In case you didn’t know, for years, decades, Germany has been extremely cautious with Nazi imagery for, you know, obvious reasons. The country has some really strict media ratings systems, not unlike others that have been in the news (New Zealand and Australia for example). One of the things that would lead straight to a classification refusal is something like a Swastika or Hitler. But in some cases, that rule could be bent, and now that same lenience is coming to video games. Is it something we should be worried about, with today’s political situation and the history of Germany’s use of censorship? Nah, not really. It may even have good results, long term.
Here’s the long and short of what happened. Germany, like many countries, has a media classification organization. Unlike in the US, where the ESRB is more of a self-governing sort of body within the games industry, countries like Germany won’t allow a game to be sold if it isn’t classified. In the US, you can have “effective” bans, as many retailers won’t stock unrated or Adult-rated games. (It’s not illegal to sell them, though). Things like Nazi imagery were immediate disqualifiers, with some exceptions such as research materials, artistic compositions, and scientific research. Stuff deemed “useful,” essentially. But that “art” exemption has slowly been expanding, and somewhat recently allowed for things like Hollywood movies to pass through classification (Inglorious Basterds for example). But video games weren’t eligible for this loophole of sorts until now.
Now, video games can be exempt, but not by default. It’s a case by case basis deal, with works being evaluated on an individual basis by the ratings organization. Before, the creator or publisher had to provide proof of absence to make it through. Recalls could be mandated if violating content was later found. The running speculation is that more Hollywood-style games will still struggle to make it through with intact Nazi imagery, such as Call of Duty type stuff. This is especially true if the game in question has some sort of online multiplayer, which is an instant dealbreaker. However, the games that could have a very real chance to not get hit with the censorship hammer will be stuff like indie games, especially those with significant, serious narrative elements.
This includes a game called Through the Darkest of Times. This game is being presented as a “historical resistance strategy game.” It takes place in Berlin, during the height of the Third Reich. You play as a fictional resistance force, and work to take care of your group, gain more members, and of course avoid being discovered by the enemy. It gets as close as it can, but if you look at that game's website you can see places where the artists had to hold back. Oh, it’s also a game actually developed by a team in Berlin. This sort of thing is a big deal.
While it makes sense that the German government has concerns about things like Nazi imagery, there’s an important balance that has to be maintained when it comes to history. There’s a difference between a dumb statue of a Confederate veteran standing in public parks, and artists being unable to use certain, historically loaded imagery. This limits the ability of culture to evolve, while confronting its own history. It also runs the risk of certain things being lost to time. World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors are dying out, and the denial movement is, sadly, growing. Imagine if Through the Darkest of Times could make the game with a more realistc edge, with real people or real groups.
By putting more effort into vetting content and boosting works that use the imagery in a way that is measured and responsible, Germany stands to boost what that imagery is used for, beyond science and history. Artists, who want to take the time and effort to explore these ideas and do something with them, won’t have to worry about holding back, or risking financial consequences. And that’s more true for the ones who actually live in Germany, rather than people elsewhere trying to export their shooters or whatever. I hope that this decision leads to positive news in the future, especially if I hear about interesting new games from German developers in the future.