When I was growing up in Israel, my grandmother, Miriam, would drive down from Tel-Aviv every other Saturday to have lunch with our family. My little brother and I were usually too busy hunched over the family computer playing our latest game to greet her at the door like any respectful grandchildren would. One Saturday she came to find us at our usual spot with Kit Kat bribes in hand to persuade us to take a short break. When that strategy failed, she tried to participate by asking us what we were playing.
“This is Wolfenstein 3D,” we answered, without lifting our eyes from the screen.
“And what do you do in Wolfenstein 3D?”
“Well …” I hesitated, “it’s a game where you kill Nazis.”
She stood there for what felt like an eternity in awkward silence, looking at the swastikas on display, listening to the sound of gunfire and the occasional soldier yelling out in German as he fell to the ground. I was young, but the strangeness of the moment didn’t elude me. Here stood a woman whose entire life was forever changed by the invasion of the German army into her native Poland, watching her grandchildren casually gunning down her former oppressors with the click of a mouse. Looking blankly at the screen, she finally muttered, “I suppose that’s OK” and left for the kitchen.
In a way, this incident allowed me to continue playing World War II-themed FPS games for years without giving them a second thought. Miriam said it was OK, and she experienced it firsthand. Who was I to disagree? So I shot the pixilated Nazis, and later, when technology allowed it, I blew them up into chunks that looked like an assortment of glazed hams. In my virtual battles across a perpetually war-torn Europe, I have probably ended the lives of more Germans than the actual Allied forces.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but a part of the enjoyment I derived from these games stemmed from a feeling that I was avenging my ancestors. Killing the minions of some monolithic and inexplicable evil has always been a staple of videogames. But for a Jewish person, when those hordes are Nazis, that’s poetic justice. At least that’s what I thought until Miriam passed away.
Soon enough, the last of the generation that witnessed World War II with their own eyes will die of old age. Holocaust memorial museums are desperate to find remaining Jewish survivors so they may document their testimonies before they’re lost forever. They’re preparing for a time when our primary link to that part of history is gone, making the task of keeping the memory alive all the more difficult.
I didn’t feel that same urgency until my own personal link, my grandmother, was gone. When the responsibility of preserving the memory of the Holocaust passes down to my generation, all we’ll have are the pictures, books, movies and yes, a large number of videogames that deal with those events. Each of these media has its own problems, but none of them are as thoroughly misleading as World War II FPS games.
Take Call of Duty: World at War as an example. What does it tell us about that war? We know it was fought exclusively between uniformed men from opposing nations, as even the battles that take place in cities are completely devoid of civilians. We know that the U.S. and U.K. were the infallible “good guys,” that Russia’s role was questionable but necessary and that Japan and Germany were immoral nations that had to be defeated at any cost.
All of these assumptions are inaccurate and deserve to be addressed individually, but the one that irks me most is the representation of the Germans as evil without ever mentioning the Holocaust. They’re simply incapable of anything good and that’s that – no explanation needed. They are like the Chimera, the Locust or Doom‘s demons. Call of Duty says the Nazis were nothing but zombies which we are allowed to kill and mutilate without remorse. If this weren’t explicit enough, World at War even includes a “Nazi Zombies” mode that lets you gun down an endless onslaught of undead Germans.
I’m not OK with this anymore. In retrospect, the only reason Miriam said it was “OK” was because she didn’t want to talk about it. To casually discuss the Holocaust was unheard of in her generation, so instead of giving an honest reaction she politely excused herself without ruining our fun. Only toward the end of her life, when she was very sick and perhaps a little confused, did I hear her say anything about it. Nostalgia for a house I’d never been to. Names of relatives I’d never heard before. When she was gone, I recognized what was lost and what would soon be my responsibility. That’s when I realized that if no one in the videogame industry can transcend the juvenile and dishonest approach of games like Call of Duty, we have a problem.
Nazi Zombies would not exist were it not for the horrors of the extermination camps. The unimaginable crimes committed in Auschwitz, Treblinka and their analogues is what gives us the license to openly and boldly demonize the Nazis in a way we don’t the Vietcong or Iraqi insurgents. Of course, all international conflicts have a component of xenophobia, and all nations imagine their enemies as monsters so they may fight them as such. In Europe there was the greedy Jew. In Israel there is the fear of the bloodthirsty Arab. In America we excel at creating these stereotypes almost as much as we do at apologizing for them later: the savage Indian, the less than human African, the devious Japanese. Today we condemn these racial slurs. But when it comes to Nazis, apparently we’re still more comfortable imagining them as anything but human.
It’s not my place to argue against the way Nazis are represented in our culture and how that representation may be problematic to present-day Germany. The ghastly and hypocritical way in which Germans, Japanese and other groups are treated in these games should be addressed by their respective members. What concerns me is that in the history woven by videogames, xenophobia is all that remains. Every grain of sand on the beaches of Normandy is accounted for. Every bombed-out building in Stalingrad is documented. Every Nazi soldier is shot, stabbed and burned. But not once do we stumble upon one of the many Jewish ghettos or concentration camps just a short distance away from the next objective on our mini map. This version of history, where the Holocaust is never even mentioned, is insidious. In a period when our collective memory is fading, we cannot afford to accept revisions that leave the death camps outside the picture. Doing so undermines our efforts to preserve these events in the pages of history. It brings us closer to the day when deniers are not so easily condemned.
It’s not my wish to burden developers and publishers with the task of educating their intended audience, nor do I wish to rain on the parade of fans of the genre. But if these games wish to continue using the framework of World War II without being perceived as exploitative, eventually they’ll have to include more than just its superficial aspects.
I see two obvious ways to move forward. The first is to concede to the people who believe that videogames are nothing but extravagant toys incapable of tackling the same issues that other mediums do, and limit the settings of FPS games to fantasy or science fiction, where a black and white view of the world is harmless. The second would be to reexamine the setting and create something that doesn’t trivialize a defining moment in human history. There will always be room for games like Wolfenstein 3D, but there is also a dire need for the plurality found in other mediums that deal with these issues.
We know that games are capable of creating meaningful experiences. Ironically, Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare comes to mind. Despite the many flaws in the way it represents war, it still manages to present some profound moments, forcing the player into disturbing and thought-provoking situations in a way that only videogames can. An execution, a nuclear explosion, an interrogation; in the ridiculous “us” versus an “ambiguous but always Eastern them” context of the game the impact of these moments is diluted. But independent of the plot, they are fine examples of the potential for communicating big ideas through interaction.
I can only imagine how people would react if, for example, World at War‘s Nazi Zombies mode, which is essentially about a group of players that try (but inevitably fail) to hold their position against an endless stream of enemies, was put in a context that actually made sense. Make it so the players are Jewish insurgents in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or, God forbid, the German elderly and youth that were defending their homes in Berlin. The emotions that this gameplay elicits are already there – panic, despair, fear. It just needs to be tweaked in a way that confronts the historical realities of the setting rather than tiptoe around whatever might make us uncomfortable.
There are no invisible lines to be crossed, no new and world shattering controversies to create. Players are already taking on the role of the Wehrmacht, raising swastika-adorned flags in multiplayer matches. Players fire flamethrowers at Japanese soldiers and watch them burn in agony. If we’re ready for this kind of imagery, we should also be ready for a game that acknowledges history in a manner that earns it. Because if a day comes when I walk in on my grandchildren shooting lasers at a cyborg Hitler, I won’t be as polite as Miriam.
Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who currently covers technology and entertainment for several Israeli publications. Drop him a line at eman854[at]gmail[dot]com, or visit his blog at bergblog.com.