"YPRT - Youth Protection Roundtable" was a project of the Digital Opportunities Foundation in 2006 - 2009.
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Public Papers

Games, Games, Games

by Jutta Croll & Susanne Bernsmann

In 2008, Europe's leading developers' conference attracted about 1,200 participants from more than 40 countries, most of them coming from North America, Britain and Germany. The number of participants from Eastern Europe clearly rose, compared with the past years. The mostly young visitors will certainly not know what a lot of work the most popular computer applications require. At least two years of development pass between the idea and the marketable realisation of a computer game.

Every year in the end of August, the community of computer gamers convenes at the leading fair of video and computer games GC - the Games Convention - in order to learn to know the latest developments in this sector. Prior to the fair, the people who see to it that nobody gets bored in front of the computer screen, meet at the GC Developers Conference. In 2008, Europe's leading developers' conference attracted about 1,200 participants from more than 40 countries, most of them coming from North America, Britain and Germany. The number of participants from Eastern Europe clearly rose, compared with the past years. The mostly young visitors will certainly not know what a lot of work the most popular computer applications require. At least two years of development pass between the idea and the marketable realisation of a computer game. Many young people cannot image life without their digital leisure time organisers, and also young children playfully occupy themselves with computer applications for learning or entertainment. According to the 2007 JIM Study, for which 1,200 young people aged 12-19 in Germany were interviewed by phone, nearly half of them (45 %) have Internet access in their room - just as many have a game console. More boys (59 %) than girls (30 %) own a game console, and they use it more often: 50 % of the boys play computer games daily or several times a week, but only 17 % of the girls do so. There is also a difference concerning the educational level: 55 % of the pupils of Hauptschulen (lower secondary modern schools) have a game console, but only 34 % of the pupils of Gymnasien (higher secondary schools). The educational milieu also influences media adoption: young people with a high educational level adopt the world of media creatively and competently through different activities, while children and young people with a lower educational level adopt media more consumption-oriented (Source: Helga Theunert, 2006: Neue Wege durch die konvergente Medienwelt, p. 196).

The industrial federation BITKOM reported a 20 % turnover increase of consoles and games in Germany in the first half of 2008, compared to last year's period. Still new user groups are tapped; increases mostly concern young children and girls, who showed less interest in computer games until now. According to the 2008 KidsVerbraucherAnalyse, 63 % of the interviewed girls use hand-held devices such as the Gameboy, which means an increase of 13 % compared to the 2006 study. The share of the boys of 72 % has remained the same. Console games show the same tendency: 45 % of the girls (13 % increase) and 60 % of the boys (4 % increase) play with them. With increasing age, the interest in computer games decreases (according to the 2007 JIM Study): 40 % of the 12-13 year old children play daily or several times a week, while only 25 % of the 18-19 year old do so. The 2006 KIM Study exploring the media handling of 6-13 year old children confirms that the main phase of use coincides with adolescence: The share of the interviewed who own computer games and use them intensively is lower in the younger age groups – 43 % of the 6-7 year old children play less than half an hour per day, while only 23 % of the 12-13 year old do so.

The necessary critical distance concerning content and the self-restriction required for limiting the time spent with gaming can hardly be assumed for children and young people. Therefore reflected supervision by parents and teachers is required. But pedagogues, parents, teachers and social workers are often helpless when confronted with the fascination computer games exert on young age groups. Mostly they do not have any experiences with computer games and are therefore hardly able to judge the game activities of the young people and their impact so that they can align their education accordingly. The fears of arousing or increasing aggression, losing social contact or isolation of children and young people and compulsive gaming are opposed to the clearly positive effects of learning and acquiring computer skills. Computer games are used by young people mostly for entertainment; they banish boredom, but at the same time they give them the feeling of success, power and control. Thus they fulfil the need for recognition especially with children and young people at the lower educational level, which they often do not get at school.

The Centre of Empirical Pedagogic Research at the University of Landau, Germany, published the results of a study on computer games and coping with stress in 2008. 784 children and young people aged 9-20 years were asked to fill in an online questionnaire reporting on their life situation and their computer gaming behaviour. Gamers playing for 2 hours on school days 3-4 times a week are characterised as pathological computer gamers. The gaming behaviour is conspicuous if in addition symptoms of addictive behaviour occur including restlessness, nervousness and testiness if some time without gaming has passed, as well as an increase of time spent with computer games and difficulties to reduce or stop gaming. Furthermore, there are negative consequences in the educational and social sector, e.g. the risk of less school performance and neglect of social contacts due to excessive computer gaming. These gamers often report that they feel overstrained in their life situation and less safely bound than those who play much, regularly or little. For pathological gamers, the computer serves for coping, it is used to regulate or repress negative emotions. These children or young people are often discontent with their situation at school, during free time or in their families. The results of the non-representative study do not answer the question if pathological gaming is a form of escaping from reality or if gaming creates or increases the problems these children and young people have with their everyday life. Other studies, e.g. by the Iowa State University show that computer games also have positive learning effects and can playfully convey various competences. Depending on the structure of the game, they support analytical, operative or creative thinking for solving problems or dealing with identity aspects by social, cognitive, media-related and emotional requirements as well as requirements of perception, attentiveness and sensomotor coordination. (cf. Stone, W. & Gentile, D. A. (2008): The five dimensions of video game effects. http://www.psychology.iastate.edu or http://www.jff.de)
This ambivalence in the perception of effects and consequences of computer gaming and a lack of validated research for years also induced the public assumption that violence and aggression of young people are a consequence of intensive computer gaming, often followed by the demand to further restrict access by law.

The European countries have developed different regulations and voluntary agreements of providers and producers of computer games. The reason is among others that youth protection in general is regulated differently in these countries. In Germany the access to computer games is regulated by the youth protection law, which was tightened as of 1 July 2008. This revision shall improve the protection of children and young people against violence in the media, especially against violent computer games. For this purpose, the catalogue of carrier media that are very harmful to minors has been extended concerning the presentation of violence. Further the indexing criteria mentioned in the law were extended and stated more precisely, so that the index list of media harmful to minors has become longer. In future, the age label of the Voluntary Self-Regulation of the Movie Industry (Freiwilligen Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft – FSK) and the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle – USK) in use in Germany will be made more visible on the carrier media so that they can be recognised at a glance. Internationally, the labels of the Pan European Game Information – PEGI is primarily in use; the PEGI Online Label is a reaction to the fact that the distribution of games and the act of gaming itself are shifting to the Internet.

The recognisability and visibility of the age label on the packing of the carrier media now legally regulated in Germany will only have the desired effect if parents, pedagogues and the users themselves understand the labelling system. Especially parents often have difficulties; the labelling is hardly known, it is often misinterpreted and understood as a recommendation rather than an age limitation. These were the results of a qualitative survey carried out by the JFF Institute in the framework of the evaluation of the German Youth Protection Media Treaty (cf. http://www.jff.de/). Besides the differences in the media youth protection, also usage and preferences of the gamers from the European countries and the USA differ very much. For example in Germany, strategy games and business simulations are most played. In Britain and the USA, action and shooter games are more popular (Source: Jürgen Fritz, 2008: Computerspiele(r) verstehen, bpb vol. 671, p. 77). Such differences of habit result also in different regulation requirements in the countries. At the same time, there is a consensus in all countries that limitations by law in this sector can only have limited success: Detailed information of users, parents and pedagogues as well as media education are thought fundamental in all European countries.

To give the educators an overview over the confusing repertoire of different types and offers of games, various measures and concepts are tried, the German Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education) lets the users themselves test computer games and publishes their judgement at www.spielbar.de. The Computer Project Cologne e.V. funded by the Ministry for Generations, Families, Women and Integration of the state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) tries and evaluates new and interesting computer games together with children and young people guided by experienced media pedagogues. The pedagogic evaluation reports can be looked up at http://www.spieleratgeber-nrw.de. The association presents itself together with the working group on children and youth protection NRW and the Initiative Spielraum of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences on the Games Convention in Leipzig this year. Children can leave their parents in the so-called "parents' paradise" where they get comprehensive information and advice on the subjects of computer games, media competence and youth protection, while the children are trying out all new developments of the game sector presented on the fair.

The Independent Data Protection Centre of Schleswig-Holstein (ULD) in Germany is currently dealing with a further security-relevant aspect of computer games. In their opinion, many gamers are not aware of the privacy risks they run by revealing their personal data when participating in a game. The ULD will therefore carry out a survey asking the gamers about their interest in data protection. The responses will be the basis for developing solutions considering the interests of all involved. Recommendations for developers and providers of online games shall help to observe the criteria already during the development process.

Computer games are part of today's youth culture. Handling this phenomenon appropriately, at the same time meeting the demand of parents and pedagogues for youth protection, is a big challenge because adults neither have the experience of gaming nor the media competence required for assessing the risks. Few adults can play the role of a trusted friend and advisor when it concerns computer games, a role which they certainly still play in other spheres of life. Therefore the so-called peer group becomes more important, which is helpful for the young people. But the loss of competence of the adults in one sector must not lead to a loss of acceptance in general; therefore educators must be ready to seriously deal with computer gaming and to acquire the required media competence, if so, together with the children and young people.

Available on the website since August 27, 2008