Gamescom 2009: Instant everything and the addictive potential of marriage

Far more than 200.000 visitors were expected at this year’s first Gamescom trade fair in Cologne – an international showplace for all kinds of electronic games, consoles, and accessories. Gamescom is the successor of the Games Convention that was bursting at the seams on the smaller Leipzig fairgrounds, and it turned indeed out to be a magnet for almost exclusively young people under 30.

About 400 of the older guests (including myself) convened on 20 August at a one-day Gamescom Congress to listen to politicians, regulators and academics trying to come to grips with the gaming phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, considering the participants’ demographics, the theme of youth protection turned out to be the common thread of the event. Older non-gamers in particular tend to watch the scene with suspicion and are concerned about in-game violence spilling over into society and about young people spending much time and energy on skills that may or may not be socially desirable. Most European governments have therefore endorsed the business sector’s self-imposed system of strict PEGI (Pan European Game Information) ratings, showing whether a particular game is supposed to be available for adults only, or for children and adolescents from the ages of 3, 7, 12, or 16 years.

Typically, Germany alone has even stricter limits in place. The Germans argue that the PEGI system is too lax, because it is based on a standard questionnaire filled out by games producers themselves. The questionnaire is then cursorily reviewed by a government-approved independent agency. Instead, Germany has its own co-regulatory body, the Self-Control Board for Entertainment Software (USK), which employs its own experts who actually try the game in order to obtain a thorough impression. Rather than only look for formal criteria, they also try and evaluate the mood and the ethical implications of the game under scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, this practice was vigorously criticised by the games industry. Producers cannot sell a game in Germany under the same conditions as everywhere else in Europe. And, even worse, the USK decisions tend to be unpredictable. They depend heavily upon the composition of the respective jury. One industry executive said that with one game, he went through the first round of review and two subsequent appeals and had different juries and different results every time. Moreover, the USK refuses to issue a rating to games it considers all too problematic, which effectively means that they cannot be marketed in Germany at all, not even to adults.

Gerhard Florin, who carries the quaint title of “Executive Vice President Western World Publishing” at leading manufacturer Electronic Arts, hauled out the big guns when he accused Germany of censorship and attributed the country’s comparatively underdeveloped games-related economy to this kind of regulatory drag. Then he wound up to a bleak cultural prophecy: “Can you imagine the German identity without its writers, painters, and composers?” he asked. “Now put yourself in the position of a German gamer who has virtually no domestic products to fall back on.”

Others were less dramatic. Jürgen Schattmann, in charge of youth protection in the Ministry for Families of North Rhine-Westphalia, made the case for a pragmatic approach. Youth protection, he said, “must clip the peak risks, yet not try and prevent the natural tendency of adolescents to test limits and break taboos.” And the state’s chief media minder Norbert Schneider was quick to relativise the addictive potential of computer games: “Even marriage can cause dependency.” He was seconded by expert Tanja Witting, who opined that violence usually stays within the game, while the gamers actually often show express respect for each other’s achievements in the virtual world.

However, Witting and others at the conference pointed out the real absurdity of the European youth protection practice: Anything that is sold in a box or on a storage medium such as a DVD gets rigorously scrutinised by expert boards and government agencies. Sales are controlled. At the same time, anything that is available online – either in the form of browser games or by illicit download – basically escapes supervision altogether and can be accessed by anyone. By way of illustration, the conference demonstrated a few pedagogically disturbing and pretty chauvinistic browser games which are threshold-free for children and adolescents. The sector is clearly treated by double standards, yet there are no apparent initiatives to amend this sorry situation either way.

Microsoft’s Jens Tinapp then proceeded to present the results of a study his company had conducted into the future of gaming and – naturally – games consoles such as the Xbox 360. The consumers, he said, want “instant everything.” Whatever, whenever, wherever – as long as there is no waiting period and no hurdle to access. The study also observed a shift from immersive, time-consuming and highly engaging games to “snack games” – brief distractions in between other things or even in parallel: “Multitasking is here to stay.”

Another memorable insight (yet one that could hardly surprise anyone but games manufacturers) was that consumers desire the utmost simplicity in their devices, yet want to be in more and better control of them. Hopefully, this will be a strong hint for device and content producers to cease from patronising their customers with usage restrictions and prohibitive rights management and to move to open systems and easy interoperability instead.

Tinapp also revealed that Microsoft generated a whopping € 500.000 of revenues in the first three (!) hours after the company put the Xbox marketplace online. Unbelievably, what this store sells for real money are virtual clothes and accessories for Xbox avatars (for the non-gamers reading this: Avatars are puppet-like representations of actual users in the virtual world). So basically, you can buy your electronic alter ego a nice outfit so he or she does not embarrass you.

On another spooky note, the Microsoft representative mentioned the Project Natal his company plans to launch next year. It promises that you will eventually not need a game controller any more, since the console will recognise your face and voice and react to spoken commands and free movements – and not only in your home, but anywhere you happen to come by any Xbox’s electronic eyes and ears. So finally, George Orwell’s worst nightmares might come true – with the striking difference that it is not government implementing them, but, of all things, a video game.

Media informatics professor Maic Masuch countered with a plea for serious and genuinely beneficial games which accomplish more than mere short-lived instant gratifications. By way of example, he quoted findings about a game called Re-Mission that educates young cancer patients about their illness and was observed to actually have a positive influence not only on the patients’ mental state, but on their physical health as well. Go figure.