The Real Hitler Problem

Strategy 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.

Goodfellow 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?

Take 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.

When 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?

One 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.