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THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

Killing Nazis on lockdown: It’s been a bloody, but satisfying affair

Killing Nazis on lockdown: It’s been a bloody, but satisfying affair
Wolfenstein, The New Order

Besides the great gameplay and the chance to pump an endless stream of bullets into these virtual representations of fascism, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and genocide, part of what makes the game interesting is the alternate Nazi history.

It’s 1960, and Captain William “B.J” Blazkowicz, an American spy of Polish and Jewish descent wakes up from a 14-year coma in a Polish psychiatric asylum. Back in 1946, he caught a bullet to the head during an escape mission after he tried to free fellow soldiers who were about to be incinerated by Oberstgruppenführer Doctor Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse.

He doesn’t know yet that two years after he fell into a coma, in 1948, the Nazis won World War II and pretty much run most of Europe now. In this particular asylum, armed Nazi soldiers come in regularly to kidnap patients, whom they’ve deemed as Untermensch; they take them to Dr Deathshead, who performs unspeakable experiments on them, sometimes harvesting their brains to implant into robotic super soldiers.

On this day, the Nazi regime has decided that the asylum is to be shut down, all patients and staff executed. And on this day, Blazkowicz fully awakens from his slumber. Still dressed in his hospital gown, his mind hazy, his body weak, he musters enough energy to rise from his wheelchair. “Nazi scum!” he exclaims as he takes a sharp knife to the neck of a Nazi soldier, blood sprays and so begins the incredibly satisfying Nazi-scum-blood-soaked adventure that is 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Nazi-themed videogames have grown in popularity over the past couple of decades and they’ve now become a sub-genre of their own. And they’ve often received criticism for their characterisation on the Nazi regime, which is often portrayed just within the timeline of World War II, with very little attention paid to how the ideology rose and the actual holocaust. The one-dimensional Nazi characters have also been criticised for giving players a feeling of the moral high-ground, without using the opportunity to explore how the faces of racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry are not always quite so obvious and uniformed.

However, the Wolfenstein series is something of a pioneer among Nazi-themed first-person shooters. The very first game came out in 1981, and as game mechanics improved, Wolfenstein 3D, the first iteration of the game as the first person shooter gamers know and love today, came out in 1992, and arguably inspired many more second World War-themed first person shooters. It is an incredibly fun and unrelenting adventure, as Blazkowicz escapes the asylum and later teams up with the resistance operatives secretly hiding in Berlin to fight again the Nazi regime, shoot and stab hundreds of Nazi soldiers, and kill Dr Deathshead.

Besides the great gameplay and the chance to pump an endless stream of bullets into these virtual representations of fascism, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and genocide, part of what makes the game interesting is the alternate Nazi history. Here, they’ve won the war, they’re incredibly technologically advanced because of technology they stole from ancient Jewish secret society, and they have a full-on station on the moon.

This particular revisionist approach to the outcome of World War II is sometimes referred to as the hypothetical Axis victory in fictional literature, as a sort of imagining of what the world would be like if the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy had won.

One of the most popular examples of this hypothetical victory being Phillip K Dick’s 1962 award-winning novel, The Man in the High Castle. I must confess, I’ve yet to read it, but I dove deep into the first two-and-a-half seasons of the two Emmy award-winning eponymous series, where Nazi Germany rules the eastern two thirds of North America, now known as the Greater Nazi Reich, while Japan rules just under a third on the west side, known as the Japanese Pacific States, and between them, a smaller area known as the Neutral Zone remains free, and somewhat underdeveloped.

The Nazis of this fictional Greater Reich are slick, their tech is advanced and by the time I got to the third season, the show started to feel uncomfortable. Good actors, writers and directors are able to present characters as complex multi-dimensional beings. This goes a long way towards drawing the viewer in and helping them to identify with the characters, and even feel invested in their daily victories.

One example in the series is antagonist Reichsführer John Smith, a former US Army Captain who joined the Nazis following the surrender of the US. So committed was he to the Nazi agenda that he rose through the ranks to become Obergruppenführer, basically ruthlessly and murderously governing the Greater Nazi Reich.

His son, Thomas Smith, a devoted swastika-wearing member of the Hitler Youth, is diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a congenital disease which would slowly weaken and paralyse him. And in the Nazi’s white supremist efforts towards the creation of the “Master Race”, his illness means that he would have to be euthanised. Over multiple episodes, his murderous Nazi parents tried to hide his condition, while emotionally tortured by the possibility of losing him. Eventually, he is euthanised.

Even as we, the viewers are well aware that these are evil people, the actors and crew do a great job of presenting the characters as multi-dimensional: former Americans, traitors, racists, neighbours, anti-Semites, community leaders, Nazis and parents faced with the loss of their beloved son, at the hands of the very evil system they sold out to. As the viewer, you want to completely hate them, you know you should; as a human watching the actors portray the pain of losing a child, you can’t help but empathise. Then you remember the millions of sons and daughters who have been tortured and who died at the hands of these particular parents and the system they support.

Halfway through the second season, there’s whole bunch of hot young adult Nazis running around, a glamourised version of the Lebensborn, the real-life historical SS-initiated and state-sponsored association in Nazi Germany whose goal was to create “racially pure super race” Aryan children.

More so than other regions in the world, American filmmaking has put a great emphasis on casting actors who would be perceived as attractive in key roles. And a lot of research has proven our beauty bias; our readiness to perceive people we consider attractive to be more trustworthy and capable is a fact. This multi-season show, with skilfully portrayed multi-dimensional characters, is no different in that respect. It’s got it’s fair sprinkling of attractive actors, portraying the young adult Nazis in on-screen Nazi sex.

Perhaps it all says more about how easily emotionally swayed or triggered I am as a viewer, but the attractive sympathetic Nazi characters got a bit much and I gave up halfway through the third season. Considering the times we live in, with the rise of Nazi sympathisers, I was also concerned about these somewhat glamourised portrayals of technologically advanced hot Nazidom.

Recently, I’ve started playing the sequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order, 2017’s Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. And I’m back to Nazis just the way I like to see them, as pure evil, with my virtual gun pointed at their heads. I’m just a few hours in, and it looks like it’s going to be a wild ride. I have shot a countless number of Nazis. I’ve empathised with none.

The emotionally confusing moments of The Man in The High Castle are almost out of my mind, although I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps I missed something in the lauded series, perhaps a reminder that Nazi sympathisers, racists, anti-Semites, homophobes, and bigots of our time walk among us, sans swastikas, as people’s mothers and fathers, sons, daughters, as colleagues, as acquaintances, as Amy Cooper, pretending, camouflaging their evil with performative tolerance. DM/ML

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