I finally ended my love-hate relationship with the Gold Coast and moved back to Germany – the country with one of the strictest videogame laws in the world. If games burned as well as books I’d probably be able to witness quite some bonfires.
So what are the reasons for the Teutonic paranoia and the accompanying hysterical public discourse?
First of all new technology is always cause for suspicion since it challenges our usual ways of life; also: things that we don’t quite comprehend always cause fears, this is even more true for technologies that convey popular forms of culture: “As Bourdieu… has observed, the denigration of the popular may be understood in terms of its impenetrability. Consequently, popular forms are frequently presented as uncouth, dangerous and harmful by those lacking the knowledge and strategies to make sense of them“ (Newman, James: Videogames). Then there’s of course the “hangover” from WWII which causes the public resepectively the political establishment to view violent games or games that glorify military endeavours very sceptically.
But I think there are deeper sociocultural reasons. As Norbert Elias explains in his book “The Civilization Process” the German bourgeoisie of the 18th century was unable to exercise political influence and had to find other ways to claim a form of power. It sought legitimation through scientific and artistic achievements which stood in stark contrast to the supposedly superficial values of the ruling noble classes (based on ceremonies and shallow politness based on French patterns). Through this the bourgeois element of the society gained self-esteem although it was still unable to get involved in the political process. But the bourgeoisie was allowed to commit itself to writing and to the education of the self; a vent beyond politics and economics that created a typical German intelligentsia – which in turn became the carrier of the national self-esteem and, very late, the ruling class, turning its social character into the national character. Even though something like a “national character” is always a false, since invented construct I think Elias gives an interesting hint at the possible source of resistance towards forms of popular culture.
As Bourdieu points out, highbrow culture is not open to everyone, one needs special tools to understand it (tools delivered through education) and as “cultural capital” it is also closely to the exercise of power. Popular culture on the other hand has to be necessarily open to everyone, it’s based on a broad appeal and therefore doesn’t allow any distinction from other classes or groups, denying the whole basis of the bourgeois legitimation.
Now if you look into German media history popular culture always had an especially difficult time, digital games just being latest victim. In the 19th century cheap pulp novels were shunned, when movies were introduced scepticism arose (one of the catchwords here: the cinema reformation movement), the same happened with television, video tapes etc. (the exception here is radio whose introduction was forced by the Nazis who were devoid of any highbrow cultural ethos).
What’s interesting here is that this attitude prevailed despite generational changes and changing political attitudes. Take Theodor Adorno for example, one of the main figures behind the German 1968 student movement. In his despise for popular forms of expression (which he saw as a vehicle for hegemonic values and surpression; as standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression) he’s not much different to conservative disdain for mass culture (see e.g. John Sinclair’s text in The Media and Communications in Australia, 2002); a 2007 study by the German Sinus-Sociovision-Institute found that postmaterialists and conservatives (= the influential parts of society) both value intellectuality, education and literariness and use these values for self-definition despite having fought an intense cultural war.
Such an attitude of course prevents an involvement of the bourgeois deciders with digital games, the consequence of this “media-incompetence” being fear. While younger Germans posses the knowledge to make sense of digital games and their surrounding culture the political elites don’t, the consequences being ridiculously strict laws and a lack of support for the industry.
While this might (over)simplify the matter I think it’s worth to follow this lead, and I’ll try to elaborate on this matter in later posts after sighting some more literature.

-Jens

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