of invoking “media panic”: heated public debates that are often ignited when a new medium enters society (Karlsen, pg 1). This “panic” first began in 1976 with the launch of Death Race, the first videogame to be censored in Germany. The 1990s saw a growth in the production of videogames in a wide variety of genres. However, media panic took over when Germany voiced concerns regarding the content of video games, describing them as being seductive, psychologically inappropriate, and immoral (Karlsen, pg 3).
This media panic, however, was exacerbated by moral panic. According to sociologist Stanley Cohen in his book Folk Devils And Moral Panics, moral panic arises when
“[a] condition, episode, person or group emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes visible.” (Cohen 1972, 9)
Moral panics mostly revolve around exposing children and youth to foul language, pornography or violence. The most common topics stimulating concern over perforation of moral ethics revolve around video games. It was decided that video games ought to be censored to limit the possible negative effects on younger generations. As Faltin Karlsen puts it “Restraint became a profound virtue, first manifested in court etiquette and later in the general populace” (Karlsen). This moral belief is why censorship of video games is not uncommon. Censorship of video games is not a recent occurrence, it has a history because in the past people were concerned about ethics and society just as they are at present.
According to writer Tristan Cooper, violence is embedded into a majority of video games. It serves as a central method of game design because it allows players to interact competitively within virtual worlds. Players acquire a sense of triumph upon conquering their enemies, and the more violent the game gets, the stronger the players’ sense of victory.
Germany has paid particular attention to this tradition of violence in video games, and it has sought to minimize violence through amending the contents of these games. For instance, it has censored images of humans exploding into bloody parts and replaced them with robots. In general, blood, gore, and violence are not tolerated. In the game called Silent Hill, a man with bleeds from cuts all over his body is made to look as if he bears wounds that remain scabbed and dry. In other scenes, rather than toning down graphic images, they are removed all together.
Due to Germany’s strict system, video game developers go to great lengths to make their games suitable for the German market. And they work to ensure that their games are not placed on Germany’s list of banned media. Regarding this list, if “the game does not meet the ratings rules of the Voluntary Monitoring Organization of Entertainment Software, that game does not pass GO, does not collect $200 and does not receive its special qualifying certificate for Sale in Germany” (Cooper).
Doom, however, could not escape Germany’s blacklist due to the very format of the game itself. Because Doom popularized the FPS (first-person-shooter) genre, Germany immediately placed it under scrutiny for its personalized violence and gore. As a FPS, the players of Doom found themselves in the action. It was one of the first times the players killed from their own personalized vantage points, controlling every move their avatar made. This new level of control, coupled with its revolutionary (at the time) 3D graphics, Doom allowed for access to an unprecedented amount of violence that Germany felt was unacceptable for minors.
To ban Doom, Germany scrutinized the game through its two main regulatory bodies, the “Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien”or BPjM (formally the “Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Schriften” or BPS) and the “Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle” or USK. The BPjM is the “Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors,” an official administrative authority tasked with protecting minors from harmful media content (BPjM). If the BPjM finds media unsuitable for minors, it can place it on an index that prevents the sale of the media to anyone under the age of 18. At its release, Doom fell into this category. As opposed to the BPjM, which is a government entity, the USK (In English: “Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body”) is a nonprofit organization that independently rates media. The USK was created in 1994, largely in response to the popularity of Doom and the growing amount of violence in various form of media. In short:
“The USK is supposed to ensure that no entertainment software is published in Germany that violates human rights, the German constitution, or the values these protect. It also tries to protect minors against products that fall within the scope of the law the BPS [now the BPjM] enforces, by assigning a rating that recommends a minimum player’s age.” (Kreimeier, 2)
Together the BPjM and USK set guidelines on acceptable content for video games in Germany. Because Doom failed to fall under these guidelines, as evidenced by the BPjM policy on portrayals of violence in media and specifically video games,
Portrayals of Violence in the Media (Bundesprüfstelle)
Doom was placed on a censorship index. It violated all of the BPjM’s “Additional criteria for interactive media / computer games” (BPjM).
The power of the German index to censor video games is surprisingly strong. Although the BPjM cannot ban a game completely, it can censor any and all advertisements or even the publishing of the game in question. Hannah Mueller explains:
“The difficulty of the term “ban” is that the game itself is not illegal. It is the promotion of the game that is illegal. The German government permits ‘under the table’ purchasing of titles after release and after a youth organization has applied for this “ban” with the BPjM. In this way, banned games can be legally attained, but not published or advertised.” (Mueller, 20)
However, the BPjM does have tools to ban games outright. The articles 130 and 131 of the “Übersetzung des Strafgesetzbuches,” Germany’s criminal code, have been used on multiple occasions to justify confiscation, and therefore, complete censorship of video games. Bert Kreimeier, a developer of Doom, remarks that under the Strafgesetzbuches, “Prosecution of a game that violates criminal laws can be initiated by anybody willing to file a complaint” (Kreimeier 3). These provisions in the criminal law specifically ban “Incitement to hatred…in a manner capable of disturbing the public peace” and “Dissemination of depictions of violence.”
Although Doom was never confiscated under articles 130 and 131, like its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D, Doom remained cut and indexed until 2011 (Kremeier). In fact, parts of the Doom series underwent self censorship in the form of cuts and reduced violence in order to be cleared for distribution to its target market (teenagers). Because of Germany’s belief that teens are at risk for behavior manipulation, Bernd Kreimeier asserts that censorship of violence is centered around Germany’s desire to “…uphold the values that post war [German] society is built upon.” Any media that might portray war in a positive way could be interpreted as a threat to the country’s social structure.
Yet another form of video game censorship exists in Germany in the form of self censorship against “offensive” games. Even if a game manages to successfully circulate in the Germany market, there is a negative stigma attached to games with an USK 18+ rating. Mueller comments:
“Whereas M (mature) games in the United States have a limited stigma and require a 17+ buying age, the USK 18 rating in Germany is better equated to the AO (adults only) rating rarely used in the United States. Most retailers refuse to stock AO games in the States, and a similar phenomenon happens in Germany with USK 18, which is viewed as objectionable and offensive. USK 18 games are often called Killerspiele, killer games, and those who play them are held in poor regard.” (Mueller, 13)
This stigma is often reinforced by the German government, especially in linking video games to acts of violence. For instance, in regard to seventeen-year-old, Tim Kretschmer’s, shooting of Albertville School in 2009, the German government connected Kretschmer’s gameplay of the violent survival game Far Cry 2 to his actions, and it called for bans on video games in which “killing or other cruel acts of violence” were taken “against human or human-like beings, ” even in games such as paintball (Mueller 21).
Doom, as it stands, is not the biggest case of widespread or notable media censorship in Germany, but it set a precedent for the criteria of how media, and video games specifically, were evaluated for public distribution. With the return of Doom in an uncut version in Germany for the first time ever, the ability to assert direct censorship has shifted over time, despite the fact that modern gamers argue that the new Doom is much more graphic than its predecessor (Frank). According to Tony Polanco, a video game blogger for GEEK.COM, “This [DOOM’s uncut release] is certainly a victory for those who champion against game censorship in general.” The progression of unedited games into Germany, as well as the rest of the world, prove that the chances of playing video games as they were originally made, no matter where they were purchased, is a massive step toward freedom of speech as it pertains to the creation of entertainment software.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4jGOfZCfTY Graphics Comparison of Doom (1993) and Doom (2016)
However, the original game was released as the most violent game in existence at the time, whereas the new Doom does not generate the same shock, due to the existence of thousands of other games of the same genre that did not exist in the past. In 2011, Bethesda studios appealed to the German censorship board to allow the uncut version of Doom, as well as Fallout 4 (another popular violent game), to be sold in Germany, and the request went through, yielding the first time in history Doom could be sold unmodified in Germany (Frank).
With this loosening of censorship of video games in Germany, it is interesting to speculate upon what this could mean for the future of the country. A new stance on violence in a country that is generally tighter on media censorship could mean that more lenient countries (like the United States) are pushing boundaries even further beyond what could be the “norm” for violent video games. According to Tony Polanco, a video game blogger for GEEK.COM, “This [DOOM’s uncut release] is certainly a victory for those who champion against game censorship in general.” The progression of unedited games into Germany, as well as the rest of the world, prove that the chances of playing video games as they were originally made, no matter where they were purchased, is a massive step towards freedom of speech as it pertains to the creation of entertainment software.