The Real Hitler Problem

mecha-hitlerStrategy gaming blogger Troy Goodfellow links and comments on an article talking about a subject that often comes up in gaming, especially the strategy variety – how do you tell the story of the Greatest Generation without, well, its antithesis?

The point is made specifically in reference to Total War, which ironically, already deals with the Crusades, which has one or two parallels with certain latter-day events already.

When it comes to gaming, some pussy-footing around the subject of Hitler is actually a legal requirement – at least if you want to sell your game in Hitler’s adopted homeland. Modern Germany, which is a very, very different place from the Third Reich, has some pretty strict laws about the depiction of Nazi propaganda – which although from a libertarian stance may be theoretically objectionable, is entirely understandable given German history. From a gaming standpoint, this means that games set in World War 2 actually take place in an alternate history where Germany is run by the Kaiser, or his Prussian spiritual descendants, with the safer Iron Cross standing in for the objectionable swastika.

hitler_popGoodfellow mentions this history, and I’ve written in the past both about overwrought gaming journalists decrying politically incorrect gaming subjects and the equally idiotic tendency of some mouth-breather members of the wargaming community to make a fetish of the German war machine. And ‘Poisoned Sponge”s article correctly notes the fallacy of a sterilized history in a “historical game”:

So the game has been arguably neutered to appease the PC (bad kind, not good kind) brigade, and will perhaps be lesser for it. I’m sure shooting huge lumps of metal at wooden boats will keep me interested, though. The point is, slavery is still very much an issue for a good deal of people in the world, mostly visible through the rampant racism still very much a part of many people’s lives. So it has been removed, in favour of keeping everyone happy. The problems with a Total War game held in the 20th or 21st Century is that instead of one political mine, there are dozens. Maybe hundreds.

The problem, though, that everyone seems to be dancing around: what, exactly, is *wrong* with depicting evil in gaming? Is it always a forbidden zone, to depict the other side of the coin, for a primitive fear that it might send a “message” that racist genocide is acceptable?

columbine-rpgTake the example of Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Everyone knows the story of Columbine, and like everyone else at the time I posted an overwrought essay in shock exhorting everyone to take off their black trenchcoat and be excellent to one another. The author of SCMRPG had a signally better idea – he tried to make sense of it by exploring the motives and thoughts of the perpetrators and people surrounding them through a prism he was familiar with: a 1980’s era console RPG.

The mass media response was scathing. “A subculture that worships terrorists.” “A monstrosity.” “One of the worst games of all time.” And my favorite: “Exploitative”. This, from a media that usually sees little if anything wrong with an entire genre of music devoted to caricaturing urban black youth as hormone-driven thugs, or an entire genre of film devoted to ensuring that women who decide to have sex are punished with violent and cruel death. Exploitation is OK, it seems, if you don’t have anything to say.

And the same is true of gaming. It’s OK to deal with the age of colonization if you don’t depict slavery. It’s fine to depict World War Two if you purge it of the very Nazi symbology that helped make it such a horrible singularity of evil.  It’s OK to make games about the Iraq war if they’re set anywhere besides Iraq. And so on.

There are parallels in other media, of course. MASH was set in the Korean war because a TV comedy set in Vietnam wasn’t acceptable in the 1970s. But the accepted insistence that all history must be scrubbed and made kid-safe is not only in my mind unnecessary, it’s dangerous.

schindlers_list_06When Schindler’s List was released to theatres, it was the first time that many people had seen a graphic depiction of the Holocaust. And some teenagers laughed during screenings. Not only was their education so criminally deficient that the concept of Germans burning a race of people to ash was new to them, but they saw it as a well-made slasher movie.  Now of course, the great majority of people know what the Holocaust is, and the great majority of people who watched Schindler’s List teared up at the appropriate moments. But – do the reaction of the idiotic few mean that Schindler’s List should never have been made? Was there a danger that people would sympathize with Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of an SS officer? Was there even a serious discussion that this might be an issue?

Of course not, but the response might be that games, inherently interactive, have a greater responsibility not to play slasher movie tricks and ask the gamer to take the mind of the Evil. Which is also a fallacy. We have no problem making first-person shooters where players can commit their own little genocides. Although America’s Army magically ensures that players are always on the Good Guys Team, most shooters, such as Battlefield 2, have no problem allowing players to take the ‘role’ of the Chinese or the Middle Eastern Generic Bad Guy Coalition. And most role playing games let you make some quite evil choices, indeed.  Are strategy games different because they are more serious?

peace25One game that helps answer that question is a bit more relevant of late than usual. Peacemaker, which I reviewed on its merits as a game earlier, is a ‘serious game’ that allows you to take the role of an Israeli prime minister or a fictionally technocratic Palestinian government. Its strength isn’t as a classic strategy game, but as a teaching tool that educates its player about the stark choices and consequences facing either side.

Yet here again, we see the backing from the abyss of “objectionable content”. Peacemaker was released in 2007, when Fatah was fighting with Hamas over control of the Palestinian Authority (a battle they would lose, first at the ballot box, then later reinforced at gunpoint). The Palestinian player does not take the role of either Fatah or its Hamas rivals, but a ‘third way’ government that seeks to make Palestine a safer, better place. It’s a nice, Western-leaning, comfortable role. And it’s utterly at odds with the reality of Palestinian politics, where ‘moderates’ poll in the single digits.

Perhaps it was thought that Western players would not sympathize with a Palestinian government that sent suicide bombers off to die. But the game was released not only for the Western market, but also translated into Hebrew and Arabic. The makers had the worthy goal of educating each side how the other side lived. And they got Israel’s dilemmas mostly right – the eternal balance between the iron glove of security smashing all it encounters and the loose embrace of those who want to kill you. But the Palestinian side is mostly wrong. You win by investing in infrastructure and flooding the streets with troops to stop Hamas and Fatah from attacking Israel, at which point Israel says “Ok, we’ll give you everything you want.” But this isn’t accurate at all. Israel doesn’t want to give Palestine everything it wants, even if Palestinians embrace peace, and Hamas and Fatah won’t be stopped by police – they ARE the police. The goal of education here fails because of a desire to make the message safer.

Messages aren’t always safe. They shouldn’t always be safe. And as long as we shy away from the unsafe messages to make serious points, such as the horrors of World War 2 (be it German ethnic annihilation, Soviet slave labor, or Allied terror bombing) or the alien-to-us motives of Islamic fundamentalists, we will continue to be defined as the industry where the best we can come up with are thugs and orcs.

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24 Responses to The Real Hitler Problem

  1. Raad says:

    I say we spoon each other. Who’s with me?

  2. Vetarnias says:

    In the case of WWII, it always struck me as strange the amount of fascination some have for it. A few years ago, a guy I knew took part in some sort of historic reenactment society, and he had a complete Wehrmacht officer’s uniform, complete to every detail — except for the Nazi insignia, which he had removed.

    Honestly, I don’t know what bothers me more about it, that they try to de-Nazify WWII for PC tastes, or that a slaughterfest is enjoyed to such an extent from a same distance (your Civil War reenactors make me feel the same way).

    In the case of WWII & the Nazis, I think there’s always the easy cop-out of saying that apart from the SS and the Gestapo, the German fighting machine was against Hitler in the first place and was increasingly concerned about the conduct of the war, when they weren’t trying to assassinate him in the first place (latest cultural reminder: that Tom Cruise flick).

    Also, I’m reminded of “Hogan’s Heroes”; I can’t imagine who first raised the idea of setting a comedy in a German POW camp, but the show itself propagated the same idea — German Army officers (in this case mostly Luftwaffe) were compelled to obey the Nazis out of fear, and perhaps out of duty to their country. (A few of the cast were Jewish and if I remember correctly, two had even been incarcerated in concentration camps, so I’m pretty sure they must have noticed this particular emphasis before signing on.)

    So I’m wondering if for the vast majority of people playing WWII German Army officers in games, the thought isn’t going through their head that “I’m doing what I do for the Vaterland, but I’d kill that sonofabitch Hitler if I had half the chance”. Most shooters normally don’t have the depth to trigger ethical dilemmas, because everyone’s happily shooting at you or would if they could, so it’s really about self-defense anyway. End result of it: Video games as actual recruiting tools for the military (America’s Army).

    Put it as part of players’ job to kill Jews with a bullet in the back of the head and I’m sure they’d walk away disgusted, even for people who think GTA is morally fine. But I’m sure there must be real crazies out there who play Nazis for reasons I’d rather not touch with a five-foot pole (and now I’M the one being PC).

    This entry raises another question in my mind, which I’ll ask here even though it might not exactly be on-topic (and which perhaps would be better suited for another subject): You mention libertarianism, and I know that quite a few MMO players as well openly mention being libertarians. I’m wondering why that is, and whether political ideology can indeed be inserted in an MMO game by its makers.

  3. Rog says:

    One of the roadblocks of presenting uncensored portrayals in games is the way gamers (and designers) are accustomed to the carrot-and-stick of game design. Reward some actions, punish others.

    The Dark Brotherhood tangent in Oblivion is an appropriate example: It provides good quality rewards for doing ‘evil’.

    In roleplay terms (or even arguably immersion in non-RP games), the game is never fully in control of your character, that’s supposed to be up to you. But it’s this choice that the game made to reward you for the actions.

    I appreciate games that investigate the duality of human nature. I would argue because the player is at the controls, that it’s more important not to censor than compared to the one-way viewing of TV or film where the control of the content is entirely in the hands of the producers / director.

    I know they’ve been limited in scope, but this is why I appreciate the works of Peter Molyneaux, Richard Garriott and to a lesser extent even Will Wright.

  4. IainC says:

    Games are entertainment and should be held to the same standards as other forms of entertainment. Any subject that has the potential to cause offence or hurt to reasonable people should always be approached sensitively and doubly so if your primary motive in presenting it is to make money.

    There is a strong and mostly justified reaction to the perception that you are cashing in on other people’s misery (note this doesn’t apply to the press who have a strong financial motive to cash in on stoking the reaction to you cashing in on other people’s misery).

    Purity, accuracy and immersion are important to a game just as they are for films or books but then in a game, unlike in a movie, you generally aren’t being asked to explore your reaction to the characters and motivations. American History X works as a film but would be excoriated as a game.

  5. Einherjer says:

    My opinion on this issue boils down to freedom of speech. Speech here ranging from speech itself to books and, of course, video games.

    No subject is untouchable in my opinion and, provided that there are good regulation on how the product is sold and presented, people should be allowed to create (book, film, game) what they want regardless of the message’s morality.

  6. IainC says:

    With the specific exception of Nazi iconography in Germany, this isn’t a freedom of speech issue. In no way is it illegal to depict any of this stuff.

    Freedom of speech does not make you immune to criticism for offending people or missing the taste bus.

  7. Delmania says:

    Well, Scott, I have to say, this is one of those articles that has given me a lot to think about. I say that in a good way.

  8. TPRJones says:

    @IainC: IMO, too many people spend too much time being offended about shit these days. What happened in the last fifty years, did everyone turn into pussies? Back in my day, if you ran around crying about how someone offended your delicate sensabilities you’d get either laughed at or branded as a homo.

    Not to say that all the attitudes of bygone days were necessarily good, but at least people weren’t whiny little bitches all the time.

  9. J. says:

    Now you’re making me think you really do want to do a Schindler’s List video game, Scott.

  10. yunk says:

    why do you think that’s safer? Though I admit you should get to play more sides, Hamas or Fatah or a 3rd new side. I think just the opposite – it is actaully pretty brave, to show that maybe these people don’t serve the Palestinians. I’m sure that didn’t win them any friends.

    But yes, it’s a little heavy handed trying to get a message across, instead of letting players discover it thruogh simulation.

  11. Kaalinn says:

    As a german, I’d like to say a few points about this:

    – the ban on nazi iconography is mainly there as a “blanket” to avoid any neo-nazis to be able to display it in any form (like making a screenshot of a nazi flag in a game and displaying it, claiming that it’s not in fact a nazi flag, but a screenshot of a game (far-fetched example, but that’s basically what the aim is))
    – on the other hand the subject itself isnt banned at all, it is in fact very prevalent in the education of our children, and was it very much forced into them (and me back in school too) that something like this must never happen again and has to be prevented.
    – About censoring games in general: Most “censored” versions of games are censored by the publishers for a german release, not by german authoritires itself. Fallout 3 made their blood green i believe, but didnt get an age rating anyway, meaning they couldve made it as brutal as they wanted. As a rule of thumb, America will censor sex, while we will censor violence. (We go by the idea that a kid mightve seen his mothers breast at a young age, but not his fathers head been blow off)
    – Right now a generation that was born after the war and that never had anything to do with nazis is reaching the age to be in positions of political power, and make up the majority of the populace. In a way this has strengthened the resolve of many (mainly the well educated) and restored a bit of pride in the country, but slowly the older people that were there and the stories they tell vanish, making some (the less fortunate masses usually) to gravitate towards the “at least we had jobs when Hitler was in power” perspective.
    – Hogan’s Heroes was on TV as re-runs here until recently for a long time (or maybe it still is, I’m not sure) and it’s pretty funny in my opinion.
    – When I saw Schindler’s List the first time I cried, but I also felt very happy about/proud of Oskar Schindler.
    – “The Tom Cruise flick” was quite abit of controversy, and isn’t viewed here as a historic movie at all, just another action movie with a setting chosen to restore Cruise’s career, by depicting him as a lone hero fighting a crazy indoctrinated machine, much like Scientology is supposed to be.

  12. JuJutsu says:

    @TPRJones

    I can’t say much about the world 50 years ago, I was only 9 years old then. However based on your comment, I’d say the present world of ‘whiney little bitches’ is a vast improvement.

  13. Klaitu says:

    WWII has been captured so many times, both on film and later in comics and video games that I no longer find it entertaining. Entertainment media based on WWII can go suck it.

    Someone make a game about one of our other wars. Revolutionary, Civil.. Korea. Heck, WW1 or the war of 1812 would be fine with me. Bonus points to Battlefield Vietnam.

    Seriously, I want to play a Revolutionary War FPS!

  14. TPRJones says:

    @JuJutsu: Oh, yes, I agree completely, the world IS much better now in almost every way. But I sure do wish folks had thicker skin.

  15. Moorgard says:

    One of the common definitions of Art is that it’s something that makes you think.

    I don’t believe it’s unreasonable for a game developer to strive, on some level, to make people think about the implications of a particular situation. That is, not to create a blanket statement such that “behavior X is always wrong and must always be avoided,” but rather “in this particular situation behavior X is a negative choice, and here’s why.”

    Given that making mistakes is one of the ways we learn, I think letting people make “bad” choices in a video game and then showing them the implications of those choices can be a positive thing. It’s certainly better than letting them shoot up a school in real life.

    The thing is, if we attempt to stomp out all the bad thoughts and feelings before they can be explored in a controlled and thought-provoking manner, then they can only fester in dark places from where, sooner or later, something even darker will be born.

  16. JuJutsu says:

    “Given that making mistakes is one of the ways we learn, I think letting people make “bad” choices in a video game and then showing them the implications of those choices can be a positive thing.”

    Hmm. Puts the revamping of classes in MMOs in a whole new light. EQ2 could nerf the crap out of ‘assassins’ and ‘brigands’ to show them the error of their ways.

  17. J. says:

    “One of the common definitions of Art is that it’s something that makes you think.”

    Stating such a definition is a common excuse made by the creators about why their audience doesn’t enjoy the experience. “It’s art. You obviously don’t understand.”

    I see a lot of “interactive art exhibits” that seem a lot like game ideas that in implementation just aren’t any fun, but are on display anyway because the creators were just so in love with their ugly mutant children that they figure they ought to show them to the world.

  18. Viz says:

    The trouble for FPS makers is that it’s really quite difficult to make a shooter set in a historical war when all small arms were basically the same kind of rifle, or worse, when you were expected to march in a square and fire volleys at each other. WW2 ends up being “ideal” for those companies because it has a sufficient variety of combat environments and weapons to make for interesting gameplay, while being (relatively) free of the ethical greyness that plagues more modern conflicts. You can make up your own environments, of course, but then you’d actually be responsible for figuring out what kind of weapons and terrain everyone would be using and balancing them all. So the game subject has a tendency to default to WW2.

  19. Tesh says:

    The trouble with the “action-reward” mentality of games is that it doesn’t map well to evil actions. That’s why the GTA games are so popular; you dodge the repercussions of acting in evil ways. A trip to the electric chair wouldn’t be “fun”.

  20. Moorgard says:

    J. :
    Stating such a definition is a common excuse made by the creators about why their audience doesn’t enjoy the experience. “It’s art. You obviously don’t understand.”

    I can agree it would be lame to use such a response as an excuse for sucky gameplay, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

    What I was getting at was something like this: While in the midst of playing a really fun game in which you are merrily blasting the hell out of the bad guys, you are put into a situation where the bad guys were actually doing good things and hey, maybe you don’t want to wipe them out after all. And you could find yourself at a crossroads where you get to make a choice, and there are actual implications in the game based on the choice you make.

    This is a really vague example, and depending on context it can be extremely simple or pack a surprising amount of depth. Executed well, this kind of gameplay could provide a moral exploration on par with forms of storytelling more generally considered to be worthy of the label “Art.”

    I don’t think games need to be afraid of this level of sophistication, so long as it is presented in a manner that is consistent with the medium.

    That is, you don’t yank a player out of a hectic FPS to hit them over the head with morality–you make it fit the play experience. And maybe the majority of players wouldn’t even give it much thought, but that doesn’t take away from the potential of the experience for those who appreciate it.

  21. RadarTrap says:

    @Einherjer
    “No subject is untouchable in my opinion and, provided that there are good regulation on how the product is sold and presented, people should be allowed to create (book, film, game) what they want regardless of the message’s morality.”
    Try publishing something that even mentions New York’s twin towers and you’ll soon find out that there are so many whiney Americans around that your game will be pulled from shelves and your blog will fill with death threats…

    Case in point: Invaders! from Leipzig games convention. http://www.abstractmachine.net/blog/30-years-of-invasions/

  22. Trife says:

    J. :
    Now you’re making me think you really do want to do a Schindler’s List video game, Scott.

    And would you be Schindler, a jew, or the nazis? (Can fairly assume 3rd least likely of all)

  23. Trife says:

    RadarTrap :
    @Einherjer
    Try publishing something that even mentions New York’s twin towers and you’ll soon find out that there are so many whiney Americans around that your game will be pulled from shelves and your blog will fill with death threats…

    Sad, but true, considering that some people made a website protesting The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers movie based on it’s name, claiming it was capitalizing on the events. If so… damn they had good intel, 50 years in advance, the movie industry has that, but not the government. Their website is down now, but still I found this incredibly amusing back then.

  24. 0173 says:

    I guess the question to ask is: “How far is too far?”

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