How age rating symbols are developed at the USK
The strictest age classification rules in the world
Germany has the strictest statutory rules in the world for the classification and sale of computer games. Pursuant to the German Children and Young Persons Protection Act, the age rating of computer games is the responsibility of the Ministries of the Federal States with jurisdiction of young persons’ affairs. The Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK) is an internationally recognised classification institute instigated by the computer games industry in order to carry out the necessary classification process. Although the associations of the games industry bear the costs of the USK, they are not responsible for the age rating symbols. Around 30,000 titleshave been submitted to the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK) since 1994.
The USK brings many years of experience and expertise to the table in the field of games classification. It organises the classification process cumulating in the issuing of state age categorisations. From 2011 onwards, the USK will also provide a procedure for the rating of online games without state participation in accordance with the Youth Media Protection State Agreement (JMStV). The USK advises both game publishers and event organisers. It also provides public information on youth protection measures in force in Germany in relation to computer games and classification procedures. The USK documents around 1,000 new titles each year within the framework of its 17,000 title computer and video game archive, the largest in the world.
Basic principles underlying the procedure
Basic principles relating to the classification of computer games pursuant to the German Children and Young Persons Protection Act (JuSchG) are determined by an Advisory Council comprising 16 representatives from important social stakeholder groups. These include the Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Federal States, the churches, youth associations, research institutes, the Federal Government and Federal State Ministers with responsibility for youth affairs. The branch itself has two votes on the Advisory Council. All decisions are coordinated with the Ministries of the Federal States with jurisdiction of young persons’ affairs.
USK game testers
Given the fact that over 3,000 procedures are conducted each year and 1,000 new games are released, the examination process requires precise preparation in order to enable the Classification Committees to be in a position to issue the subsequent age classifications. The USK teaches its testers the correct way to present a game. This requires special skills, a precise knowledge of the global games culture, of the development of digital technology, of games production and of child protection. For this reason, USK games testers are amongst the best qualified experts within this branch in Germany. They operate in a similar manner to expert witnesses in court and remain available to the Committee until such time as members are able to arrive at a justified decision. Testers are provided with the training they need to fulfil this demanding task during a probationary period at the USK before being appointed by the Advisory Council.
Everything required for the testing of a new computer game is available at the premises of the USK. The USK begins by checking the technical functionality of the game, the completeness of the submission form and all documentation. The USK game testers receive all complex titles a number of days before the actual examination. They play through the games fully, save game statuses and prepare an overall presentation of the game in accordance with the USK guidelines. The game testers are in possession of all necessary additional information supplied by the publisher. Their full evaluation of the game requires them to consider all details relevant to child protection issues. They prepare a neutral written report in advance. Such extensive preparation is necessary in order to take full account of the technology and content of the games. The USK now hands over responsibility for the classification procedure to the Classification Committee where the tester presents the game. Neither the USK nor the testers issue an age suggestion.
Child protection experts are independent
A Classification Committee comprises four child protection experts and one Permanent Representative of the Supreme Youth Protection Authorities of the Federal States (OLJB). A total of 50 child protection experts from the 16 Federal States have been appointed. These experts have experience with working with issues affecting children and young persons. They may be teachers, journalists, social scientists or work for children’s social services. They are interested in interactive media and are not employed in either the hardware or software branches. They share a common interest in computer games and child protection. The games industry does not provide any child protection experts itself.
The USK plays the games it classifies
The number one guiding principle for all classification procedures is that the USK completely plays through every game submitted. This is a unique approach worldwide. Within the Classification Committee, every member has the opportunity to experience a game at first hand at any time. The presentation prepared by the testers provides the child protection experts with a basis for accessing the game. They then discuss and evaluate the title in accordance with the USK child protection criteria. The criteria for the evaluation of computer games have been agreed by all the Federal States and are monitored and developed further on an ongoing basis by the USK in conjunction with the OLJB and the USK Advisory Council. The child protection experts include manuals and additional materials in their discussions. They ultimately need to categorise the game in one of the five age groups designated in the German Children and Young Persons Protection Act (JuSchG) and justify their decision in a report. An age rating is refused if they believe that a game fulfills the criteria for placement on the index of media deemed unsuitable for young persons by the Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (BPjM).
Rating issued by the State Representative
In its capacity as lead manager for the age categorisation of computer games, the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia has appointed two Permanent Representatives of the Supreme Youth Protection Authorities of the Federal States. One of these representatives takes part in the evaluation procedure for each classification. The child protection experts ultimately recommend an age categorisation. The State Representative may either accept this classification or invoke his or her right of veto. The USK is informed of the result of the classification procedure and notifies the applicant. If the applicant does not appeal and thus initiate a new classification procedure, the game is issued an age rating symbol by the Permanent Representatives of the Supreme Youth Protection Authorities at the USK.
A decision with severe legal consequences
The result of the classification procedure is an age rating which in legal terms represents a sovereign administrative act with legal consequences (pursuant to Art.14 JuSchG). This includes such aspects as sales regulations for the retail trade. Each game may only be made publicly available within the scope of the age rating issued. The sanctions imposed on retailers in Germany who fail to comply are the toughest in the world. Fines of up to €50,000 may be levied.
Parents at home make their own decisions
Whereas the sale of computer games to children and young persons is subject to state restrictions, it is ultimately up to parents to decide which games their children are permitted to play at home. Although the age rating symbols issued within the scope of the USK classification give useful assistance in arriving at such a decision, they do not provide any information as to whether children will be able to understand the game or play it effectively. The age rating symbols merely guarantee that there are no child protection issues associated with the game.
The necessary information on all USK titles classified is available in our games data base.