Shoot first, ask questions later
The choice of enemy in a videogame is always a political decision. And it always reflects society’s contemporary fears. For a long time it was perfectly acceptable, of course, to gun down thousands of vaguely Middle Eastern brown people in the tentpole games of the military-entertainment complex, because the ‘ war on terror’ had convinced us that such people were inherently bad and deserved to be shot in the face. Then, for a while, it was Russians, because everyone was having a moment of Cold War nostalgia and humming ‘99 Red Balloons’ gently to themselves. But gradually a majority consensus seemed to take hold that demonising actually existing cultural groups in videogames and representing them as nothing more than cannon fodder was, y’know, bad?
Hence, perhaps, the glorious resurgence of the zombie game over the past decadeand-a-half. Nothing to be done with zombies. You can’t reason with them; they’re already dead; they just need to be shot so they stay dead. And, crucially, there is no politically vocal constituency of zombies around in the real world to complain about their belittling portrayal. So the zombie (along with the alien) is the perfect enemy, being politically neutral (which is not to say that such games are not very often, even most of the time, political allegories).
The same has long been true, of course, of Nazis. Historical villains of pretty much the only war of the 20th century that everyone can agree was a just war, Nazis have always made excellent videogame enemies. You get the righteous thrill of virtually participating in an exciting moral enterprise (defeating Nazis); you get the camp thrill of all those associations with classic second-world-war movies; and – let’s admit it – Nazis, in those Hugo Boss uniforms, look pretty cool. So no one has ever complained about Nazis being portrayed as the enemy in videogames. Until now, that is. The latest game to promote itself as a way to pretend to kill Nazis has attracted complaints from actual Nazis. What a world!
To be fair, the developers were deliberately trolling the Nazis. The Twitter account of Wolfenstein II encouraged players to “Make America Nazi-Free Again”, accompanied by a video of masked Nazis marching through US streets, with the words ‘Not My America’ superimposed. This, it turned out, really upset some people. It was “a hysterical leftist power fantasy”, said one. Another claimed that there are “more black power/panther racists in American [sic] than Nazis”. Another advised Bethesda to make a statement clarifying that they didn’t “hate Trump or freedom”. (In what universe a game about ridding America of Nazis could be a game about hating freedom was, perhaps blessedly, left unexplained.) And one dude whined: “Can you at least TRY to be subtle with your BS propaganda?” So here we are, in a place where saying Nazis are bad is ‘propaganda’, because apparently there are people who sincerely think Nazis are good.
Of course, there’s an argument to be had about whether we should call the far-right activists who feel so emboldened by Trump’s victory actual ‘Nazis’. After all, this portrays them as a foreign element that has somehow infiltrated America, rather than an inherently American phenomenon: the Ku Klux Klan began in the 19th century, and American thinking on racist eugenics actually inspired the Nazis themselves. Mind you, when people complain about a videogame that says Nazis are bad, it is mighty tempting to infer that they really do identify as Nazis, the poor little vulnerable things.
One might ask, to deploy the alt-right’s own language, when exactly did Nazis become such snowflakes, capable of having their feelings hurt by a fantasy videogame? But that, I think, would be the wrong approach. This online kerfuffle may seem politically depressing, but what it really proves is the power of culture and art to challenge worldviews. If people didn’t care how they were represented in videogames, as they clearly do care how they are represented in films and books, then it would show that electronic entertainment was not taken as seriously. On the other hand, when a game about how it is a good idea to kill Nazis so they don’t take over America causes a real controversy among people who secretly think that America really should be taken over by Nazis, then we know that games have power. And if they have power, they can be a force for good. Now, where’s my controller?
When exactly did Nazis become such snowflakes, capable of having their feelings hurt by a videogame?