The Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle system (abbreviated USK) is the video game rating system used in Germany.
Software is either classified into one of five ratings, or refused classification. The five ratings are listed below.
The rating for specific games may refer to localized versions, in which some elements of the game are changed in order to achieve a lower rating, or to ensure that the game may be legally sold at all. For example, the German version of Grand Theft Auto (since part three) has been edited in various parts, while the US-version of Grand Theft Auto received no rating at all (and may therefore only be sold to adults). The German, "USK 16" version features no head-shots, and is less gory, as well as having some weapons or their special effects removed. Additionally, civilians don't drop money when being killed and some missions are missing.
This is a very common practice, especially for games that would usually receive a "USK 18" rating. A potential problem of this "self-censorship" is that the original ambiance of a game may get lost. In some cases, the whole plot of a game had to be changed to qualify for a lower USK rating.
All (Without Restriction)
Games with this rating are deemed appropriate for all ages and may be sold without restriction. There are no restrictions on the basis of the Jugendschutzgesetz on the sale of this game. The suitability for children, however, only relates to violent or sexual content - the difficulty or complexity of the game may still be unsuited to younger children.
Restricted for those below the age of 6
Games with this rating may be unsuitable for children under the age of 6. Games with this rating may be of an abstract or comical nature, may have a darker theme or may be too involving for children under the age of 6.
Restricted for those below the age of 12
Games with this rating may be unsuitable for children under the age of 12. Games with this rating may place a focus on wars or fighting of some description. The fighting should be in a historical or science fiction context and the violence should be kept to a minimum
Restricted for those below the age of 16
Games with this rating may be unsuitable for children under the age of 16. Games featuring frequent one-on-one gunfights and moderate violence will receive this rating. The game may cover adult themes.
Restricted for those below the age of 18
Games that are refused classification are referred to the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien (Federal Verification Office for Youth-Endangering Media) and can be placed on the Index (a process known in German as Indizierung), upon which the titles may only be sold on request to adults over the age of 18, and are not to be advertised in retail stores or other media. It is permitted to use these titles in private but not to supply them to minors.
Banning and Censoring
Games with a USK 18 rating or those placed on the index are not necessarily uncut, although as a general rule they are, with a number of exceptions. It is still possible for games to be banned in Germany—as is the case with titles such as Manhunt (violence) and the English version of Return to Castle Wolfenstein (Nazi symbolism), which are not even available "under the counter" per the Index.
As of 2003, entertainment software sold in Germany does not have to be USK-rated but without the rating it is automatically forbidden to be sold to minors below 18 years old. Microsoft, for instance, chose not to sell Gears of War in Germany as the USK rejected to give it an official rating, which means the same as the rating 18+ but also gives the BPjM the right to test whether to put the game on the Index or not—which they did shortly after.
The ban on endorsing Nazism or displaying swastikas outside of a historical context applies to all titles. To avoid legal issues, many developers remove the reference to swastikas altogether, although the symbol of the 3rd Reich' s Army is still permitted. It is also permitted to feature a function in which one can assume the role of the German army in World War II as in games such as Sudden Strike and Axis and Allies, although this is a subject of controversy.