Getting games “unbanned” in Germany

Written on 14 Jul 2015

Germany’s strict youth protection laws put severe marketing and distribution restrictions on media deemed by a government review board to be harmful to minors. While any game with an official German age rating is exempt, their international “cousins” with slightly different or extended content, are often concerned.

Once a game is on the federal authority’s “index”, commercially exploiting it in Germany is almost impossible – it is, for practical purposes, banned. The same applies to ports of the game to other platforms. Finally, if a game is indexed, authorities will often have a stricter approach to sequels or other titles in a series. Ample reason to consider an application to remove games from the list of youth-endangering media.

As a general rule, media stay on the list for 25 years after the decision is made to include them. After such time, they are deleted from the list unless the federal authority (BPjM) expressly decides to uphold the ban.

But things can move faster: Upon the publisher’s application, games can be crossed off the list if the justification for including them in the first place has disappeared. This can make sense for intended re-releases (e.g. on new mobile platforms) or to remove the stigma from a particular IP.

Arguments for Unbanning

A number of arguments can be made for unbanning games, even if their contents of course remain unchanged:

  • For one, youth protection standards change over time to keep up with societal development. Content that might have been regarded as harmful when a game was first published can become more commonplace in minors’ media experience, effectively improving their ability to cope with such content.
  • Also, media, and games in particular, can retroactively appear less graphic because of technological progress. Depictions of violence that were once considered particularly realistic because they went to the very limits of then-available hardware can appear downright cartoonish and unrealistic when compared to contemporary standards – an argument the BPjM’s deputy director herself recently made in an interview with a German newspaper (sorry, available in German only).
  • Finally, the youth protection authorities do give some weight to the matter of target audiences, accepting the fact that re-releases of older games are often directed at the very same grown-ups that used to play a certain game when it originally came out and re-play it for nostalgic motives.

The list is far from exhaustive. In recent unbanning procedures, the BPjM has however repeatedly made these points. In the decision removing the classic FPS DOOM from the “index”, the expert review panel stated that because of its dated graphics, the game was “primarily of historical, documentary interest” and would not appeal to modern-day minors.

The De-Listing Procedure

The German Youth Protection Act does not have specific provisions as to when de-listing applications can be made. Some years should have passed since a game was banned, otherwise BPjM will usually not accept that standards have changed sufficiently to warrant unbanning.

However, if 10 or more years have passed, de-listing is possible using a simplified procedure reserved for “obvious” cases.

There is a (moderate) price tag. Administrative fees between 900 and 2,600 Euros per game and per decision will be assessed. The precise amount depends on the complexity of the game, on whether the simplified or regular procedure is used , and – on the outcome. Getting a game unbanned costs slightly more than a refusal.