As it is currently being reported in many German news outlets, the Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien, “BPjM”) has (upon application) opened proceedings to blacklist the mobile game Coin Master for its in-game monetization model which is allegedly targeted towards minors and would involve gambling-like elements. The game came under scrutiny in the wake of several adverse news articles in well-known German magazines and newspapers for its in-game monetization model, which relies on virtual currency and randomized elements. On October 10, 2019, the famous German satirist Jan Böhmermann dedicated a 22 min part of his TV show (hosted by a popular public TV channel) to the game, outlining in a comedic way and in great detail the monetization model, the advertisement strategy and the people behind developer Moon Active. The show ended with an appeal by Jan Böhmermann to competent authorities to lodge an application with the BPjM to blacklist Coin Master. Böhmernann’s appeal was successful as several applications to blacklist the game were lodged with the BPjM in the following days. This short article outlines the procedure and the impact a blacklisting decision would have on the video games industry. The last section includes recommendations.
I. The BPjM blacklisting procedure
Upon application by a competent authority, the BPjM is obliged to open proceedings to investigate whether certain media (games, films, websites etc.) are harmful to minors. In preliminary proceedings, the BPjM will then first investigate whether the application is generally admissible. For example, some blacklisting procedures were terminated by the BPjM during the preliminary proceeding because the video game had received a USK classification (in which case the game cannot be blacklisted anymore).
Once the preliminary procedure has ended, the BPjM decides whether the case will be handled by the so called simplified or standard procedure. The simplified procedure means that the game will be reviewed by a three-person committee while the standard procedure means a review by a twelve-person committee. Complicated cases and cases where no settled BPjM practice exist are typically handled by the twelve-person committee. In the case of Coin Master, the game will almost certainly be reviewed by the twelve-person committee, since this is the first time the BPjM has received an application to blacklist a video game based on its monetization model. The twelve-person committee is a so called pluralistic committee which consists of different members of the public who represent different social groups (e.g. publishing industry, churches, music industry, art, teachers etc.). This way, BPjM decisions are supposed to ensure that they represent the moral values of the public. The game will be presented by a game tester to the twelve-person committee during an oral hearing. In order for the game to be blacklisted, 2/3 of the twelve-person committee must vote in favor of a ban.
The copyright owner or the owner of the use rights of the game will typically be contacted by the BPjM regarding the procedure and are requested to lodge written arguments in the German language outlining their point of view. Furthermore, the copyright owner or owner of the use rights has the right to participate in the oral hearing where the game is presented to the twelve-person committee and/or send a representative on their behalf. In particular in relation to video games, participation in the oral hearing is strongly recommended. This way, companies have the opportunity to emphasize other aspects/content of the game which might relativize other, more critically perceived content and present it to the committee (e.g. violent content can be relativized by unreal content such as a sci-fi or post-apocalyptic setting of the game).
II. View of the BPjM
During the height of the loot box debate, the BPjM (like many regulators) received several complains on loot boxes and eventually issued a public statement on the matter. The statement was rather vague. The BPjM acknowledged that unlike other video games that are typically blacklisted, loot boxes (and other randomized in-game elements) would not concern the content of the game (such as violent elements) but only its monetization model which has never been subject to any BPjM decision. However, the BPjM also declared that it generally has the power to establish a new settled practice, provided it would receive an application to launch proceedings.
III. Impact of a potential blacklisting decision for the games and mobile games industry
Blacklisted media may not be publicly distributed and advertised anymore. App stores and platform providers will therefore typically stop the distribution of the blacklisted game in Germany. Violations of this regulation constitute a criminal offence and are punishable with imprisonment of up to a year.
However, in case Coin Master would indeed get blacklisted by the BPjM, the consequence would reach beyond the implications for Coin Master alone for different reasons:
a. Classic USK ratings
So far, the German age-rating board USK has (like the most global age-rating boards) not considered monetization models when determining classic age-ratings (via a manual review) for video games. Thus, games which have been criticized by gamers and the media for their monetization models are typically rated with low ratings in Germany provided they do not include any traditional content which is considered as having an impact on the development of children (e.g. violent content; thus, the widely discussed NBA2K has been rated "0" by the USK). However, the USK is not allowed to classify media which is harmful to minors within the meaning of Sec. 18 (1) sentence 1 Youth Protection Act. In this regard, the USK is legally obliged to consider and comply with the (federal level) decisions of the BPjM, which is the highest authority when it comes to determining what constitutes media harmful to minors. Thus, provided Coin Master would be blacklisted, the USK would have to consider the case and arguments set out by the BPjM for future classification decisions for games that are monetized similarly as Coin Master (provided of course such a game would be reviewed by means of the classical, manual review process).
b. IARC ratings by the USK
The USK is also the responsible body for automatically generated IARC ratings in Germany. These ratings are, for instance, applied on the Google Play Store upon completion of a questionnaire by the game publisher. For IARC ratings, the USK also has to consider the decisions and arguments set out by the BPjM. Provided Coin Master would be blacklisted, the USK would have to reconsider its internal IARC rules which might result in higher IARC ratings, or even rating refusal decisions (depending on the exact findings of the BPjM).
c. Precendent BPjM decision
Moreover, a blacklisting decision for Coin Master would serve as a de facto precedent case for the BPjM. This would very likely result in further applications to blacklist other games with similar monetization models which will then also have to be reviewed by the BPjM. While every blacklisting decision is a case-by-case decision, the BPjM typically applies its established and settled practice to other cases as well. Thus, other games with similar monetization models would become subject to a (significantly) increased risk of being blacklisted as well. This again would then mean that the USK would have to increasingly consider the BPjM practice in relation to its classification procedure.
While it is currently in no way predictable how the BPjM will decide on the matter, publishers and developers of mobiles games with similar monetization models such as Coin Master should consider precautionary measures. The BPjM procedure will take a few weeks/months (2 to 5 months). Publishers can consider applying for a traditional USK classification via the standard USK procedure (i.e. manual review). Once a game is classified by the USK, it cannot be blacklisted anymore. So far, the USK is not considering monetization models when determining the classification of a video game via its classic rating process. It should be noted in this regard that USK IARC ratings (e.g. obtained when the game is released via the Google Play Store) do not constitute a traditional USK rating and therefore offer no protection against blacklisting decisions. Thus, companies which have only obtained a USK rating through IARC should still apply for a traditional rating.