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.


Games Finally Have a Right to Exist: German Cultural Council Accepts them as "Kultur"

After long discussions the German Kulturrat, the umbrella organisation of the German cultural associations, today welcomed the federal association of game developers GAME, as their latest member. The rationale behind this move: Games are sponsoring all kinds of arts and artists, from designer to script writer to composer; they all benefit from the burgeoning industry. Despite this somehow strange reasoning (games being "Kultur" because they help to sustain other arts instead of being accepted as cultural artefacts in their own right) Malte Behrmann, chairman of GAME, describes the decision as a milestone of German media policy. "For the first time an association of the game industry was incorporated in an institution of cultural politics. The game industry finally arrived in the cultural sphere. This is a great day for the German game industry!"

This whole procedure again goes to show show that in Germany new forms of media always need to be legitimised through the concept of Kultur – which on one hand can do miracles in terms of acceptance. After all culture epitomises an anti-barbaric distinction which perfectly serves for bourgeois self-legitimation – but then again this anti-barbaric distinction also prevents Gears of War 2 from being released in Germany and helps to perpetuate the patronising behaviour of the German state in terms of censorship.

Soon to come: Discussions about culturally valuable games whose market share is marginal at best (at least we Germans are trying our best to save the world again, even if it's just the saving the virtual world from unnecessary brutalisation).