Court backs violent games in landmark ruling

MediaMarkt had limited the sale of the game to customers over the age of 18

A Swiss court has for the first time ruled on the sale of violent video games, saying the game Stranglehold was not sufficiently violent to be banned.

This content was published on June 10, 2008 - 08:21

Monday's decision by a district court in Bern was a victory for the MediaMarkt chain of electronics stores, which had stocked the so-called "shooter game" released by Chicago-based Midway Games.

In its ruling, the court found that the game – in which players take on the character of an Asian crime boss with a mission of "bloody revenge", according to the game's website – was not cruel or vivid enough to be illegal.

Roland Näf, a politician with the centre-left Social Democratic Party, had brought the complaint against the manager of a MediaMarkt store in Bern. Näf claimed that violent games such as Stranglehold violated Article 135 of Switzerland's criminal code.

The court rejected that argument.

"The game seems more like a fantasy and not real events," the judge said in the ruling.

MediaMarkt had limited the sale of the game to customers over the age of 18, although access to the game was widespread among 14 year olds, according to a report in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.

Demeaning, gratuitous, ambiguous

Article 135 prohibits demeaning or gratuitous media that do not serve a scientific or cultural purpose, but its ambiguous wording makes it difficult to apply to Stranglehold, in which players are tasked with mowing down their opponents in a virtual world.

The Social Democrats on Monday admitted that Article 135 was weak, and that the ruling had come as expected. "Now we know that the federal government must act," the cantonal branch of the party said in a statement.

Allan Guggenbühl, a child and youth psychologist and professor at Zurich University, says that most children are capable of differentiating between a game and real life.

"The vast majority of children can actually distinguish between virtual reality and their own lives," he told swissinfo. "For them, it doesn't really have any negative influences."

Media and video game studies have yet to establish a link between shooter games and the real thing. Guggenbühl says a "small minority" might become disturbed.

The psychologist, who has in the past accused politicians of using children as political pawns, says that blaming games for the rise in violence among the country's youth is an easy way out for what he calls an over-anxious society.

He says the attempt to legislate violence out of video games make little sense.

"Hypocritical"

"That's clearly hypocritical. That's clearly unformed," he said. "We don't allow children to be fascinated by violence. But the fascination with violence is something which is paramount in our society."

Adults, he says, "participate in a ritual where they on a daily basis expose themselves to horrid scenes" – particularly in the news media. It is natural for children to want the same, he said. They just do it "more playfully".

Reading books and playing outdoors has gone out of fashion for many of today's youngsters, he says, and believes that schools inadequately sensitise children to contemporary media.

Swiss children on average spend five hours each week playing video games, according to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung report. It was a SFr420 million ($410 million) business in 2007, up 40 per cent on the previous year.

This was more than Swiss spent in cinemas during the same period.

Guggenbühl encourages parents to become familiar with the games their children are playing. He urges parents to consider how long their children spend playing video game and set limits.

"It's actually a question of how much time they spend," he said, as opposed to the subject matter of a game or a television programme. He is encouraging parents to enforce restrictions, discuss games with their children and to even play with them from time to time.

swissinfo, Justin Häne

Rating system

The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) system is a voluntary game-rating system.

The organisation says its rating system was developed in consultation with parties including consumers, parents and religious groups.

It rates games into the following categories:
3+
7+
12+
16+
18+

Ratings are based on language, depictions of discrimination, drug use, level of fear, gambling, sex and violence.

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Allan Guggenbühl

Allan Guggenbühl heads the department for group psychotherapy for children and youth at Bern's Cantonal Education Counselling office, and the Institute for Conflict Management and Mythodrama (IKM) in Bern and Zurich.

He lectures at the various Swiss colleges, and is the author of numerous books and articles.

Although he believes violent video games to be harmless, he says games that incite political or racial hatred should be prohibited.

He also says video games will eventually become "more ritualised, more integrated" and that one day, children will lose their fascination with them, return to playing outside and perhaps even read books.

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