To give people guidance on what they're buying, most video games are given content ratings, labels largely based on the amount of featured sex, violence and bad language. How those ratings are reached by the various organisations around the world that make those decisions, however, is a black box; explanations are rarely made public. But a game publisher recently took VICE Gaming behind the scenes of the complex process, after it was told its game couldn't be sold in Germany.
When games are brought from one country to another, they often undergo what's called "localisation". This can involve basic changes, like language translation, to more complex alterations, such as modifying sexual images to adhere to cultural norms. The latter has been a touchy subject in recent years, especially for hardcore fans of Japanese games. Some prefer games are brought over untouched, as close to the original as possible. When that's not possible, game publishers like NIS America will publish in-depth explanations about the changes, while other companies, like Nintendo, refuse to offer up any rationale at all through official channels. Making the situation even more complicated is that these cultural fights are often over whether it's appropriate for a game to portray young, often seemingly prepubescent, women in a sexual context.
Germany's video game ratings board, the USK (the German abbreviation for Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body), proudly boasts on its website that it has "the strictest statutory rules in the world for the classification and sale of computer games". Last week, the board stood by that mantra, as it refused to provide a rating for the erotic dungeon crawler Criminal Girls 2: Party Favors, arguing the game features "content severely harmful to minors".
Criminal Girls 2 is a pretty standard Japanese dungeon crawler, with one glaring difference: to grant your party new powers, you "punish" them via sadomasochistic mini-games. Knowing full well that its game featured racy material, the game's publisher, NIS America, in advance of submitting it to various international ratings boards, decided to alter the artwork to make it less revealing, rename the "punishment" system to "motivation," remove the listed ages of some very youthful-looking characters, and erase specific lines of dialogue that could suggest the relationship between the player and the women wasn't always consensual. For a small company like NIS America, making changes before the game is presented to a ratings board means it can budget its resources appropriately. If the ratings board demands changes after it's submitted, that means more time and money has to be spent making them.
You can watch an example of the changes in this video from YouTube channel Censored Gaming, which regularly highlights alterations made to games when localised:
This is common for a certain subset of Japanese games, especially ones featuring what appear to be underage or near-underage women dressed sexually. The changes are sometimes made to appease ratings boards, while other times, it's to respect differing cultural norms. In the West, issues like gender representation and the over-sexualisation of women have become hot-button topics, but for fans seeking an experience perfectly in line with the original Japanese release, these changes are seen as censorship.
NIS America announced the change in a blog post last Friday, revealing the company lost an appeal with the USK. "This is an unfortunate blow to the game, and for fans of the series," the company said, "and means that the title will not be advertised or sold at retail in Germany."
This is where the story usually ends. The ratings board makes its decision, the publisher has to live with it, and life goes on. It's unusual for the public to gain a better understanding of exactly what made the ratings board, whether it's the USK or otherwise, uncomfortable with a game.
Fortunately, NIS America was willing to walk me through what happened with Criminal Girls 2. For reference, NIS America passed on the explanation it received from the USK, including excerpts that it had translated. (The actual letter from the USK is entirely in German.)
What makes the rejection slightly unusual is that even though the original Criminal Girls features very similar content, it was released in Germany without incident. Something specific to Criminal Girls 2 must have set the USK off.
The USK argued Criminal Girls 2 depicted "minors in unnatural and sexually explicit poses". The board was specific in explaining why it felt Criminal Girls 2 was a step too far:
"This rule governs a growing number of images which fall below the threshold of child and teenage pornography, but promotes child pornography behavior. Such images are harmful to children and teenagers, as they give the impression that sexual contact between adults and minors is normal and incite curiosity in children. It is not necessary for the images to be real images. Realistic virtual images of boys and girls who appear to be less than 18 years old are sufficient to be an offense. [...] Furthermore, in this respect it is not required for the minor to be shown naked or partially clothed, if the body posture or pose itself (e. g. spread legs) may cause the unnatural sexual emphasis."
It's true that Criminal Girls 2 often depicts female characters, some of whom look exceptionally young, in positions that are extremely suggestive, even if they remain clothed. Though NIS America can only speculate, the company said it's possible the sequel's tweaked art style, depicting more realistic proportions for the women, may have played a factor. Additionally, players take a more active role in the "punishment" or "motivation" phases in the sequel.
The USK seemed to focus on one character in particular: Mizuki, a girl described by the game's fan-run wiki as "an energetic hard worker who appears to be very young". Here's what Mizuki looks like, highlighted in a lineup with the other characters featured in Criminal Girls 2.
Though Mizuki's age isn't made explicit, the USK thought the imagery was evidence enough:
"The female character 'Mizuki,' for example, is clearly a minor, as evidenced by her childlike figure and her facial expressions. The story (school girl) and the voice are child-like and give the realistic impression of a very young schoolgirl. The other characters in the game are distorted with overlarge breasts, as is typical for Manga, but still the overall impression is that these are minors. In other words, it is not obvious that they can be seen as adults."
The USK called out the game for reducing humans to "mere sex objects" and asserted that media aimed at younger audiences must be careful to not "contradict the requirement for mutual consideration and respect for the right to bodily integrity in others". Criminal Girls 2 didn't meet this standard, according to the USK, and said the game didn't make a consensual relationship between the player and the girls explicit. Instead, it said, the game promotes a "link between sexuality and violence", which was "regarded as extremely problematic by the review panel".
When this ruling came down, NIS America had two weeks to file a written appeal. The USK is then tasked with reevaluating the game with this information in mind. Game publishers are allowed to have a company representative present, but NIS America did not send anyone. Despite the appeal, the USK stuck by its decision to deny the game a rating. Without a rating, both digital and physical retail outlets won't touch the game; they can be fined for selling it.
In the United States, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is responsible for issuing game ratings, as is PEGI in the UK (alongside the BBFC), but NIS America told me ratings organisations are all pretty similar.
"Ratings boards for the most part are similar and act under the same principles," said a NIS America spokesperson. "They also all consider things like language, sex, violence, gambling, and drugs, but each board weighs the categories slightly differently. Some boards look for specific issues while others consider issues more generally (PEGI has a 'discrimination' ratings descriptor, USK is particularly sensitive to Nazism, etc). Because ratings descriptors (what ratings boards will be keeping an eye out for) are similar across ratings boards, ratings are relatively predictable with the exception of a few surprises here and there."
The ESRB hasn't yet issued a rating for Criminal Girls 2. The last game was M for Mature, classifying it as suitable only for players aged 17 and upwards.
Despite Germany pushing back on Criminal Girls 2, the system it's available on, Sony's PlayStation Vita, is region free, so players can import and play the game from elsewhere. Unless they decide to buy the Japanese version, however, those versions will feature alterations, just as the original game did.