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Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (German Voluntary Monitoring Organisation of Entertainment Software) or USK, is Germany's software rating organization.
Software can receive one of the following ratings:
The rating for specific games may refer to localised 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 received no rating at all (and may therefore only be sold to adults). The German, "USK 16" version features no headshots, and is less gory, as well as having some weapons or their special effects removed. Additionally, civilians do not drop money when being killed and some missions are missing. Grand Theft Auto 4 however, has not been edited and received an "USK 18" rating.
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 ambience 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.
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.
Censoring and blacklisting
Until 2003 it was still possible for USK-rated games to be blacklisted in Germany, but as of 2003, USK-rated entertainment software can not be put on the so-called Index anymore. Games with a USK 18 rating are not necessarily uncut, due to distributors striving for a rating. An unrated game may be released and sold until further notice, but is forbidden to be sold to minors below 18 years old, even if it is clearly targeted at children. The USK can reject a rating if they find parts of it to be unlawful, glorify war or show suffering people in violation of human dignity. Then the BPjM can test whether to put the game on the Index or not. Microsoft, for instance, chose not to sell any games that the USK rejected a rating for in Germany at all, as was the case with Dead Rising, Ninja Gaiden 2 and Gears of War to avoid public disapproval.
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, replacing it with the symbol of the 3rd Reich's Army, a version of the Iron Cross. On the other hand, it is 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.