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December 6, 2006 11:53 am

Germany to crack down on violent video games

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Virtual hit men in Europe’s largest video games market could soon find themselves behind real bars if German regional politicians have their way.

Under new legislation drawn up in reaction to a shooting at a school last month, developers, retailers and players of videos featuring “cruel violence” could face up to a year in jail.

The bill - unveiled this week by the states of Bavaria and Lower Saxony and due to be presented to the national parliament next year - is already raising the alarm in the 2m strong German online gaming community.

“We have among the most drastic censorship rules for games,” said Frank Sliwka, head of the Deutsche E-Sport Bund, an umbrella federation for online gaming teams. “Now we are being labelled as a breeding ground for unstable, dysfunctional and violent youngsters.”

The move also comes at an awkward time for Sony, which has delayed the European launch of its Playstation 3 console to next March because of component shortages and technical glitches.

Call of Duty 3 and Resistance: Fall of Man, the top two PS3 titles on Amazon’s bestseller list are so-called first-person shooters that would fall under the ban. Sony Computer Entertainment Germany refused to comment yesterday.

With an estimated €1.7bn in video games sales last year, a quarter of total European sales, Germany is the world’s third biggest market for computer entertainment, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and boasts 40,000 online gaming teams.

Online gaming has become a professional pursuit, with teams competing in international tournaments for prizes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and lucrative sponsoring deals. Many players make a living from gaming and teams routinely buy each other’s stars for hefty fees.

All this could be at risk even if the ban fails, claims Holger Scherff, head of a-Losers.MSI a gaming team, who warns that the discussion could lead corporate sponsors to review their endorsement of gamers.

Under German rules amended in 2003 after an earlier school shooting, developers must cut violent content from the German versions of their games. For example, the German version of Counter Strike does not feature blood spurting from wounds - unlike the US and UK editions.

The latest bill highlights growing popular disgust in Germany at violent video games, mirroring debates in the US. A poll taken after last month’s shooting at a secondary school in Emsdetten showed 72 per cent of respondents blaming such incidents on violent games and 59 per cent supporting a ban.

The 18-year old who killed himself with a rifle after storming his school and injuring 11 people was an avid Counter Strike player and self-avowed internet nerd according to local newspapers.

“It is absolutely beyond any doubt that such killer games desensitise unstable characters to violence and can have a stimulating effect,” Günther Beckstein, Bavaria’s interior minister, said on Monday.

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