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External Articles | Posted: October 16, 2010

Computer games - lobbying at the highest level and with support from universities

Killers of childhood under the Christmas tree: Government and industry in the frenzy of war games

By Sabine Schiffer
Hintergrund, December 6, 2008

Today, parents and teachers have to be very competent - even on the PC - in order not to succumb to the sirens of the (computer) industry. Economics and politics have formed an unholy alliance for the promotion of virtual games that inflict massive damage on children. The Christmas campaign advertises with the usual slogans of "educational opportunities" and "common family fun". However, the opposite has been proved: screen media reduce children's world of experience, promoting isolation and making it more difficult to acquire skills such as speaking, reading, and writing.

Computer gamers enjoy being instantly rewarded; this, however, reduces the frustration tolerance which is needed for successful learning. In 2005, a study of the Ifo Institute showed that the availability of computers at home and their intensive use at school are not accompanied by better, but by poorer school performance in basic PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] competencies. They reduce the chance of a high school recommendation, and they promote aggressive behavior[1] and forgetfulness.[2] Already in 2005, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had pointed out the aggressive marketing techniques of the entertainment industry.

Their aim is to deceive parents and educators and to promote the sale of media products: harmless games like Sims and FIFA, or violent games like World of Warcraft (online) and Call of Duty, which present a glorification of war. Nintendo is primarily responsible for entry-level programs such as the Mario series for Game Boys. In particular, the racing games already train the kids how to win at the expense of others; shooter and strategy games invent a defensive situation around the killing in order to calm the parents and to please the Defense Minister. Microsoft as a leading hardware supplier is also a sponsor of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs. The company initiates campaigns such as "Schools on the Net!", which provide for the computerization of schools and for a sustainable brand loyalty. Or it advertises successfully with supposed educational offerings such as "Smart Mice", a computer program which is allegedly designed to promote the language skills of children in kindergarten. Minister von der Leyen is the patron of the "Smart Mice" program. Scientifically proven is the opposite, i.e. the continuous decrease of the language skills among first-graders. However, the close cooperation of the monopolist with the Family Ministry is not the only amalgamation of that industry and political decision makers.

Lobbying at the highest level and with support from universities

If you follow the cash flows of companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, and Electronic Arts, which are represented in the BIU [Federal Association of Interactive Entertainment Software], many things become clear. The BIU drives a sophisticated PR strategy: self-financed studies, supported "scientists", contests and prizes, and good public relations coupled with lobbying at government level and in the Bundestag.

The MPs Dorothee Bär (CSU) and Jörg Tauss (SPD) have made it their task to represent the interests of the BIU in Parliament - e.g., in 2007 with the initiative "Promote valuable computer games, strengthen media competence", which is primarily concerned with economic development. "Protection of minors" and "media competence" are merely a fig leaf.

Dorothee Bär's "commitment" does not only refer to "the discussion about how to deal with computer games", as she affirms on the homepage of the German Bundestag. She is also a substitute member of the Broadcasting Council of the Deutsche Welle and member of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Center for Political Education.[3] An expert hearing made clear how she actually deals with the risks of computer games. After a conference in May 2007, Bär told the press that there was no scientific evidence of the relationship between playing computer games and violence - immediately after experts had presented in detail precisely this connection! One of the scientists, Prof. Dr. Christian Pfeiffer, Director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, explained in detail, "The underlying data are ... the findings from our student survey in 2005, which revealed that every second boy at the age of 10 has experience with games rated 16+ or 18+ ... This alone shows that there is reason enough for action. ...

The producers of 'The Godfather', Electronic Arts, have issued a game guide; on page 195 the following notice can be found, 'Especially entertaining and bloody killing of the enemy will bring you a a respect bonus.'" For particular murder plans the game suggests, "In 'Murder Order 8' Oscar Zavarelle is to be killed. The guide says, 'I want Oscar Zavarelle to suffer. I've got my reasons. Don't kill him at once, but let him bleed to death slowly. Like a pig ... The default is to shoot Oscar in the foot, then in his shoulder, and finally, in his chin. Follow this plan to get an additional respect bonus.'

Our review of 72 violence-oriented computer games has clearly demonstrated: 'The Godfather' is not unique. The USK [German Self-Monitoring of Entertainment Software] has released many equally brutal games for the market. This is not acceptable to us. Both empirical evidence of media effects research and the basic values of our society suggest that those games should be placed on the Index or even be prosecuted."[4] But Ms. Bär does not see any need for action. In his résumé, however, Christian Pfeiffer clearly demonstrates the connection between intensive use of violent computer games, poor school performance, and increased violence.

Since 2000, SPD member Tauss from the constituency district Karlsruhe-country, has been the speaker of the Working Group for Education and Research; for six years, he has been the chairman of his parliamentary party in the Subcommittee New Media. A specialist? As an author, Tauss writes for the journal Politik und Kultur[5], a publication of the German Cultural Council[6], which claims to be scientific and is dedicated to the study of PC games beyond the aspect of violence. Under the title "Computer Games - an Important Cultural and Economic Asset", Tauss declares the virtual fighting games to be of a protective value that is, regrettably, "still missing the necessary public recognition".[7]

The booming games industry in Germany has long fought for this recognition - with corresponding "expert reports" and with dirty tricks. And, in the summer of 2008, received for that the honorable reward of the German Cultural Council. The Federal Association of the Developers of Computer Games G.A.M.E. was admitted as a member in the section Film and Audiovisual Media. For Olaf Zimmermann, managing director of the German Cultural Council, it is clear: "Art and games are no separate worlds. Computer games are a cultural asset. They must be treated as such and deserve public support."[8]

Thus, the orientation of the Federal Center for Political Education in this area is not surprising. As part of its self-declared mission to strengthen democratic awareness, it publishes educational media guidelines and suggests an open scientific debate. But here, too, industry is hidden behind: The graduated game researcher Christoph Klimmt (lecturer at the Academy of Music and Drama in Hannover, advisory board member of the eJournal GameScience, and also a writer for Politik und Kultur) is well-known for his very positive assessments of computer games. At the Federal Center, he can claim in an article, "Games give pleasure - and this is important" [9] He himself likes to play "Battlefield 2" - a network shooter game, in which a war in the Middle and Far East, under participation of the United States and the European Union, provides plenty of victims through the use of best military equipment.[10]

Among other "scientists", Dr. Jörg Müller-Lietzkow is a co-editor of Politik und Kultur. He is also a welcome guest at the conference Clash of Realities at the Fachhochschule Köln. And this conference is made possible by Electronic Arts.

One of the main venues for the games industry is the "GamesConvention" in Leipzig. Till the end of 2008, the BIU was its honorary sponsor; from 2009 on, however, the BIU will host its own Fair under the name of GAMESCom in Cologne, where Electronic Arts and the Spielraum-Institut are also located. Not only are the Federal Center for Political Education and the Spielraum-Institut regularly represented at the "Games Convention" - the Fair is also supposed to introduce children and young people to the virtual world. There is a special area called "GC Family"; in the sections "Children's and Family Games", "Learning & Knowledge", and "Media Competence", providers from the industry present themselves and their products - according to his own statement, in order to come into direct contact with the "core target group", the children.

Several times already, the Spielraum-Institut of the Fachhochschule Köln, with its professors Winfred Kaminski and Jürgen Fritz, hit the headlines. Too obviously, they provide the desired results of their supporters. They go so far as to propose teaching "media competence" to the parents - which, in fact, is only meant to encourage them to play PC games. As Kaminski was convicted of plagiarism[11], the Federal Center for Political Education had to remove his book from their program.

In Müller-Lietzow's articles, the violence in games that train killing is played down, and attention is focused on the "positive aspects", namely the fact - according to the "media expert" - that they promote strategic thinking and mathematical understanding[12]. The fact, however, that these trainers had been developed by the military to reduce empathy and the inhibition to kill[13], is concealed as far as possible. And it is true: we learn (only) what we practice!

Killers of childhood steal time for living and for learning

Meanwhile, there are around 700,000 children and young people in Germany who are addicted to online games and to the media. Altogether, the number of people affected in Germany is about 1.5 to 2 million, and it is growing. In particular, the strategy games in web communities have a strong addictive nature. Whoever takes a break or misses an online date, will fall behind. The danger of addiction is best avoided by strengthening people's self-esteem - but this can only be done through person-to-person contact. The concept of an early introduction to the media - similar as that to alcohol - serves the industry, but not the users.[14]

A large number of "educational" offers for parents on the internet is advertising with the same slogan of an early and easy introduction. Entirely missing is the note that children should not learn to use the computer as a gaming device; and that during the stages of brain development up to the age of 12, children should be offered other activities. As for the much-evoked effects of so-called educational games, which often turn out to be a gateway drug, evidence is lacking. Consultants who aim at introducing children "as early as possible" to virtual worlds, and who offer computer clubs for six- to twelve-year-olds, such as the SIN studio on the net[15], should be treated with a good deal of skepticism. What is encouraged here, is consumption, nothing else. No wonder that the renowned (and supported by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs) website of schau-hin.info is promoted by Arcor, TV-Spielfilm, and the public broadcasters.

The sponsoring of AOL and CompuServe for the German Association for Media Effects Research [DGMF] also fits into the picture, because the DGMF has the task to relativize long since proven effects, especially those of violent games. Those who claim that there are not sufficient long-term studies available to prove the negative consequences of the (interactive) electronic media in children's daily life, should be advised to check the independence of the conflicting studies.

According to the logics of economic development, German Microsoft Manager Achim Berg can claim in the FAZ (without providing any references) that computerization reduces the educational gap[16]. The opposite is true: as the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony revealed in a broad-based study, it even enlarges that gap - last not least the gap between boys and girls, because girls spend significantly less time in front of the PC and in virtual game scenarios. Generally, boys tend more to consume particularly harmful offers, and not only families with weaker educational backgrounds are vulnerable to the sirens of the industry. Boys threaten to become the educational losers.

Trust is good - if you know who is controlling

Who relies on self-control mechanisms, will be disappointed. The German entertainment software self-control (USK) merely serves as a fig leaf and regularly rates products too low. Like the producers, Jürgen Fritz, professor for game pedagogy, is a member of the decision-making body. Fritz likes to point out the "positive sides" of the controversial violent and addictive software offerings. He emphasizes that learning effects such as speed and combining ability are not to be underestimated. The USK does not possess the property of scientific evaluation, but it has a considerable impact: by rating games 18+, it prevents that those games are put on the Index and thus banned from the market by the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (BPjM).

Parents of young children should be warned: they will rather miss educational opportunities by introducing electronic media products too early. The parents of older children should at least consider one thing: on the feast of love there should not be any presents that teach children how to win at the expense of others. For those who prefer constructive media education for young people, a 10 finger system trainer is recommendable as a Christmas gift. You could also delegate the care of the family pictures archive to the adolescents, or at least teach them critical research. Journalism and our democratic culture would certainly benefit from that.

About the author

Dr. Sabine Schiffer is a media scientist and director of the Institut für Medienverantwortung in Erlangen.


[1] cf. the latest results of the "Computerspiele und Gewalt" Conference, November 20, 2008, in Munich.

[2] Christiakis u.a. (2004): "Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children." In: Pediatrics, 113(4): 708-713. Pfeiffer u.a. (2006): "Mediennutzung, Schulerfolg, Jugendgewalt und die Krise der Jungen" In: Zeitschrift für Jugendkriminalrecht und Jugendhilfe 3/2006 (s. www.kfn.de); Robinson u.a. (2001). "Effects of Reducing Children's Television and Video Game Use on Aggressive Behavior." in: Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med., 155: 17 - 23. (sog. Stanford-Studie); Anderson, Craig (2006): Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents. Oxford Univ-Press; Hüther u.a. (22007): Computersüchtig - Kinder im Smog moderner Medien, Padmos-Verlag; Spitzer (2005): Vorsicht Bildschirm! München, ders: (2005): "Computer in der Schule?" In: Nervenheilkunde 5/2005: 355-358; Grossman/DeGaetano (2002): Wer hat unseren Kindern das Töten beigebracht? Stuttgart.

[3] http://www.bundestag.de/bundestag/abgeordnete17/biografien/B/baer_dorothee.html

[4] http://www.kfn.de/versions/kfn/assets/offenerbrief052007.pdf

[5] http://www.kulturrat.de/puk_liste.php?detail=57&rubrik=puk

[6] http://www.kulturrat.de

[7] http://www.tauss.de/index.php?mod=content&menu=1002&page_id=5363&level=1

[8] http://www.sz-online.de/nachrichten/multimedia/artikel.asp?id=1914392

[9] http://www.bpb.de/themen/6Y8B15,0,Spiele_machen_Freude_%96_und_das_ist_wichtig_so.html

[10] http://www.bpb.de/themen/SGJ2ZO,0,Die_Spielsaison_ist_er%F6ffnet.html

[11] http://www.kfn.de/versions/kfn/assets/Textvergleich-Synopse.pdf

[12] http://www.pcwelt.de/start/gaming_fun/archiv/136814/

[13] It is no coincidence that the bus of the German Armed Forces tours the country in search of young cannon fodder with a rich offering of such games on board.

[14] Competent advice from independent sites [in German]:
www.rollenspielsucht.de or www.aktiv-gege n-mediensucht.de .

[15] http://www.sin-net.de

[16] Berg, Achim 26.10.2008 "Mit dem PC kommt die Gerechtigkeit" Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung