There has been some controversy lately concerning a video game titled "Bernd und das Rätsel um Unteralterbach". Some days ago, a friend of mine proposed packaging it for Debian on the "debian-devel-games" mailing list. This was met with a discussion on the nature of the game, and how the Debian project as represented by its policies and decision-making groups should deal with it. This discussion expanded into several other lists ("debian-project", "debian-women", "debian-legal"). It was generally agreed upon that the game is of a highly controversial nature (I'll write more about that a few paragraphs later). The chances of it entering official Debian repositories are small. The discussion on the Debian mailing lists remained mostly civil. On Twitter a load of verbal abuse was directed at some of its participants, especially the initiator. He alleges that the hoster of the game at http://unteralterbach.net was further harassed in some ways. The website describing the game and providing download links has since gone offline, presumably as a consequence of this.
I'm a bit dissatisfied with this situation. Not so much with Debian not packaging it, but mostly with the website having (hopefully only temporarily) disappeared, and some parts of the discussion about the game.
I have explored the game for many hours and consider it an interesting and valuable political commentary and piece of art. I therefore think that it should remain easily accessible to everyone, as should be the general case with artistic expression and knowledge. (This does not mean that I would be willing to host it. Some legal questions would have to be sorted out first.) I don't want to see the accessibility of such a work be reduced by legal and/or social harassment against those who are willing to host it. I abhor such mechanisms in general. But I understand that for many people the (il-)legitimacy of such harassment hinges on the evaluation of the work which it aims at. Therefore, I want to provide some more data/commentary/evaluation on this specific game, as one more reference point for potential future debates on its distribution or suppression. (It is not my intention to influence the Debian project's debate on including the game into its official repositories. I trust that the Debian people know best what's good for Debian.)
"Bernd und das Rätsel um Unteralterbach" (which roughly translates as "Bernd and the Mystery of Underage Creek") appeared on http//unteralterbach.net/ in late 2013. The game is in German. It is of the Visual Novel genre, with some Eroge elements. The website named a few pseudonyms as the authors, with someone called "Anne Frank" as the main force.
You play a character named Bernd who is pressured by the German unemployment office to take a job in the Bavarian town of Unteralterbach, in a government office supposedly responsible for organizing the Oktoberfest. You quickly find out that this is only the facade to a secret police venture for hunting child pornographers, headed by a parody of German chief police commissioner Jörg Ziercke. Some of your new colleagues, though, seem less interested in taking down child pornography than in consuming and enjoying it under the cover of their job. Other stuff is also strange about your new environment. Most other inhabitants of Unteralterbach that you meet seem to be in a constant moral panic concerning the innocence of their children. In contrast, a group of little girls follows you around who seem to be highly interested and knowledgeable in matters of sexuality. Your character considers them victims of child abuse and tries to investigate. There is also a close-by castle inhabited by thinly-veiled parodies of the von Guttenberg family. During the course of the game, you find out conspiracies and counter-conspiracies involving these and other parodies of German politicians, political activists and show business people. Your game decisions determine further story developments. The longer story-paths involve
a supernatural turn of events, with a demonic parody of conservative German politican Ursula von der Leyen as the main antagonist. These longer paths also involve lots of sex with all kinds of female game characters, notably including the children.
The last sentence should make the controversial nature of the game obvious. Large parts of it deal with topics of pedophilia, child pornography, sex between adults and children, and the politics surrounding all of these. Some parts of the game, namely the sex-with-children scenes, might easily be labeled pedophile erotica or pornography (depending on the definition of the terms). Such content is not necessarily illegal, as the sex depicted is fictional and happens between cartoon characters: Different national laws treat this area differently, with harsher laws usually reserved for records of the abuse of real children. The game can be won without watching any sex-with-children scenes, since their display must first be turned on manually as a game option. Playing through the game takes many, many hours, of which the sex scenes on the whole (i.e. adding the non-pedophile sex scenes to the calculation) can only take up a few minutes at most.
Traditionally, debates on the permissibility of such erotic/pornographic elements try to evaluate them in the context of the work that contains them. Is the work as a whole of value beyond the erotic elements? Do the erotic elements serve a higher purpose than the consumer's sexual excitement? In my opinion, erotic and pornographic content does not necessarily need such excuses to be permissible: Using artistic expression to communicate with the human libido is no lesser cause than using artistic expression to communicate ideas of religion, politics or philosophy. I do acknowledge though that there is a common view of pornography as harmful. And I do acknowledge that art does not necessarily excuse harm done to people. I will not discuss here the controversies over the potential harmfulness of pornography, or even of virtual child pornography (that by definition does not directly hurt any children), beyond this point: I understand that a defense of the "Unteralterbach" game might be stronger if it explains some merits of the game beyond its sex-with-children scenes.
So let's enter the "is it art?" debate. "Unteralterbach" certainly is "art" in some sense: It features lots of highly-skilled creative work. The characters are well drawn (especially the caricatures of politicians, etc.). The 3D backgrounds look realistic. The score features a great variety of music styles; an album of it was available for download on the game website separately from the game, and I really enjoy listening to it. The story, as farcically as it may sound in the description above, feels as if lots of thought and fine-tuning has gone into its details. The inner monologues of the protagonist, and his dialogues with other characters, are diverse and voluminous and might fill up a small book if printed out. They contain much playfulness, and imbue the characters with much psychology. They're witty in ways that not everyone may appreciate, but that certainly work for some target audience (to be delineated below); they are extremely rich in allusions and full of political and cultural commentary. To sum it up: Technically, the game is very good, and certainly artful. It seems to be the result of years of hard work.
But does all this technical quality and hard work do more than provide a very artful (and voluminous) frame to offensive porn scenes? Does it expound any ideas or questions or commentaries of intelligence, beauty or relevance? Well, I think so. I find it hard to imagine some pedophile playing hours upon hours through the game and its bizarre storylines just to find the path to the first drawing of a naked child. There must be easier ways to find fapping material on the Internet. There's just too much other content that engages the player. Is that content intellectually, politically or morally worthwhile? That depends on the player's preferences. The satire and the allusions certainly engaged many of my own interests productively. To me, the game felt like a wild trip through the memes and controversies of German internet politics as performed on forums like Netzpolitik.org and the yearly "Freedom not Fear" protests. It obviously focuses on the protagonists of the "Netzsperren" debate of 2009-2010 (like the Guttenbergs, von der Leyen, Jörg Tauss etc.) revolving around internet censorship as a tool against child porn. In this context, the sex-with-children scenes within the game appear as deliberate political provocations. At least one of them actually involves dialogue with terms like "net neutrality" as sexual metaphors.
(Note that just a few weeks ago, German politics provided the game plot with new satirical relevancy. Jörg Ziercke, one of the game's parody targets, was accused of his parody's very behavior in the game: Covering up his own employee's child porn collecting.)
Apart from the political satire, "Unteralterbach" is rife with allusions to German imageboard memes and sociologies, namely those of Krautchan. The "Bernd" protagonist is an obvious personalization of Krautchan's user collective (in which each male user is called "Bernd"). I consider "Unteralterbach" an important artifact for the understanding of such internet cultures. It crystallizes many of the psychologies, morals and aesthetic methods that ephemerally pop up here and there in this scene into a lasting and round piece of expression. Such pieces should be thoroughly studied, referenced and compared. A lot of this culture may seem trivial or abhorrent to outsiders, as a mere collection of toilet humour, juvenile provocation, sexist and racist offensiveness. But I think a closer examination reveals many original and quite complex aesthetic and political practises. (The initiator of the Debian packaging proposal for "Unteralterbach" and I may be biased in this view: We wrote a whole O'Reilly book together on internet meme culture, a big chunk of which dealt with Krautchan.)
As a crystallization of imageboard culture, the game offers a view into imageboard-specific politics of pedophilia. As a medium of ephemeral and anonymous publication, lots of highly controversial issues pop up disproportionally in imageboards. Pedophilia is one such issue that the affected rarely are willing to discuss in any other public forum, maybe for fear of their life. In places such as 4chan or Krautchan, a sometimes uneasy acceptance of pedophilia as a sexual inclination seems to have emerged. It is symbolized by memes like the popular Pedobear, that has actually become a mainstream imageboard culture mascot (and is, of course, alluded to by the design of one important character in "Unteralterbach"). "Proper" (photographic) child pornography is banned on imageboards such as 4chan or Krautchan, but "virtual" child pornography and other grey areas such as child modelling pictures are quite prevalent. (For some discussion of the prevalence of pedophile material on 4chan's /b/, see: Christian Heller, "GUROchan: Imageboard Perversion and the Reinvention of Bodies" in: "Of Intercourse and Intracourse: Sexuality, Biomodification and the Techno-Social Sphere", Re/Search Publications 2012.) Nevertheless, the environment is not unequivocally pedophilia-friendly. Imageboard user collectives such as 4chan's "Anonymous" have been known to lure child groomers into traps or hack child porn sites to expose potential or real child abusers to the public or the authorities. Threads of pedophile erotica are sabotaged by spamming them with pictures of penis mutilations or other material commonly experienced as repulsive. Much pedophile material may simply be posted for its shock value, as is the case with other offensive content on imageboards.
"Unteralterbach" mirrors this ambiguous openness towards pedophilia as okayish, or as legitimate fodder for trolling. The game may have a pro-pedophilia agenda. But if it does, it drowns in absurdity. In the winning path, the protagonist initially wants to protect children from pedophiles, and hunt down the latter. He gradually changes his mind until he considers sex with children a holy crusade to save Earth from demonic forces that can only be stopped by, and therefore want to eradicate, pedophilia. After each sex-with-children scene, elaborate abstract hallucinations pop up in his field of view. This path can be read as an obvious descent of the protagonist into madness. His introspections on this path are full of growingly bizarre explanations and justifications for his increasing sexualization of children: He has been poisoned by them with substances that temporarily change his desires. They want it. They rape him, against his will. They demand sex from him, for it releases energy against the forces from Hell. The only agenda I can read into this is doubtfulness towards pedophiles' narratives about the willingness of children to have sexual relations with them.
To sum it up: I think there's a lot of interesting stuff in this artfully made game. It's far more than just pedophile fapping material. It may serve as such, but it does so without the abuse of real children. "Unteralterbach" provokes and titillates on different levels, some vulgar, some sophisticated. It reminds me of nowadays well-respected movie classics in the continuum between exploitation, art and political cinema -- such as Pasolini's "Salo", the works of Russ Meyer, or of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. To the degree that the game's content and politics are problematic, I'd rather see it analyzed and criticized thoroughly than harassed into invisibility.
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