A key question confronted the European Union last week: Should grown men and women who get their kicks by pretending to shoot one another with toy weapons have the freedom to do so?
German authorities, and now the EU's highest tribunal, think the answer to that question is no. On Oct. 14, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice upheld a ban on the Bonn "Laserdrome", where participants simulated killing each other with lasers.
The court said nothing about whether the lasers can actually inflict physical pain. Instead, it found that the game operated by the Bonn-based company, Omega Spielhallen-und-Automatenaufstellungs-GmbH, is an affront to human dignity.
"The prohibition on the commercial exploitation of games involving the simulation of acts of violence against persons, in particular the representation of acts of homicide, corresponds to the level of protection of human dignity which the national constitution seeks to guarantee" in Germany, reads the seven-page judgment.
Why such a fuss over what amounts to a very big video game? Even before Omega opened the "Laserdrome: - a Dr. Evil-sounding invention, complete with quotation fingers- in August 1994, there were public protests. Early that year, Bonn police asked Omega for a precise description of the planned activity, and warned that it would issue a ban in case of a game that simulated killing. Omega responded that the game merely involved hitting fixed sensory tags installed in the firing corridors.
In mid-September of that year, Bonn police issued an order against Omega forbidding it from allowing or tolerating games that involved firing on human targets. The order, accompanied by a 10,000-deutsche mark fine for each game played thereafter, was based on the argument that such activities trivialize violence and contravene fundamental values prevailing in public opinion.
Omega then appealed the order all the way up to the Federal Administrative Court. Among other things, it argued that the ban contravened its freedom to provide services under EU law because the Laserdrome was using equipment and technology supplied by British company Pulsar.
Valid as that argument was, the EU's highest court sided with German authorities - noting that in this case one country (Germany) was justified in imposing restrictions on a company from another member state (Great Britain) by overriding reasons relating to the public interest.
While the court lays down good arguments for ruling the way it did, one has to wonder what the real harm is in allowing such role-playing games when the vast majority of the films shown on the big screen also glorify violence. I suppose one could argue that people thankfully don't role-play along with these films while in the movie theater. Still, this ruling sets a dangerous precedent.
If one were to follow the court's logic, then governments could also prohibit children from playing with water pistols or G.I. Joe dolls -- or for that matter could ban even privately organized murder mystery dinners, in which at least one character is "killed" and everyone else has to guess whodunit.
It's also not as if the lasers do any real physical harm. It's not even as "dangerous" as paintball, a popular game in the U.S. in which participants shoot water-soluble gobs of paint at their opponents. Paintball isn't without its risks - if you get "shot" at from up close, or don't properly protect your eyes and ears, you can end up in a serious amount of pain. But those who willingly play these games know the risks going in. Often these games are organized by companies - and why should people be deprived of the pleasure of "shooting" an unpleasant co-worker or superior if those everyone is willing to go along?
It is also conceivable that if this happened anywhere but Germany, which justifiably is keen to thwart all behavior that even simulates violence and recalls the nightmare of its troubled past, the game probably would not have raised an eyebrow.
Interestingly, the decision came out on a day on which the European Commission announced it was pursuing legal action against Greece for prohibiting the installation and operation of electronic, electromechanical and electronic games in all public and private places.
Under the Greek rule, you can't even play with a Game Boy or a game of "snakes" on your mobile phone. EU regulators are now taking Greece to the Court of Justice, arguing that the law goes too far in banning all games "not, in themselves, a source of particular disquiet" and that by taking this measure the Greeks are blocking imports from other states.
Perhaps Greece will argue that the move is justified to preserve the public order and ensure that children and adults don't squander precious brain cells by playing games all day, but let's hope the court is more rational than in the now-famous Omega case.
In other words, the court should adopt a laser-faire approach. Allowing role-playing games or Game Boys doesn't disturb the public order, but restricting people's right to act like imbeciles certainly does.