Being anti-Nazi has typically been a pretty safe bet.
For movies and video games, sweeping an entire demographic of people into archetypal villain roles is fraught with politically incorrect peril. Ask any Native American who rolls his eyes at the portrayal of shirtless, murderous Indians in westerns or an Arab American who balks at Middle-eastern terrorists on the silver screen.
But since the fall of Adolf Hitler’s regime, Nazis have been universally regarded as, well, evil. They’ve been fair game as wicked antagonists.
Until, apparently, now.
The makers of the “Wolfenstein” video game series have found themselves embroiled in an Internet controversy as they try to tell critics that yes, the main antagonists in their latest release are Nazis, and yes, that is OK.
Some have taken issue with the new game’s anti-Nazi stance, and particularly the tagline used in marketing materials: “Make America Nazi-free again.”
That is, of course, just a few words removed from President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again.”
For the uninitiated, Wolfenstein is a series of video games set during and after the Second World War. The plots and objectives change from game to game, but mostly centre on shooting, stabbing, blowing up and otherwise obliterating Nazis and things made by Nazis.
The conceit of the latest iteration is that the Nazis won the war, conquered Europe and marched right into Main Street America. The game’s protagonists are fighting a second American revolution, which involves a lot of computer-generated bullets and explosions and burning swastikas. In clips, there’s also a giant alligator. It’s unclear if it’s a Nazi, but probably.
“Nazis work really well, because we can all agree that they’re bad guys,” says one developer in a feature about the game posted on YouTube. “You don’t mind wiping them out.”
Later, another developer tells the audience: “There’s a lot of crazy things you can do with a Nazi and a hatchet.”
Nazis work really well, because we can all agree that they’re bad guys
Critics aren’t exactly arguing that the Nazis were nice, decent folks, but they say that in co-opting the president’s tagline, the video game company is quietly equating Trump supporters with Nazis.
Others claimed that the video game – or at least its marketing – is simply parroting the aims of the antifa, a loosely affiliated group of mostly communists, socialists and anarchists who aim to stop the advance of white supremacy, sometimes violently.
Is it good to give people in that group tacit justification to attack people who fit an ever-expanding definition of Nazis?
The debate is happening in mostly the dark corners of Twitter. And some of the most vocal critics have since deleted their comments or protected their tweets.
But the makers of Wolfenstein have waded into the debate with a pretty simple argument: Nazis = bad.
“Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about,” Peters Hines, the studio’s vice president of marketing and public relations, told GamesIndustry magazine. “We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here.”
But he said the game wasn’t some sort of social critique on 2017 America.
“[In the game] freeing America is the first step to freeing the world. So the idea of #NoMoreNazis in America is, in fact, what the entire game [and franchise] is about. Our campaign leans into that sentiment, and it unfortunately happens to highlight current events in the real world.”
Still, the game is being released at a time when Nazism has gained increased attention. In August, hundreds of white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis planned their largest rally in decades to “take America back.”
The resultant clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, left 19 people injured and one person dead after a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.
After the violence, President Trump was criticized for conflicting statements about the cause of the violence and for not going far enough to condemn the groups that planned the rally.