So there’s a long-standing criticism in Game Studies about the way that modern first person shooters depict foreigners. Basically it’s shit. What’s interesting about something like Wolfenstein is that it’s basically reproducing all the same processes, but targeting them at Nazis, which is… better? Let’s chat about that scene where Blazkowicz drowns a Nazi in a toilet bowl.
So here’s the basic criticism of those modern first person shooters. They take a complex political topic and just reduce it down to really simple binaries. I touched briefly on the idea in an earlier article over here – didn’t spend heaps of time on it, but you can get the basic idea. You, the hero, play an American or British soldier, and you run around shooting all the evil Arabs. Your companions get characterisation and plot development and lines of dialogue, and the evil foreigners get half a dozen generic enemy skins, so you’re getting shot at by two or three dudes who look literally exactly the same. In a way, the Arabic enemies are being dehumanized – they’re being reduced to faceless identical clones, rather than real people.
And there’s never any discussion of what you’re doing in the Middle East or wherever either. There’s a lot of negative things to say about America’s interventionist policies in the Middle East, and they all kinda get airbrushed over in your modern military shooter. It’s not a genre that’s concerned with high-level political conversations. Oh – I’m just describing kinda the classic characterisation of the modern military shooter, by the way. I think the games themselves are more nuanced and complicated than that – in Modern Warfare 2, for instance, the villain turns out to be an American commander who wants more money for the war, so he sets up atrocities and so on to make people outraged and get lots of funding. That’s kinda interesting – but we’re not going into it right now.
The point is still that modern military shooters on the whole support this kind of neo-imperial American military intervention policy. They also tend to reduce Arabs (or sometimes Russians) to a pack of evil automatons for you to gun away at. The AC-130 level in Modern Warfare has been especially criticised, because that’s basically what actual footage looks like when you’re bombing shit from a drone or whatever. By making the game seem like real life and real life seem more like a game, the gap between actual drone strikes and Modern Warfare begins to shrink. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here, I really don’t want to overblow this whole situation. But at the same time, we know that soldiers sometimes use game controllers to control their actual military weapons. And we know that some drone operators describe their work as similar to playing video games. And we also know that many of these modern military shooters are funded directly by the Pentagon for use in military training. When those video games also have a really clear political message, the cry of neo-imperial war hawk propaganda stops seeming so outrageous.
Anyway, so that’s a whole thing. Enter Wolfenstein: The New Order, which replaces Arabs and ISIS or whatever with Nazis. There’s a few interesting things to say here – first of all, Wolfenstein is pretty structurally similar to something like Modern Warfare, at least in terms of how your enemies are represented. The Nazi enemies are a handful of character models repeated a bunch of times. Many of them have their faces covered, which is a way of making them seem less human. There’s not really a lot of discussion about whether or not killing Nazis is the moral thing to do – we’ll touch on that idea again when we come to Wolfenstein 2, but just for now put it in your pocket. Violence is cool, Nazis are bad, killing Nazis is dope as hell. That’s the message of the game.
Now, if you don’t like violent games in and of themselves, Wolfenstein isn’t going to be much of an advance over Modern Warfare. But if you’re fine with violent games, Wolfenstein is interesting because you don’t have to feel bad about the people you’re killing. When I’m running around in the Middle East shooting Arabic soldiers or whatever, I’m always a little conscious that it’s basically propaganda for American foreign policy and it’s oversimplifying the political discourse and contributing to the already widespread dehumanization and disrespect to Muslim populations. But in Wolfenstein – I mean fuck those Nazis. There’s a kind of childish glee in that game, a real joy that’s taken in running around killing Nazis. It doesn’t feel as morally awkward as something like Modern Warfare. You’re essentially let off the leash. ContraPoints actually talks about this a bit in her video on violence – basically makes the argument that people like violence in media as long as they can feel that it’s morally justified. Nobody feels bad for Nazis. I want to revisit this point with reference to Wolfenstein 2 and its really clear parallels to the neo-Nazi movement in the States with Richard Spencer etc, but it’s not happening until we get to Wolfenstein 2. Be patient, darlings.
So in summary, Wolfenstein: The New Order is probably just as dehumanizing as Modern Warfare or whatever, but it’s about killing Nazis instead of Muslims, so for me as someone who’s anti-Nazi and also conscious of the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, Wolfenstein is more fun to play. The scene where you drown a Nazi in a toilet is pretty gross, but it’s also a form of release. You get shown Nazis doing all these bad things, and then – fuck ’em! Time for payback. Gratuitous violence against the oppressor is presented as a form of emotional release. That’s a bit grim when you put it like that, but, well, that’s sort of what’s going on here.
One final note. It’s quite possible for some people to watch the scene where you drown a Nazi in a toilet and find it more disturbing than gratifying. There’s nothing wrong with being disturbed – fuck, I remember when I started watching Tarintino movies, I couldn’t get past the guy in Inglorious getting beaten to death with a baseball bat. Nah, I thought, fuck that shit. Coming back to the movie later in life, I can see how it’s kinda gratuitous and could potentially even be satisfying for some viewers, but it still – it just makes me a bit uncomfortable. There’s more to say on violence, and we’ll get there, but for now I think I’m happy with that basic comparison between Modern Warfare and Wolfenstein.