Gaming & Politics 1: Nazis

Posted on October 16, 2017

Video games and politics often intersect, giving rise to debates and controversy. This new column explores some of these issues as they arise.

For our first entry in this series I’ve selected one of my favourite ever franchises, Wolfenstein. Quick history: Wolfenstein 3D was one of the very first (1992) 3D first person shooters (in the era of Doom and Quake), and followed the adventure of American silver BJ Blaskowicz as he sought vengeance against the villains of World War II. The major reboot, Wolfenstein: The New Order was released to critical and fan acclaim in 2014 because much like the recent Doom reboot it remains true to the spirit of the original, including undeniably adult levels of action and violence against the game’s antagonists.

The sequel Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is due for release in late October, and has courted significant controversy in the United States due to its new setting in the US. This new entry deploys the game’s alternative-history world building to represent a Nazi regime victorious in World War II having taken over the United States. In a recent promo, Bethesda tweeted ‘Make America Nazi-free again’, prompting Twitter complaints of craven marketing and politicising the game for commercial ends. Some commentators have refused to buy the game, while Bethesda and many outlets have argued that Nazis are, in fact, bad, and killing over 3,000 of them in a fictional world is hard to complain about. (This debate is widespread enough that it has been covered in outlets such as Forbes, The Verge, The Mercury News, Rolling Stone, and Business Insider Australia.)

So what is the problem; why the controversy? Well, there are a couple of things going on. Some have taken the reference to a dominant fascist regime in the United States quite literally, as a commentary on the current administration. This is likely to raise significant ire amongst those who support the current US administration and dislike it being likened to the institution that committed one of the worst genocides in recent history. (For a fuller depiction of this position, click here.)

More specifically, one Twitter user commented on how this buys into a ‘leftist power fantasy'; another noted ‘way to make it political; not buying’ and another has said ‘Didn’t know Bethesda teamed with SJWs and ANTIFA!’ Of course, it is easy to note that the game is a fiction (It’s just a game! It’s only make-believe!), but this misses the point. The commentary does seem to be drawing parallels between the game and real life, and the objection here seems to be about the use of a current political situation for marketing purposes.

More broadly, we have often seen the objection that video games ‘are about as stridently an apolitical medium as you could hope to find’, and explicit political statements like this ad campaign seems to sully a once-pure space where video games are all about fun and fantasy. We saw a similar debate when I was growing up, and some were arguing that cricket should not be used as a platform for extending the widespread boycott against apartheid South Africa; and we see the same arguments every four years about the Olympics. So it’s not about Nazis or marketing; it’s actually about whether we believe that video games are a space where politics does (or should) reside, whether it’s a place for those debates and issues or whether it should somehow remain pure and untouched by the dirt and mess of the real (political) world.

Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to separate video games and politics. Games are part of the world, and the world is politics. Games are created by sometimes huge teams of people who are diverse (or not); they are played by people of all ages, genders, colours, sexualities, and levels of abilities (or not), and just like films they present narratives that intersect with the real world in sometimes very complex ways (or not). All of these give rise to political questions, and rather than just trying to deny the validity of these questions, we might try to address them.

So rather than just complain about #NoMoreNazis, let’s look at our political institutions and consider whether they really have seen the kind of democratic erosion that is characteristic of a totalitarian state. Are we seeing the kind of widespread bigotry and prejudice that we thought we have eliminated in the 1940s? Why is a power fantasy game about eliminating prejudice so appealing to players and what are they worried about in the world they live in? In these ways, video games are not only highly relevant to political concerns, they can help give us insight into some of the main currents and flows of perspective.

Denying the relevance of games to the real world certainly isn’t very helpful.

– Chad Habel


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