“Funny, I don’t *feel* like a Nazi!” – or – Playing As The Enemy
This little side list of enemies is not so little, and not so black and white. Go back far enough and you’re battling Mesopotamian cultures (Civilization series), but the more recent conflicts tend to get a lot more attention. The American Revolution to day has only had one really big recent exposure to the public (Assassin’s Creed III), and the American Civil War gets quite a few nods throughout FPS and strategic RTS games (Ultimate General: Gettysburg being among, if not, the best representation). Go forwards just another few decades and you’ve got The Great War: World War I. Verdun is easily the best WWI game I’ve ever enjoyed, but I have finally taken us to this articles real meat and potatoes: World War II.
Wars throughout history have always has different reasons for being waged…land, religion, principle, birthright…but World War II has a special kind of romance that the gaming public really picks up on. It felt like a battle of Good vs Evil: a beaten down but resilient sect of Germans split off and formed the National Socialist Party, intent on first liberating Germany of it’s perceived oppressors, and finally liberating the world. By the time Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into the conflict people all over the world were wary of this Adolf Hitler’s goals, his methods, and his message. The Allied war machine brought together forces from all over the world with the single goal of beating back the Nazi menace and saving the world. After WWII there wasn’t another war that the North American public totally agreed on, WWII was bloody and awful, but it also unified the country pretty solidly against a common foe: The Nazis.
Enter video games. Glorifying and simulating war for a long time now, video games can take us back to worlds long gone and give us a sort of butcher’s look at what the fighting might have been like. There have been games that featured Nazis before, but videos games also walk a fine line…they don’t want to ACTUALLY glorify or represent the sentiment of the Nazis if they can avoid it. Lots of games (and other media) create alternative Nazis for their stories: There’s Hydra in the Marvel Universe, a splinter sect of the Nazis. There’s General Morden in the Metal Slug series who’s “X” symbol, military dress and ranks of helmeted ne’er-do-wells strongly resemble an amalgam of Nazi iconography and Saddam Hussein. Players have no need to fear a swastika, a sieg heil, or a Holocaust oven-room scenario…because these are CLEARLY not Nazis! No way, no sir!
Some games actually do go the full Monty and give you those plucky anti-semites as enemies. The Call of Duty historical branch of games does this to great effect, and may other WWII shooters and RTS games involve them as well. The fantastic FPS game Day of Defeat goes one step to the left by calling them the Wehrmacht, and many modern games will outright refuse to call them Nazis directly, or show their iconography in game. For the most part Nazis, like aliens and cyborgs and zombies before them, are cannon fodder. They aren’t there for us to understand or comprehend any further than “They are trying to kill you,” and that’s enough for most games to get by. There’s no pressing need for a player to experience what it was like to live daily life in Nazi Germany, or to make decisions regarding their mission. Certain art games and more emotionally exploratory games might give it a shot, but in the mainstream Nazis exist for one reason only: to be the enemy and to be killed.
The game I want to explore in this article specifically is World War II Online: Battleground Europe. In this (absolutely stellar, if a bit rough around the edges) game there are no “matches” like we are used to, and the main campaign takes about a month to complete, real time, for all players. By campaign I mean players take on roles from High Command all the way down to the lowly Rifleman, and attempt to secure towns, supply lines, bases, cities, and more across a GIANT section of north-central continental Europe. The game is incredibly well managed and reported on by both players and devs, and the tide of the conflict can chance drastically in just a day thanks to good coordination, communication, and teamwork for the respective factions. The feeling of spending an hour or two liberating/defending a town, then reading the missives the next day explaining the attack order YOU participated in, is very elating.
When I play this game, I typically only play as the Nazi forces. This is not because I am in any way associated with their ideal, beliefs, or otherwise. This is a pure game play decision, one players make all the time. Red or Blue team? Space Marines or Aliens? It’s almost binary, since it’s typically implied the sides are equal in their ability to compete and “win” whatever match is at hand. But in Battleground Europe, it’s not always even. Before too long one side will clearly start to win as the enemy forces lose supply lines, get cut off from their forward bases, and work around a dynamic and moving front to stem the tides of war. The first time I played I chose the Nazi faction solely because they were in need of players to defend, and I wanted to do something that I felt would challenge me. The Allied forces almost always have full rosters of players…why were less people playing the Nazis?
After some investigating I learned a lot of players switch to the winning side closer to the end of a campaign, meaning it’d be harder and harder for the Nazis towards the end of a losing war. Personally this only made me want to play them more. The idea of being the play-maker, or otherwise helping out the effort to stop what seems like a slam dunk victory was very attractive to me. I wanted to be on the side fighting uphill, and that meant being a Nazi. Simple decision.
After playing the game for a week or two now, I wanted to write down my thoughts about playing as “the enemy”. When I get on Teamspeak in the game to coordinate, I hear voices that are from England, South Carolina, Canada, Australia, Boston, and more all grouping together, developing strategy, and focusing on the objective of taking Europe. There’s very little historical humor or controversy shared among the players, no jabs at Jews or genocide, and no talk of anyone named Hitler. The game is purely a game, a proper military simulation for the players and they treat it as such. The reason so many other games avoid using real iconography is to avoid a situation where the players make light of the real world situations that these games are attempting to emulate. But they players of mil-sims like Battleground Europe are respectful and knowledgeable. They know the crux of the argument is “It’s just a game”. Focusing on being a Nazi is absolutely not the point here, nor is it to gain a deeper appreciation of what it was like to be a Nazi. The National Socialist Party is a political movement, this is a game about war. War may be the result of politics, but for the soldiers on the ground the focus is less on the money and the ideology, and more on making it through the day alive.
I sat at my computer the other day reading a missive from the night before. My attempts to help defend and capture French towns was really successful, and we managed to cut off the Allied advance of the front (a Hail Mary of a play, since the front was collapsing all over). I felt great about that, and not because the Axis had beaten the Allies, but because my team beat their team. Even if it was only for a little bit. However, the Allies had just been resupplied by the addition of the Americans to the Western Front, so things were going to get very hot very fast. The game follows a rough calendar of actual WWII events to make things more interesting, so if the Americans show up at this point in the war, then here they are!
So if you’re designing games, or playing games, take heart this lesson: Don’t shy away from historical images of war just because they offend the present culture. We’ve come a long way, still with a long way to go, but hiding and bleaching historical simulations of all presumably offensive material is flat out wrong. The communities appreciating these combat experiences if far more focused on the game play than the politics. And will that desensitize them? Will we forget the horrors of war and just have fun instead? Hell no. We have a deep reverence for the source material, as gamers and as amateur historians. The discussions are objective, the extra material is informative. By focusing itself, and its players, on the game play, the combat, and the setting, games like Battleground Europe, War Thunder, World of Warships and more can move away from the sensationalism that got games like Call of Duty in hot water for “glorifying” the horrors of war. If we still believe images from the past can hurt our present, or somehow change it, we’re not building up enough culture as we go. The horrific histories (and presents) we’re living through can be valuable tools not just for teaching maneuvers and attack orders, but for encouraging players everywhere to broaden their knowledge of what the tools were like, what the situation was like back then, and to come to a deeper understanding of the science of war itself.