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Of Microsoft, gamers, pots, kettles and Call of Duty: Black Ops

Trent Fingland's picture

Call of Duty: Black Ops Screenshot

When Xbox Live's director of policy and enforcement, Stephen Toulouse, stridently vowed to ban any Call of Duty: Black Ops player who sports a swastika emblem online, I can't say I felt any particular way about it. As an fence sitter on the subject of censorship, I much prefer to let others do the hard work of untangling that Gordian Knot. Now I admit that the idea of censoring anyone—an artist who places a crucifix in a jar of urine, cartoonists who create visual depictions of the prophet Muhammed, the Westboro Baptist Church who organize hateful anti-gay demonstrations—leaves an almost instinctive bad taste in my mouth. Even so, I completely understand the human desire to practice religion, mourn lost loved ones, or even play videogames without having to feel provoked or persecuted.

So while the banning itself didn't ignite my righteous fury one way or the other, there was one aspect that kept coming back to bother me. Microsoft is making money hand over fist from developers who slather the emblem all over the backgrounds of what are essentially digital toys. In chastening players who exhibit the same emblem online, the company is building their house on some serious ethical sand.

All forms of media use WWII Germany as a kind of go-to evil army. Nazis fill the role of an absolute, irredeemably malevolent force that provides contrast for the goodness and light of our heroes—the normal people. Othering the elements of society that make us uncomfortable is reassuring. Those who commit heinous acts are labeled monsters, aberrations that exist outside the spectrum of what is human.

Videogames are no exception. When monsters get boring, Nazis act as a convenient target that can be mowed down in great numbers with zero remorse. The problem is that the Nazi movement wasn't comprised of necromancers, zombies, or robots. It was made up of people. People who loved their families, people who created art, people who felt joy and sadness, just like anyone else. This is hardly a defense of the atrocities of the Holocaust; the most frightening aspect of genocide is the elemental humanity of it. 

Of all things, Quentin Tarantino's most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, demonstrates how deep these impulses run. In the script, the German audience cheers when their onscreen hero engraves a swastika into the stones of his sniping perch. In real life, the American audience cheers when their onscreen hero engraves a swastika into the foreheads of captive German soldiers. The Nazi menace isn't as remote from "normal people" as we often like to think.

The Holocaust wasn't neither the first nor last genocide to befall the populations of our world. Given a charismatic leader and a fear of the other, any society is vulnerable to the temptations of brutality. Mentally engaging with the human causes of such repeated suffering—instead of lazily characterizing it as senseless, undefined evil—is a critical step in reducing its recurrence.

So I ask which is more insidious: Internet jerks misusing powerful iconography to make some inflammatory, sophomoric statement, or the systematic misuse of that same potent imagery in a way that reinforces the idea that one of the world's most horrific eras originated from some cartoonishly inhuman menace? On what footing does that place the corporations that profit from of this practice? Toulouse asserts that this is an issue of "fundamental respect", but in what world is renewing the theater of World War II year after year for sixty dollars a pop considered fundamentally respectful? Regardless of the merits of the swastika ban, Microsoft comes off in this situation as little more than a monolithic hypocrite.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   Wii   PS3   Nintendo DS   PC  
Developer(s): Treyarch  
Series: Call of Duty  
Genre(s): Shooting   Online/Multiplayer  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Politics  

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Pointing out the hypocrisy

Pointing out the hypocrisy of people when dealing with swastika in particular or NS-Germany in general doesn't happen too often unfortunately.

Beeing from Germany, we have to deal not only with MS in this case, but with gouvernmental censorship as well. As you know, swastika are banned in games. They are not banned from other forms of art however. Take Indiana Jones for example. This is not a history lesson, nor educating, it's plain entertainment, where Nazis are just an interchangeable antagonist. So the movies can show Swastika wherever and whenever it wants to. A game based on the movie would be banned, if it showed the 'evil symbol'. Not only banned, you would face up to 3 years in prison just for owning it. That's hypocrisy at it's best.

It gets even better, the aforementioned Inglorious Bastards was backed with official money from the cultural budget.

This behaviour making a distinction between games an other media may just exist because of the special german view towards video games. So it might not be that surprising. What's more concerning is, what you wrote towards the end, "The Nazi menace isn't as remote from "normal people" as we often like to think." and "Mentally engaging with the human causes of such repeated suffering—instead of lazily characterizing it as senseless, undefined evil—is a critical step in reducing its recurrence.". There is some kind of morbid fascination for national socialism in german media.

Almost every week there is a new documentary or documentary movie or something else. Hitler's Helpers, Hitler's Money to even Hitler's Women. These are acually the titles of those documentaries. And the tenor is increasingly becoming: there was a small clique of evil aliens who came to germany and the stupid germans fell for it. An often used technique is: show a sentence (be sure it's not not a coherent speech or even given context) form Hitler or maybe Goebbels (but Hitler is better), say something like with that speech (where you heard just one sentence from) everyone could have known, and then show pictures of concentration camps or war crimes from the eastern front or perhaps just destroyed german cities or dead german soldiers. There is this way of demonizing the Nazis and of belittling germans from that time that tries to bring over one point: Nazis were evil, people folowing them were stupid, because it was obvious they were evil and everyone could have known.

That completely prevents us from really understanding what happened, why it happened and most importantly, that it could always happen again to everyone. I have studied quite a bit of history (changed my profession and didn't graduate though), and if you really are into the topic, the you see how it all could work, why it did work and what it meant to the people. Of course, trying to understand why, i.e. from a police unit, 600 men no SS, just ordinary policemen, no one took the chance to be assinged without consequences to a different task than shooting jews is much harder and much more frightening.

That's become a really long post by now, and I think I'll stop now, but the hypocrisy and hindsight when it comes to that part of our history always drives me crazy.

Just to come back to where the topic started: I am against banning swastikas anywhere. If someone wants to wear it, let him. You'll just have an easier time spotting his mindset and avoiding such pr*@#s.

I'd say that there's room in

I'd say that there's room in every medium to both ignore and explore the complexities that come from involving the Nazis in a piece. In film, even superlative works like Saving Private Ryan don't really put forth much of an effort to portray the other side as something akin to human. The only notable German role in that film (spoilers) is one of a pathetic, sniveling cur who would sell out his own country just to survive. When the squad nobly let him go as a POW, he (almost miraculously) rejoins the German army so he can personally kill two members of the main cast in the final battle. Is this a bad film? Is it disrespectful? One could certainly make the case. However, one could also easily argue that it merely chose to focus on the emotions or views of the American soldiers who would most definitely choose to demonize their enemy. But of course, it operates in a medium that will give us works like Inglourious Basterds and The Pianist and Downfall where the other side are humanized to varying degrees. What we don't have in games is anything equivalent to those movies. We've got the bombastic, non-introspective spectacles locked down. That's for damn sure.

The article's points of contention at the end clash, for me. On the one hand, the companies are criticized for profiting off of appropriating heinous iconography solely to increase their profit margins. Bereft of any intellectual purpose or artistic statement and released to a tightly bound schedule that belies the true commercial nature of it all, this does seem truly immature of the entities involved. The other point though, that they are being hypocritical by acknowledging the inappropriateness of the iconography and prohibiting its usage, feels to me more an encouraging sign. I see the money itself, the profits, pushing the company as a whole forward. As they realize that allowing insensitive trolling to occur on their network will directly impact their sales, so too will they realize that the market demands depth and innovation and that surface level reenactments will only satisfy the audience for so long given enough repetition. And I find this a more welcoming sign than anything.

Inglorious Injustice

While I certainly applaud bringing this issue too light, the one issue I have is, as you state, that Nazis are easy prey in the zeitgeist of American culture. We were the epic heroes in that war of evil, but in reality, the Germans were humans too. Personally I believe that Japan in WWII committed more horrific atrocities to the people of China than the Nazis did to the Jews, and yet you never see a game that glorifies the killing of the Japanese soldiers during WWII, unless of course you want your game labeled as "racist." The selectivity that the history books employ is translated into the zeitgeist of culture.

Of course, on the other hand, most of the time people do not meditate on these things while they are playing their games. They just point, shoot and kill indiscriminately with little thought on the historical context behind the game. It's hard to punish people for laziness in historical knowledge through a video game.

Should microsoft be more selective about what it chooses to censor? I'm not sure how to answer that because I'm very apathetic about censorship in America. Forgive for reviving an archaic argument, but in countries like China and Myanmar there is no freedom of information, therefore, Americans should be grateful for all the freedoms they do have, instead of griping about such a minor censorship issue.

Nevertheless, excellent blog..

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