As the test center for entertainment software self-regulation (USK) announced, games are now allowed to display anti-constitutional symbols. Developers can submit their works for an age test with immediate effect without having to fear that the mere use of swastikas or SS runes will lead to a sales ban in Germany. The changed legal conception shows how valuable video games are for the cultural landscape today. Although anti-constitutional symbols are fundamentally permitted with immediate effect, the USK does not open the door with its decision of improper use: after submitting a work, the test center examines in each individual case whether the representations are socially adequate.  


There is culture and there are games

So far it has been pretty clear: there was culture and there were games. Up to now there has not been any equality between the various media. Even now it is difficult for decision-makers to accept video games as full-fledged cultural media. After all: the directional change in the legal opinion regarding the use of anti-constitutional symbols in games is important in order to enrich the debate with important arguments. Instead of culture and games, there is now a game culture. Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel has in hers Opening speech for gamescom 2017 talked about “the importance of games for the German cultural and innovation landscape”.

With its decision, the USK takes on a new, more active role. She helps shape the discourse on permitted unconstitutional symbols in games instead of stifling the sensitive topic with a blanket rejection.

Swastikas in games: from absolute prohibition to individual decision-making

Since 1998, a ruling by the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court has been decisive for the test behavior: the judge responsible at the time ruled that according to Section 86a of the Criminal Code, video games must not display anti-constitutional symbols. A possible socially adequate admissibility was not taken into account in the decision. As a result, the exception for the use of constitutional symbols in games no longer applied - although the court did not specify this. Responsible handling of legal evaluations looks different.

And it should take 20 years before a critical examination of the topic should take place. In the meantime, at least two video games have made it clear how valuable a correct historical - and therefore symbolically realistic - one can be for the learning experience. The games Through the darkest of times as well as Attentate 1942 take the serious background as an opportunity to make video games that are thought-provoking. Using games as a narrative, and thus also knowledge-imparting, medium is an important tool, especially in today's world, to get teenagers or young adults excited about history. 

Social adequacy: Careful examination necessary

So that players in Germany can soon shoot down virtual Nazi thugs, all video games must use anti-constitutional symbols in a socially appropriate manner. Fortunately, the mere visualization of swastikas just to be able to aggressively advertise a title with this sensitive topic will fortunately not exist. The clause on social adequacy is anchored in the penal code: it allows such symbols in individual cases for artistic or scientific purposes and to represent events historically. The latter point in particular seems to be important for the entire discussion about the visibility of anti-constitutional symbols.

Only historical facts and the hidden truth about past events can lead to a responsible use of swastikas and SS runes in video games. Historical facts expose fascist propaganda and draw attention to difficult issues. The absolute prohibition prevented any playful criticism of Nazi topics - this is not responsible in view of current social debates. The fact that the legal opinion of the responsible Supreme State Youth Authority has now changed is trend-setting with regard to the understanding of video games as cultural media. What has long been true for films, for example, now also applies to games: as long as the presentation takes place in the context of cultural or artistic works and does not serve mere propaganda purposes, the use of anti-constitutional symbols is generally permitted. 

Swastikas in games: from absolute prohibition to individual decision-making
The video game Attentat 1942 received several awards, but was not allowed to be distributed in Germany because of the use of anti-constitutional symbols.

A popular example is Tarantino's blockbuster Inglourious Basterds, who even received a substantial injection of funds from German funds. To ignore the story so aggressively in a film was unique - even prize-worthy. The difference between a movie like Inglourious Basterds and a video game like Wolfenstein: The New Colossus 2 it is difficult to discover if you limit yourself to the artistic background alone. In the film, swastika depiction was unproblematic, in the game, on the other hand, “Herr Heiler” was even depicted without a mustache in order to abstract similarities.

But nobody has to fear a boom in Nazi games. Serious developers are well aware of their responsibility with regard to sensitive topics. It is not yet known whether original versions of games that have been published abroad will be submitted again for review in Germany.

The legal situation has not changed anyway: Section 86a of the Criminal Code still prohibits the display of anti-constitutional symbols, only the outdated judgment of the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court no longer applies. The relevant difference relates solely to the abolition of the absolute ban, which is now being replaced by individual case reviews. 

Little has changed for developers either. The basic theme is still extremely sensitive and the stylistic devices need to be chosen wisely - and swastikas and SS runes do not improve the gameplay either. So it will be interesting to see what will really change in practice.

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