Malte Behrmann

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!