Since it was founded in 1994, the USK (translated: Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body) was meant to be a reliable age certification system in Germany. But as it is so often the case, systems are open to failure and missteps. Unfortunately, for twenty years, there were quite a few of these.
The basics and exemplary failures
If you’re not familiar with the USK’s classification system (because you live in the US, UK or other European countries), these are the ages concerned: 0+, 6+. 12+, 16+, 18+. It sounds rather logical, as it’s exactly the same method the movie industry is used to with the FSK (Voluntary Self-Regulation Body), but just like this one, there are way too many examples which show their lack of understanding.
For example, the categorization doesn’t seem to recognize cartoon violence as problematic, so Edna: The Breakout received a 0+ despite its subject matter and setting (amnesia, murder and an insane asylum). The comic look and funny slapstick and dialogues are present, but so are an unsettling suicide scene and pretty bloody pieces of memory the main protagonist goes through.
Another example is Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon which got a 6+, even if it already starts with a murder, has some death scenes and is a mystery story which is simply not suitable for that target audience (not even counting the times bad language is used). There are obviously many many more examples like the Phoenix Wright series which usually gets the same 0+ or 6+ rating despite their unravelling murder mysteries and often bloody scenes.
Misconceptions due to transparency deficiencies
What the age system also doesn’t take into account is if a 6-year old (or even younger) can actually understand the gameplay (not going into detail with the intricacies of warfare), as can be seen in the strategic Anno series. Sure, there are also a lot of games (usually RPGs or FPS titles) which get a fitting age certification, but there’s still something fundamentally wrong here, mainly the lack of transparency.
Just like the FSK, the main problem of the USK is that it only gives parents a number which they are bound to pay attention to without further explanations. This is where the PEGI system does a better job. Their final number might be controversial in some cases (even though it doesn’t have to be as strange as 18+ PEGI and 6+ USK for Hidden Runaway), but at least it tries to describe what to expect from the game, be it violence, nudity, bad language, etc..
An alternative parental guide
So even if 20 years of giving (supposedly) independent age certifications, can the USK still be considered to be a system to trust, especially for parents who usually don’t have a clue about the individual games? Apparently not. And what about the internet? There seemed to have been a law that tried to put the USK system on websites ready to be put into practice which fortunately received quite a lot of criticism. In theory, it might be a good idea to make users aware of a website’s content, but forcing a system on it that is simply full of holes and makes too many mistakes, is not the right solution.
During the Next Level Conference (which will also get a special feature in the near future), I had the pleasure to find out about a pretty cool system, the Spieleratgeber NRW (Games Guide NRW). The great thing about it is that kids themselves can playtest and explain WHY specific games are suitable or not. The editorial team then goes into a bit more detail and therefore gives a better idea of the individual titles. A simple system which works.
Another 20 years USK or something different?
So here we are, 20 years USK and none the wiser? One question is: Do we need an age classification system? Yes. The other (more important) question is: Can the USK handle this? Apparently not that well. It’s quite telling that something like the Spieleratgeber NRW or other websites do a much better job of informing parents than a blank number does. If they have the time, that is. Something which is another point of discussion and much more important than whining about individual numbers without any meaning.
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