For many years, the computer and video games industry has championed responsible handling and age-appropriate use of games. Like films, all games sold on the German market are evaluated according to criteria intended to protect minors; these games are assigned a corresponding age rating by the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK).
The USK was voluntarily established by the computer and video games industry in 1994, as a joint initiative by the industry and retailers. All games submitted to the body are reviewed and assigned an age rating by the Permanent Representative of the Supreme Youth Protection Authorities of the German Federal States (OLJB) if they meet the provisions of German youth protection law. This means that at the end of this joint process, government representatives assign the age ratings.
The game’s age rating must be clearly visible on the packaging as well as on the data storage medium itself. Retailers are required to ensure that they only sell age-appropriate games to their customers; the labelling allows parents to see the age rating and determine which games are suitable for their children. The game association is a shareholder of the USK.
Germany has one of the strictest systems in Europe for protecting children and young people from media content that impairs their development. The legal framework in the area of the protection of minors from harmful media content is regulated by the Youth Protection Act (JuSchG) and the Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Minors from Harmful Media (JMStV).
Protection of Young Persons Act
The Protection of Young Persons Act is a federal law regulating the protection of minors in the area of offline media, the so-called carrier media (DVDs, CD-ROMs, video cassettes, printed matter, etc.). Since the reform of the Youth Protection Act in 2003, computer and video games may only be distributed to children and young people if they have been subjected to prior examination by the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK) and have been released for the relevant age group. The respective age groups are 0, 6, 12, 16 and 18, with the aim of ensuring that children and young people are protected from content that impairs their development. Games which have not been submitted to the USK for examination or which have not received an age rating from the USK may only be handed over to adults.
Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Minors in the Media
The Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Minors (JMStV) is a state treaty between all German states and regulates the protection of minors in the field of broadcasting and telemedia. This includes, above all, online offerings that can be accessed on the Internet. In contrast to the JuSchG, the current version of the JMStV does not provide for a gradual age rating. Nevertheless, even within the scope of application of the JMStV, the provider must ensure that offerings that impair development cannot usually be perceived by young people in the age group concerned. This can be achieved, for example, by restricting broadcasting time or by technical measures.
Modernisation of the protection of minors
Both regulations have meanwhile been overtaken by technical innovations and a revision towards a modern, convergent and internationally compatible protection of minors is urgently needed. A draft bill to amend the JuSchG is currently on the table, but from the perspective of the games industry it urgently needs to be revised. In addition, the federal states have started expert talks for a revision of the JMStV, in which the game will participate constructively.
International Age Rating Coalition (IARC)
The International Age Rating Coalition (IARC) is a group made up of the organisations responsible for assigning age ratings to online games and apps from around the world. Since its founding in 2013, IARC has provided a system that technical platforms such as mobile app stores have been able to integrate into their sites to help protect young people. This system makes it possible for providers of individual products to classify their content according to a questionnaire. The age rating is determined based on this classification according to the standards set out by the respective national self-regulation body (in Germany, the USK).
The USK regularly reviews IARC classifications in order to ensure their quality. Complaints from users can also trigger a review. The legal basis for the USK’s use of this system is the German Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Minors (JMStV), which certified the USK as a self-regulation body in 2011. Age ratings under youth protection law are the result of a separate evaluation procedure, in which government representatives assign the age rating after a joint process with the USK. These age rating labels also look different from IARC labels and are primarily used for games sold by bricks-and-mortar retailers.