The Cultural Background of (German) Digital Games

Over the course of the last two weeks I conducted a couple of interviews for my Ph.D. dealing with the was the perception of digital games differs in Germany and Australia. By talking to just a couple of people you can tell how the cultural history of a country also influences the way modern media is dealt with. The first person I spoke to was Malte Behrmann, attorney, secretary general of the European Games Developer Federation as well chairperson of the German developers association, GAME. Malte is also responsible for digital games getting officially accepted as Kulturby the German Kulturrat, the umbrella organization of the German cultural associations. This push always reminded me of the strategy of the early German Autorenfilm.

In an attempt to conform to bourgeois cultural norms and thus demonstrate cinemas' cultural and social relevance, the Autorenfilm (films based on the works of famous contemporary authors or written by them directly for the screen) mobilized national literary and cultural traditions against the Schundfilm ('trash film') by serving as an incentive to 'respectable' artists from the 'legitimate' stage and literature to lend their prestige to the new medium. It was basically an elevation of the medium to adhere to bourgeois tastes and therefore broaden its social basis.

Asked if he saw any parallels between these two instances, Malte Behrman answered that he wouldn't sit in his office like a spin doctor and think about how a game could be made more socially acceptable by means of "nobilitation". A statement I thought was quite remarkable as it shows how on a subconscious level Germany's long high-culture traditions and its specific socio-cultural influences still assert themselves – in a way that is decidedly different to Australia where, due to the country's different history, I never encountered a similar attitude. Here digital games – and non-hierarchical entertainment in general – never needed any form of cultural legitimation.

German ad for Commodore VC20

Moreover, Germany's cultural background allegedly influenced the way games were designed: They were regarded as overly complicated, complex and not very accessible (think complicated simulations, strategy games and management games [Parker's note: only Germans would be into "management games"]). When I was talking about this with Philipp from Yager he made the point that this might have something to do with the fact that for a very long time German developers mainly created games for the PC.

In contrast to consoles the PC was an open platform everyone could develop for without having to obtain licenses and development kids – and Germany has a very strong history of home computing. I suppose this is because the purchase of a home computer was easier to justify as it allowed its user to go beyond the mere pleasures of play. As the classical ad above puts it: "How do you land safely on Jupiter and in the next class?" With the most successful computer of the world of course! The VC20, not only does it allow you to land on Jupiter as part of a game, it also plays chess and connects people in play. Well, that but it also teaches math, physics and biology… So much for the theory, but then again this probably had more appeal to Germany's cultural history of a country defining itself in terms of Kultur and education.

This eventually also might have had an influence on the design of German games: most of them went beyond mere play but offered an 'added value' by, e.g. teaching about complex economic correlations and challenging the player accordingly. I remember people at school telling me how they refused to play Doom because they thought it was too primitive. As Jens from Ascaron put it in the interview I conducted with him: "Germans liked to play with animated Excel charts".

German Atari 400 ad - good for games AND school!

Obviously this was a competitive disadvantage: These games, on account of their design, hardly sold outside of Germany, probably another sign of their cultural specificity. Just like the (mainstream) American market did not appreciate the Autorenfilm with its intellectualized themes of broken identities, alienation and magic, history repeated itself 80 years later when it refused to play overly complex German games.

Of course this changed in the last couple of years, last not least because of a transition to console gaming. The Wii and especially the DS were godsend gifts - cheap and easy to develop for and… well cynics might point out that Nintendo isn't very strict when it comes to shovelware. Also German developers are amongst the leading ones in the field of mobile and browser games. But eventually it is quite difficult to rid oneself off one's cultural background. I suppose that's what Philipp meant when he said that even though you can have lived in the US for three years you're not quite 'there' yet in terms of an American (uncomplicated, commercially orientated) mindset.

My next interviews will be about support mechanisms. I wonder if the influences I just described also have an impact on how local game developers are supported by the state run institutions. What are the rules and regulations? And do they get applied eventually? Which games will be funded which won't? Would something violent yet potentially successful receive support? I already got a taste of what to expect when I informally talked to someone about these things on a party and was told that 'serious games' apparently play an important role when it comes to funding in Berlin. Not only because they demonstrate potential 'transfer-effects' (locally developed engines used for something… well, beyond play) but also because they function as a mental guide for the people giving out the finds: As a cultural/ technology-beyond-play token that helps to set everything in motion, the 'ox that draws the cart' so to speak.


Playing Guitar Hero in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Part of the duties of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to create a solid basis of foreign relationships through the means of educational and cultural policies. Like no other department it uses the core elements of these areas – the teaching of the German language, scientific exchange, German schools abroad – to establish links with other cultures. And it does increasingly so through the products of the German cultural industries. This is the background to its "Menschen bewegen. Kultur und Bildung in der deutschen Aussenpolitik" ("Moving people. Culture and education in Germany's foreign policy") conferences. Events that not only address traditional institutions of German cultural policy but also try to fathom new forms of collaborations by including new actors into the outlining of a future policies – the movie business, German companies with a strong foreign presence… and game developers!

Under the motif "Computer.Spiel.Kultur" (Computer.Game.Culture) several industry representatives were invited to the Ministry to give an overview of the field and its possibilities; amongst them Andreas Lange, director of the Videogame Museum in Berlin, who enabled me to attend this event.

It was a bizarre sight to say the least. The "Weltsaal", apparently one of the biggest and most prestigious halls of the Ministry, was stuffed full of computers and Wiis. Which again goes to show the immense importance of Nintendo's waggle box to acquaintance non-gamers with the medium as everyone easily picked up the Wiimotes and play away (under the guidance of some student of the University of Leipzig).

Non-understanding – and therefore rejection – due to never having played a digital game is of course one of the biggest obstacles; giving people involved in cultural policies and legislation a chance to play to let them overcome their prejudices consequently seems a very good strategy. Case in point: the lady I competed against in Wii Sports and who enthusiastically commented on the fun she had while playing tennis.

Even the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made an appearance. Stressing that games can be culture – this is Germany after all and without having been elevated into the lofty realms of culture no new technology is acceptable – he uttered the vision of a co-existence of classical German high culture (as in the explicitly mentioned Goethe) and the new medium of digital games – not without having mentioned that the "non-academically inclined" milieus spend a proportionately higher part of their day in front of the computer. Here we go again…

(It did not become clear if this includes internet use as well; to be fair he also mentioned that there's not necessarily a causal relationship between underachievement and time spend with computers – which is pretty much a no-brainer as it of course mainly depends on the use one puts it to. Also: When asked what amount of time he considers appropriate to spend time with computers his answer was "30 minutes to an hour" causing pretty much everyone to break out in laughter…)

Steinmeier's speech was followed by him playing Fifa, some Need for Speed title, Wii Sports and Brain Training. If someone would have told me that one day I will get the chance to watch the German foreign minister playing digital games I would have declared that person utterly crazy. Did he enjoy it? Difficult to tell – he didn't score a goal in Fifa, sucked at Need for Speed, scored a strike in the bowling part of Wii Sports and apparently was pretty good at Brian Training. I guess that's a sign that we don't have to worry about the future of my Vaterland…

I also got a chance to speak to Malte Behrmann, lobbyist and chairperson of the German and European game developers associations, and very much involved in trying to involve the state in supporting the industry. He explained to me that in the European Union one just can't randomly subsidize a branch of industry but that certain criteria have to be fulfilled to qualify for grants – one being the "cultural exception", the reason why he was busy trying to frame games as culture to achieve said subsidies. It can be seen that in France this approach was obviously successful.

But it also helped to widen the acceptance of digital games in Germany as it was used to counter the maddening "Killerspiel" discourse. As I told Malte this was probably the best action plan they could come up with. The thing is: German politicians for the most part are all members of what could be called a high-level milieu (successors of the classical educated bourgeoisie) whose main form of distinction is "anti-barbarian", one of the main reasons why digital games with violent content matter are vigorously rejected. The opposite of "barbarian" is of course culture, a concept that perfectly works for these people's self-legitimation resulting in the heightened acceptance of the new medium. (It's interesting in this regard that the ancient opposition between nature [=barbarian] and culture still lives on in all its explicitness; I always thought this binary opposition was considered overcome, but here it is as clear as day. More on this in my Ph.D.). This is also one of the reasons why I consider stuff like all the brain training titles extremely important for the perception of games in Germany as they set the "anti-barbarian" tones.

All in all: A successful event and certainly a step in the right direction! It pleasantly surprised me as it surprised other members of the game community and was a welcome counterpoint to the shrill discussions normally surrounding digital games in Germany. Even though it seems games only have a right to exist when they are culture – but I suppose that's better than being allowed to exist at all…

About playing Guitar Hero: They had that set up as well; plus the speeches were followed by a buffet which included beer on the taxpayer's expense. An irresistible combination causing me to shred away "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Holiday in Cambodia" in front of some MPs including pretending to smash the guitar in a hall where normally global politics are happening. Another bizarre incident at a bizarre, yet great event!