“Are We the Baddies?”: How Video Games Tackle Playing as Historical Villains
Alastair Binns | University of Kent
You cannot talk about World War Two without the Nazis. Of all the combatant nations, Nazi Germany is the one whose very identity is intrinsically linked with causing and fighting the Second World War. Whether it is in film, TV, or literature, post-war media has laid such a heavy emphasis on the European and Mediterranean theatres of WWII, where the war was dominated by the struggle against Hitler’s tyrannical regime, that other aspects of the conflict frequently go overlooked. Thus, when we examine how WWII has been represented in video games, it is little surprise that the Nazis’ prominence is repeated there.
Whatever your opinion about them, there is no denying that video games are big business. In 2021, they contributed £7.1 billion to the UK economy, and have been the single biggest entertainment industry – larger than both film and music combined – since 2018. Within this landscape, historical games take a prominent role, with some of the most famous franchises in the gaming industry, such as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty, built on digital depictions of history. Yet historians rarely seem to engage with games as a historical source. A legacy of unflattering media representations continues to dog the popular perceptions of video gaming, but hope is on the horizon. A growing number of academics, this writer included, are examining video games as historical sources, using them to learn more not only about history itself, but also about how history is understood and used by wider society.
For the most part, however, these writers are approaching video games with a “historian” mindset. When they look at history in a video game, they think: who does the player see the game world as, in what time and place is the game set, and how can we use this to learn about the past? The word that is frequently used in this thought process is “perspective”. However, video games present gameplay from a variety of camera angles, often referred to as “perspectives”, which shape how history is experienced: generals staring at maps have a different understanding of a battle than the soldiers on the ground. Likewise, academics must also consider the “perspective” of the person engaging with the game as a source; developers, publishers, and players all want different things from a video game, and so examining historical games from these differing “perspectives” enables us to gain insight into how history is understood in the modern world.
Yet, when one looks at the presentation of history in video games, there is an apparent unwillingness to engage critically with controversial subjects. This is most clearly illustrated by the treatment of the Nazis in gaming: regardless of the game franchise, Nazi Germany is universally presented as the antagonist of WWII. Now, there are obviously clear, historical reasons for this depiction, but the universal presentation of Germans as jackbooted thugs makes it impossible to engage critically with the experiences of those living under Hitler’s regime. Even those titles that allow gamers to play as Germany keep the player separated from the worst parts of living in the Third Reich; multiplayer games like Call of Duty present the Germans as simply a visual aesthetic to distinguish their opposing teams, while strategy titles like Hearts of Iron IV present gameplay from a high, detached viewpoint and engage only with broader decision-making processes, thereby isolating players from the everyday reality of German soldiers or civilians.
Much of this lack of engagement with history can be attributed to video games’ role as entertainment; players are just looking for a fun experience, so why labour them with uncomfortable moral questions like “What was it like to fight for Hitler?” However, a certain degree of responsibility can also be attributed to the gaming industry itself, and particularly the dominating influence of America. America is the world’s second most profitable gaming market, behind China, accounting for roughly $39 billion in 2020; the top four European gaming markets that year – Germany, the UK, France, and Italy – accrued just over $18 billion combined. On the creative side, 39 percent of game developers worldwide work in the USA, including those working for American studios, like Activision, and for international companies, like Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive; with such heavy investment into the American gaming market, it is only to be expected that much of the resulting content caters to the highly valuable American audience. In-game references to popular Hollywood films, like recreations of Saving Private Ryan’s famous Omaha Beach sequence [see below], only help to increase a game’s cultural appeal by allowing players the feeling of “living” their favourite film moments. This combination inherently reinforces the American historical narrative portrayed throughout the media, which depicts WWII as a “just war”, with the Allies as the “goodies”, the Nazis as “baddies” and offering little room for further nuance.
This makes a game like Battlefield V (2018) all the more remarkable, as it places the player directly into the shoes of a German soldier and confronts them with their complicity in the Nazi regime’s actions. One of Battlefield V’s single-player stories, The Last Tiger, puts the player in control of Peter Müller, commander of Tiger tank 237, as he and his crew participate in the defence of a German city against an American assault. During the course of the narrative, Müller is manipulated by his fanatical crewman, Schröder, into sending another conscript, Hartmann, on a dangerous solo mission despite Hartmann’s obvious terror. Later, Müller and the crew find Hartmann after he has been hanged as a deserter; while Schröder angrily denounces Hartmann as a traitor, Müller and the other crewmen are taken aback by the treatment of a soldier who they knew had done his duty. The entire narrative of this “War Story” emphasises the experiences of ordinary Germans coming to terms with their role in the crimes of the Nazi regime, and how their fanatical leaders exploited their people’s sense of loyalty in a bid to preserve the Reich at any cost. However, The Last Tiger is very much an exception; most titles that allow gamers to play as the Germans simply use them as an aesthetic and only pay lip service to the actual events of the war.
The reason that most games try to separate the player from the history of the Nazi regime is simple. Regardless of genre, every game that presents the German perspective of WWII must contend with ludo-narrative dissonance. This term, coined within the gaming industry, refers to a conflict between the story presented by a game and the audience’s experience of events through gameplay. For example, it is implicit in most game narratives that the player is the “hero” of the story; however, this stands in direct opposition to the established image of Nazis as “villains”. Thus, games that allow the player to engage with the German perspective have to keep the player separated from the actions of the Nazi regime, effectively giving them plausible deniability. This is also why in games that do allow player control of the Germans, like Battlefield V, the emphasis is on branches of the military rather than organisations directly linked with the Nazi Party. The removal of Nazi iconography contributes significantly to this separation, but the use of gameplay genres where players are not beholden to the historical narrative – like competitive multiplayer and “sandbox” strategy – is also invaluable. Yet this same desire to keep the player apart from the atrocities committed by the Nazis can also lead to accusations of “sanitizing” the conflict; Paradox Interactive’s grand-strategy game, Hearts of Iron IV, has been critiqued for the total omission of references to the Holocaust or the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. While not every game should depict such atrocities, a lack of critical engagement with these events makes it difficult for audiences to connect with and understand challenging history.
The reality is that no depiction of history in a video game is going to be perfect. The commercial interests of video games will always take precedence, and not every historical game will set out to reinvent our understanding of the past. Many just want to use our love for history to entertain and make money. And when they do try explicitly to tell us about history, developers will always be under substantial pressure to acknowledge the historical narrative as it is generally understood by modern society. Despite this, video games are steadily pushing boundaries and redefining what is permissible to show about history. Stories like Battlefield V: The Last Tiger would not have been acceptable entertainment fifty years ago, but the fact that it is tolerated today demonstrates how a more nuanced understanding of history is becoming more culturally accepted. Therefore, by exploring how video games treat history, and the ways that they present antagonistic groups like Nazi Germany, we can not only explore video games as historical sources, but also as cultural barometers for how modern society is engaging with controversial history and its place in the historical narrative.
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Alastair Binns is a former Lancaster University undergraduate and Masters student, and is now studying for his PhD at the University of Kent, UK. His currently untitled thesis looks at concepts of “perspective” in historical video games, and how this issue is reflected in narratives, representation politics, and the historical experience within video games.