In this first entry to a new editorial column on this site, I will be looking at the recent controversy surrounding the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.
So what has gotten people so riled up about this latest entry in the long running series? Since the game is set in an alternate history of 1960s America that seems very much like a more violent, pulpy version of Man in the High Castle, naturally this is going to raise some eyebrows considering the current political climate. Even more so since the official marketing material uses phrases such as “Make America Nazi Free Again” that makes the game seem like it will be some overtly political, hamfisted commentary on current events. The developers of the game, Machine Games, have stated that they don’t intend for the game to be a commentary on current events and, considering the nature of modern game development for large titles, I believe them. However, that won’t stop audience reception, particularly from the left or just mainstream American politics in general from interpreting it through the lens of Trump’s presidency, Charlotesville, Pepe the Frog and brown shirt hysteria. It is definitely a controversial marketing slogan, but it has successfully generated enormous amounts of extra buzz for the game.
But what wasn’t expected was blowback. A significant amount of people on the net, on internet forums, anonymous message boards, twitter and so on have reacted negatively to this campaign. A line from the coverage of this at A.V Club simultaneously explains the situation and irritates me:
“It’s a weird day-and-age we’re living in right now, where “Nazis are bad” has become an actual political stance, as opposed to a bit of basic, obvious wisdom.”
The reason this irritates me is because of it’s almost Francis Fukuyama level of misinformed arrogance. The belief that being opposed to a particular political ideology is somehow not a kind of political position is absurd. The belief that it’s just obvious that nazis are supposed to bad is pure ideology and stems from years of atrocity propaganda, school systems, soviet and hollywood films and so on. Those who share the opinion of William Hughes of AV Club need to re evaluate, as arguing that nazis being bad is self evident is the opinion of the brainwashed. The opinion of the lead voice actors of the game in response to the same controversy mimic the same arrogance. Additionally, Hughes claim that the anti-nazi marketing is “shockingly brazen” or brave somehow is laughable, considering being anti nazi is among one of the safest political statements to make publicly in the current year, next to support of homosexual marriage.
Fun activity for my readers: approach any person you know, or a stranger, and criticise the party line on national socialism and the Nuremberg myths and watch as they recoil and call you brain washed. But I digress.
The ride doesn’t stop here, however. Pete Hines, who is the guy in charge of PR at Bethesda, responded to the controversy. He said:
“Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about. We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here. It’s disturbing that Wolfenstein can be considered a controversial political statement at all.”
There are a few things going on here. The notion that the Wolfenstein series has always been explicitly anti Nazi in any expressly political fashion is shaky at best. Sure, it has always involved shooting nazis since Wolfenstein 3D, but the context of that game was so simplistic that is was simply about being trapped in a castle and shooting your way out. And if the series was ever expressly political, I must have missed it in between the skeleton warriors, robo dogs, mecha hitlers and dual wielding sniper rifles. However, the political aspects of these games have, up until relatively recently, tended to be in how audiences have engaged with the games. Look at your typical coverage for games in this series, outside the recent controversy, or WW2 games in general and you will often see statements to the effect of how awesome it is to kill nazis, sometimes on the basis of the enemies simply being nazis, to body counts and how the games provide a fully guilt free killing experience. Commenting on the “nazis being bad” and necessarily un-American part would be mostly repeating myself or straying too far from the topic, but I would add that Pete Hines should brush up on his history, particularly the German-American Bund, George Lincoln Rockwell and also how the eugenics movement was first pioneered by early 20th century progressives in the United States.
To go back to audience engagement. My simple theory is that while these games, at least up until recently, have had little in the way of explicitly political content, the political character comes through via the player. How this works is that a substantive amount of players, when going into playing a game series like Wolfenstein, bring their own beliefs and prejudices to the experience, which allows for the fully guilt free aspect to hold. What this effectively does is create a feedback loop: player believes nazis are evil, they then play a game where you kill nazis who are positioned as antagonists, which then in typical video game form provides the player with enjoyment that in these cases might feed back into the initial belief held prior to engaging with the game. All this can only functionThis is all a very schematic explanation of course, but I think it is potentially useful.
Since the game isn’t out yet, nor have I played any kind of demo or preview build, there is not too much else to talk about for the moment. However, the last thing I will say, in defence of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is that aspects of the backlash are misguided, especially the opinion that the game is necessarily going to be shit because of the politicised marketing campaign. In fact, in all likelihood, the game is likely to be quite good on the whole, considering Wolfenstein: The New Order was a fantastic shooter that also had a great soundtrack and amazing visuals and artistry. Although the story was quite bad when it jumped the shark at magical jewish concrete that was completely baffling and in the precarious position of being between hilarious and cringe worthy. But the rest of it is mostly good. My speculation is that stating the game will be shit because of this marketing is just signalling from people trying to impress their internet friends. In any case, the game is not out yet and I don’t know when I will get around to playing it. Hopefully, the game will be good and all this politicised marketing that suggests reading the game in relation to current events will just be marketing. But Bethesda have opened the box and can’t close it and shouldn’t be offended or surprised when there is such blowback from the alt right.