Wolfenstein: Youngblood might just match MachineGames’ vision
Around the time that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was released worldwide (27 October 2017), I remember visiting my local hardware store, Saturn. There were banners advertising the game running the entire length of the escalators that lead you up to the games section, and I remember finding that very strange. I was also a little taken aback by the cynicism of it all. How could a Wolfenstein game be shouted out, loud and proud, here in stores, when the localisation team had been backed into a corner and forced to change its DNA?
Because modern Wolfenstein in Germany, until now, has not been the same Wolfenstein series you would see in Washington, or London, or practically anywhere else in the world. This has solid legal reasoning behind it, but the legal reasoning been contorted to extremes over time. Now, anti-totalitarian messages are purged to avoid accusations of spreading totalitarian propaganda. Due to a number of factors, the strict approach should be relaxed from now on (as reported by us earlier on this week) in favour of approving games on a case-by-case basis. Because of the current political climate, not only around the world but specifically in Germany, this change could not come soon enough.
An unrecognisable Wolfenstein
There have been plenty of comparison videos and articles discussing the differences between uncensored Wolfenstein and Wolfenstein as it appears in Germany. The video below is a particularly strong example of where the message of The New Colossus has been diluted in favour of playing it safe with the USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle – Germany’s ratings authority for games and game trailers).
This scene is particularly important because it depicts Hitler as a pathetic, decrepit yet still murderous old man. The director (presumably modelled after Leni Riefenstahl, a prominent female producer of filmic Nazi propaganda) and those auditioning for the part as Blazkowicz couldn’t be more sycophantic to a figurehead who is no longer a mirror image of strong ideology, but instead a limping husk. It’s a great depiction of how National Socialism is crumbling over time, and how it always was weak at its core.
This part of the story is unchanged for “The Regime” and a bunch of renamed character models in the German version of The New Colossus, but if you can’t apply what’s going on to real life as easily, so it becomes less powerful. For me, it’s no longer associated with video footage I’ve seen showing a younger Hitler riling up a crowd, or to Hitler’s specific paranoia about Jews as he is pointing a gun at one of the auditioning actors. You get the same sort of game, but the messages are distorted through a filter, and the player doesn’t experience everything through the horrible nightmare of “World War 2, but the Allies didn’t win”. You would think that in Germany, it would be particularly important to see that nightmare unfold in full on screen.
Eurogamer also did a video showing some of the changes in The New Order, which came a couple of years earlier and was the first Wolfenstein release in Germany. The change spread beyond the localisation team to the art department, with a lot of the imagery being redesigned to obscure its origins. Once you know a bit about the law in Germany and Wolfenstein‘s past there, you can’t really blame anyone involved in producing the game for being cautious. It’s still a shame that they felt the need to go to such lengths.
The legal background as it stood
I have a lot of sympathy for Bethesda and MachineGames here, because getting on the wrong side of the law regarding Nazism and Nazi imagery is no laughing matter: it’s a criminal issue. Section 86a of the Criminal Code deals specifically with “unconstitutional images”, and while there is no prescriptive list of such images, all of the standard logos associated with National Socialism doubtlessly fall under this category (not just the swastika but also the sig runes, the “Totenkopf” skull design, etc.).
Section 86a Use of Symbols of Unconstitutional Organizations
1. domestically distributes or publicly uses, in a meeting or in writings (Section 11 subsection (3)) disseminated by him, symbols of one of the parties or organizations indicated in Section 86 subsection (1), nos. 1, 2 and 4; or
2. produces, stocks, imports or exports objects which depict or contain such symbols for distribution or use domestically or abroad, in the manner indicated in number 1,
shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.
But that only covers imagery, not renaming Hitler or removing his moustache. This comes under the broader topic of disseminating propaganda, under section 86 of the Criminal Code. It even has a special sub-category for depictions of Nazism. The consequences of flouting this law, e.g. by ignoring a ban, would be severe even for a company as large as Bethesda. Even if Bethesda simply tried to get an uncut version of the games awarded a rating by the USK, the court costs might not make it worth the effort.
Section 86 Dissemination of Means of Propaganda of Unconstitutional Organizations
(1) Whoever domestically disseminates or produces, stocks, imports or exports or makes publicly accessible through data storage media for dissemination domestically or abroad, means of propaganda:
1. of a party which has been declared to be unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court or a party or organization, as to which it has been determined, no longer subject to appeal, that it is a substitute organization of such a party;
2. of an organization, which has been banned, no longer subject to appeal, because it is directed against the constitutional order or against the idea of international understanding, or as to which it has been determined, no longer subject to appeal, that it is a substitute organization of such a banned organization;
3. of a government, organization or institution outside of the territorial area of application of this law which is active in pursuing the objectives of one of the parties or organizations indicated in numbers 1 and 2; or
4. means of propaganda, the contents of which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist organization,
shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.
As you can see from the statute, there is an exception for artistic expression and criticism. In fact, it is a mighty stretch to describe the Wolfenstein series as disseminating propaganda in the first place. But if you have someone who is heavy-handed in applying the law, and this goes unchallenged, then the letter of the law can be stretched. And this is what happened in the past with Wolfenstein 3D.
id Software went in all guns blazing on releasing Wolfenstein 3D with all of its Nazi imagery in Germany, and were met with hostility. In 1998, it was decreed that the game would be banned. It would be a massive headache to go back to the drawing board and apply censorship methods to a game such as The New Colossus after the fact, so MachineGames wisely pre-empted trouble and produced a censored version. The environment simply wasn’t there to push for an uncut version.
This is made all the more ludicrous when you look at examples of fiction and film that have seen a release in Germany, are about Nazism and could be seen as taking National Socialism in jest. A few years ago, the book Er ist wieder da (“Look who’s back”) was released, which images Hitler coming back from the dead and trying to re-establish his political power in 2014. It has since been made into a movie. The film Dead Snow, about Nazi zombies attacking a bunch of young travellers in Norway, is on wide release in Germany. There seemed to be a special level of fear when it came to the interactivity of games.
Why it was time to change
The announcement by GAME (the Association of the German Games Industry) that the rules on the depiction of Nazism would be relaxed came after another embarrassing incident at a games festival. As reported on by Ian Boudreau of PCGamesN, Attentat 42 tells the story of people thrown into turmoil by the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia during World War 2. It won best game at the A MAZE Festival in Berlin, despite not being legal to play in the very country in which it won the award.
The chilling effect of the approach to Nazism in games also seemed to have a disproportionate effect on indie devs. Sure, Bethesda is a massive company and could possibly have scraped together the change to fight in the courts for uncensored release; an indie dev doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of securing a release in the event that the game is not awarded a rating or banned, because they simply don’t have the tools to fight it. And for games that are purely story-led, as opposed to having a fighting element that can be focused on in lieu of story, prescriptivism can be particularly crippling.
But it wasn’t just a specific incident in the games industry that probably precipitated change. The need to fight against neo-Nazism hadn’t gone away in the wake of World War 2 and the fall of Communism in East Germany, but has become more urgent in recent times.
Just a few weeks ago, Beate Zschäpe was sentenced to life in prison after a mammoth five-year court case on the National Socialist Underground: a group of Neo Nazis who murdered small business owners with migrant backgrounds. The case revealed that authorities hadn’t done enough to shut down these dangerous groups; police officers had initially presumed that other migrants were responsible for the killings, in what many people have argued was institutionalised prejudice.
While old-fashioned and inflammatory right-wing parties such as the NPD (Nationalist Party of Germany) have all but disappeared, more family-friendly, “I’m-not-racist-but” alternatives, such as the aptly-named Alternative for Germany, have won ground, clothing Islamophobia and brutality in a smarter exterior. AfD currently has representatives in 14 out of 16 of the German federal states, and has representatives in the national and European parliaments.
An AfD local poster, with the slogan, “Our country, our home.”
On an anecdotal level, Hamburg, where I live, took in a very large number of Syrian refugees a couple of years ago. The response in my local community was to protest against accommodation being built, lest it ruin the picturesque village. I was saddened that my neighbours were unabashed “not-in-my-backyard” folk, but unfortunately, there is a current climate of “fear of the other” the world over that makes privileged people become defensive.
Most countries now are now at a turning point in their politics where they have to take a good look at themselves and the values they wish to uphold. Games such as Wolfenstein: The New Colossus serve to remind us not only what past wars were fought over, but how self-interest that encourages totalitarian regimes to flourish leads only to self-destruction. We need games critical of all kinds of extremism, so that we can put the thought processes behind the regimes under the microscope. The time was absolutely ripe for Germany to relax its stance.
The only problem with this development is that nothing has changed in the German Criminal Code, just the approach of the USK in applying it. Whether concrete change actually manifests, or whether they lapse back into old, cautious habits, remains to be seen.