Oh boy, controversy about Nazis again!
This time, it’s even better than the usual, because it’s collided with video game controversy too. The ultimate combination.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, the sequel to the critically acclaimed reboot of the eponymous series, is mostly about killing Nazis. Specifically, killing Nazis in an alternate timeline where Germany won the war and even took over the good ol’ USA.
Now, the SS is strolling about with KKK members (probably discussing some way to start an Acronym’d Racists club), bullying the populace and drinking our god-damned milkshakes. BJ Blazkowicz, the hero, isn’t too happy about that.
Big gruff white guy goes about killing Nazis. Hardly new ground broken here.
However, the recent controversy has been a lot less about the game, and a lot more about the marketing of the game. Specifically, about the use of the strapline “Make America Nazi-Free Again”.
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 5, 2017
This is a pretty obvious play on Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. As a result, some people have inferred that the publishers of Wolfenstein, Bethesda Softworks, are implying Trump is a literal Nazi—that went down about as well as you can imagine.
way to make it political, not buyin
— rick (@ckhttp) October 5, 2017
Twitter drama aside, this situation has raised an age-old question in the video game community: should we somehow ‘remove’ politics from video games? Are games allowed to be political?
Is it even possible for them not to be?
Why are people trying to remove politics in video games?
People want politics out of video games for a wide variety of reasons.
In the Wolfenstein example, people have taken offence more at the way the game has been marketed, rather than the actual content of the title. Killin’ Nazis, after all, has been around in gaming since… well, the original Wolfenstein.
However, there have been a number of times where the game itself has been the target of the complaints. Spore, for example, was critiqued for implying a kind of creationist viewpoint of life in its mechanics—some saw that as a political point, and wanted to keep that as far away from their entertainment as possible.
“As far away from their entertainment as possible”. For people of this perspective, games are just that: entertainment. Imagine if you were watching your favourite low-involvement TV show; the kind of thing you don’t really need to pay attention to, but just enjoy being able to switch off and watch after a long day.
Now imagine right in the middle of that, the character suddenly started espousing the benefits of [the opposite of your political beliefs here].
It wouldn’t just be surprising. It would be antagonising. You aren’t watching, or playing, to deal with political ideas that may require you to confront your own views. You just want to think about nothing for a little while.
It wouldn’t just be surprising. It would be antagonising.
If the political views espoused were ones you agreed with, that might not be such a big problem. In fact, you’ll find that most games do express political views (more on that later), but they just match up with what the majority of us are thinking, so we don’t see them as political—rather, it’s just “how the world works”.
But during those moments when the ideas described are not your own beliefs, you suddenly are confronted with views that contradict your own, immediately kicking your psychological self-preservation into overdrive. Who wants to reflect on their deeply held beliefs when they just wanted to kick back and relax with a video game? How dare the developers make you feel this way?
Keep the politics out of your games, dammit!
This is not an unreasonable perspective to have. People play video games for a wide variety of reasons: entertainment is almost certainly the most common one.
But the problem is that by demanding that politics be stripped out of video games, you are making two big mistakes:
- That politics can be removed in the first place.
- That it would be beneficial to the medium if it was depoliticised.
All media is political
Explicitly or implicitly, every medium, video games included, is political.
Think of your favourite movie. Let’s say it’s Pacific Rim, because you have excellent taste and you love rocket punches almost as much as I do.
You might think that this title isn’t political, but you’d be wrong. The Kaiju, the violence, the inherent nationalism of the Jaegers; it’s all implicitly political, simply through the subject matter it is dealing with. It espouses certain ideas (such as the idea of creating “our own monsters” i.e. the Jaegers to fight the Kaiju) and we accept them as just part of the plot.
We just don’t notice these ideas because they tend to be ones that we agree with on a wide scale; baseline views that we think of as just ‘normal’. Kaijus = bad, Nazis = bad, killing Kaijus and Nazis = normal.
Explicitly or implicitly, every medium, video games included, is political.
Games are the same way, even down to the mechanics. Consider strategy games, for example. They tend to be based around domination victories, success being defined as crushing the enemy via military might, reaching a certain level of technology that paints you as superior to your rivals, or gathering so many resources that you become unstoppable.
They are, almost exclusively, all about dominating your rivals. There are very few strategy games where the goal isn’t about killing, capturing, convincing or otherwise removing other players from the game. That’s political; it’s imperialist.
You don’t notice because it’s just how strategy games work.
This is why it’s impossible to remove politics from games; they are built into the bedrock of media. From the way that you win to the very content of the game, you can’t escape implicit politics.
The ‘real’ debate is about how on-the-nose those political views are, and whether that detracts from the game experience.
If a game bashes you in the face with its ideas and stops you from exploring those ideas yourself in a meaningful way, you are seeing no real benefit to their inclusion.
Strip away politics, and you strip away the impact
That is the crux of the matter, really. The question of “are video games allowed to be political” could be rephrased to include any kind of trait. Are they ‘allowed’ to have specific mechanics? Are they ‘allowed’ to be online only? Are they ‘allowed’ to only include pixelated graphics?
The answer to all these questions is yes, but only if they actually add to the experience of the game. The same goes for politics.
Politics are what make a game impactful. We’ve already said that trying to strip away politics in gaming in general is an exercise in futility—politics are baked into the medium itself—but even if we could, we’d just make the games bland.
Politics in games confront you. They make you reconsider, rethink, or even defend your views.
Politics in games confront you. They make you reconsider, rethink, or even defend your views. They force you to see new perspectives on existing problems, or encounter new problems you otherwise may never have discovered.
Video games let you experience things that you never would have been able to do otherwise—or perhaps in some cases would never have chosen to experience.
Think of a game like Spec Ops: The Line, which deals very explicitly with the ideas of nationalism, mental illness and the futility of war—all intensely political ideas. By including them, the game changed from an otherwise bland shooter into one of the most talked-about and impactful games of all time.
Meanwhile, the notorious White Phosphorous section intentionally made players uncomfortable—forcing them to deal with the consequences of their in-game progress, something that (ironically) other shooters might gloss over to avoid the potential political fallout.
Are video games allowed to be political?
The new controversy around the marketing of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus has got a few people up in arms about the implication of certain marketing materials. Now, the argument has broadened to include the question of whether video games should be political in marketing or in their content.
I’m hoping that I’ve shown you why removing politics from a medium like video games isn’t just impossible, but would be a terrible idea even if we could do it.
Removing politics from a medium like video games isn’t just impossible, but would be a terrible idea even if we could do it.
Politics in video games may not always be welcome, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It makes you confront your own beliefs, develop new ideas and start discussions; feeling angry about the politics in a game isn’t a bad thing—it’s a part of making both the medium and the audience more mature.
The fact is, if you want games to be taken seriously, you can’t simply hand-wave their politics away. They are an intrinsic part of the system; and for damn good reasons too.
Strip away politics, and you strip away the impact of your favourite games.