Combat Game Meets German Resistance

Times Staff Writer

Pushing across the Iraqi desert, a U.S. strike force of tanks and fighter jets assaults Baghdad. It is met by stiff resistance from armored forces and, most perilously, Scud missiles loaded with anthrax.

This isn't the news. It's a computer game from Electronic Arts Inc., which is waging a diplomatic battle with German authorities who recently deemed "Command & Conquer: Generals" unfit for children.

The designation -- usually reserved for pornography and Third Reich movies -- means EA can't advertise the game on German television. Nor can retailers display it on store shelves in that country; copies have to be kept out of view behind the counter. Buyers, who must be over 17, have to ask for it by name.

That amounts to an assault on the game's sales, given that the Redwood City company gets one-quarter to one-third of its revenue from Europe. So EA is appealing the ruling, arguing that it is a victim of the geopolitical discord between the U.S., which launched a war against Iraq, and Germany, which bitterly opposes it.

"Just because you're a prominent member of the [U.N.] Security Council doesn't mean you get veto rights on video games," said EA spokesman Jeff Brown.

Michael Wolff, the press officer at the German consulate in Los Angeles, said EA is way off target. Wolff said Germans have become very sensitive to violence since last April, when a masked gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Erfurt, Germany, before committing suicide.

"You have to see this in the light of a very tragic shooting," he said. "The murderer was a video game fanatic."

The EA game has been the top seller in the U.S. since it was released in February. But the German Ministry for Family and Youth said in a Feb. 28 statement that the game uses "realistic events and propagates that the only solution" for global conflict is war. The department's minister, Renate Schmidt, cited the game's "mass destruction against defenseless humans" as "fundamentally distasteful" in its decision to rate the game as inappropriate for kids.

Though war games have been around for decades, today's powerful computers allow for increasingly realistic graphics. "Command & Conquer: Generals" is the first in the 8-year-old franchise to have features like 3-D soldiers who cast shadows and tanks that stir up dust clouds as they plow through the desert.

"Games are only going to get more photorealistic," said Geoff Keighley, an editor for the game news Web site GameSpot. "So this is a tension all games companies will eventually have to deal with."

Stefan Kloo, a German engineer living in Los Angeles, appreciates the tension but agrees with Berlin.

"The game's basic premise of war as a solution to any conflict is inherently discomforting," said Kloo, 38, a father of two young boys. "I wouldn't allow my kids to play with it."

On the other hand, Kloo added, diplomacy isn't as fun for gamers, "at least not as much as blowing stuff up. That's the tragedy of it."

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