This year’s installment of Call of Duty sends the franchise back to the Second World War with Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty: WWII, and it seems like WWII is slated to be another crowd pleaser. It delivers the same thrills that fans have come to expect from the franchise while introducing a more retro component that brings the series back to its roots after years of more modern military operations.
Unfortunately, I’m far less enthusiastic after getting a look at the game at Fan Expo in Toronto, albeit for reasons that were probably not intended. I had the opportunity to play as a member of the Allied Forces during a brief multiplayer match on the show floor, for which I was grateful because the thought of playing as a Nazi makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than playing as a Nazi is losing to the Nazis, and that’s precisely what happened during my brief multiplayer encounter.
The outcome was disquieting. I didn’t particularly enjoy the match itself, but that was to be expected and I don’t want to dwell too much on the mechanics. I’ve never been a huge fan of Call of Duty and WWII seems to be more of the same. My team lost at least partly because of my poor performance and that feeling of futility is never a lot of fun.
However, that does not necessarily make Call of Duty: WWII a bad game. My complaints about the demo are the same complaints that I’ve been lobbing at the franchise for years and at this point they’re just not all that interesting. It’s a minority opinion. The formula works quite well for millions of other people and I’m glad that those fans have found a game that they enjoy.
The trouble is that Call of Duty: WWII disassociates the Nazis from the very real horror that they perpetrated across Europe, and those are terrible optics when white supremacy is on the rise in North America. Sledgehammer has tried to argue that the multiplayer features German soldiers that do not identify as Nazis, but that distinction is meaningless in the context of WWII. The successes of the German army directly benefited the Nazi regime and, by extension, the genocidal Nazi platform. It is simply impossible to disassociate the Third Reich from the people that carried out its orders, and to suggest otherwise is a dangerous and disingenuous manipulation of the historical record.
That’s a problem in any multiplayer game that asks players to fulfill specific objectives, but it’s doubly true in WWII. The multiplayer is framed as a series of small-scale encounters. It makes the player’s objectives synonymous with the Nazi’s objectives at that micro level. In order to be an effective Axis solider in WWII, you need to forget about the interests you’re serving (at least for the duration of the match). The Nazi cause was genocide. That’s the agenda being advanced whenever the Axis forces win a round in WWII.
Now, that’s obviously a little hyperbolic. I’m not suggesting that WWII will turn otherwise well-adjusted human beings into Nazi sympathizers, and it’s not as if this is new territory for first person shooters set during past and present conflicts. Getting cast as a German soldier in a round of Call of Duty multiplayer does not make one a Nazi in the real world, just as playing as an insurgent in previous games did not make anyone a terrorist. Multiplayer video games take place within artificial spaces that are clearly marked as such thanks to well defined rules and systems. The vast majority of players have no trouble separating fiction from reality, and some of Sledgehammer’s more anachronistic design choices – such as the presence of black soldiers in the German army - will make that process even easier.
It’s also not as if this is new territory for the Call of Duty franchise. The first three installments were set during WWII, and the thought of playing as the Germans never felt all that controversial in 2003. WWII was enough of a historical abstraction to allow for more detached observation, making the games a fun thought experiment rather than a treatise on the present.
But something is different time around. Why does WWII feel so strange even though Call of Duty felt relatively harmless? I’d argue that our civic discourse has devolved in the decade since Call of Duty III. In the wake of Charlottesville, Nazism is no longer a relic of the past. It’s a violent and menacing aspect of our present, something far too volatile to safely explore as a form of casual entertainment and something that once again needs to be addressed in order to prevent more harm.
The parallels make WWII far more discomfiting, though I’m not sure if anyone will notice. I’m guessing that most players will consume WWII in the same way that they consumed prior installments, and won’t think twice about the nature of the two factions. They’ll be so caught up in the mechanics (and their immediate goals) that the set dressing will fall by the wayside, which is a perfectly fine and even healthy way to consume a game like Call of Duty. Again, I’m not telling anyone that they’re wrong for enjoying such a game.
Even so, there is truth in the hyperbole. Many people don’t think about these kinds of things at all, and “it’s just a video game” is an excuse to avoid grappling with the consequences of pop culture. Nick Spencer’s run on Captain America has drawn a lot of criticism for affiliating Steve Rogers with Hydra (and hence the Nazis), and while the change didn’t last, the imagery was fuel for white supremacists looking for an icon. Intentionally or not, Marvel gave ammunition to those looking to blur the line between white supremacy and patriotism.
That’s the challenge facing Activision as it markets another game to a notoriously toxic gaming culture. Online voice chats are already rife with racial, ethnic, and homophobic slurs, even in games that take place in imagined fantasy settings far removed from the real world (PewDiePie’s latest transgression is simply a high-profile demonstration of a much larger problem). The Third Reich murdered black people, Jewish people, and gay people. Modern trolls use less extreme methods, but their targets are the same. How much worse will the abuse get when racist players are able to back up their slurs with the digital guns of an army that committed real-world genocide against those same populations?
WWII seems likely to attract the worst element of online gaming. Nazis and white supremacists are more vocal today than they have been at any point in my lifetime. I don’t expect them to stay quiet when presented with a game that allows to roleplay as their historical forebearers. There are plenty of people who don’t use racist epithets online, but the worst offenders often have a disproportionate impact on the games they play. It won’t take much for them to ruin it for the rest of us.
That should be cause for concern for anyone hoping to improve gaming’s toxic ecosystem. It should also inspire a bit of self-reflection. WWII encourages players to view the second World War in a purely military context, as if the entire event was a friendly game of chess staged between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Hitler. That’s just not good enough in the current political climate, when Donald Trump refuses to take a strong stand against white supremacy and instead offers tacit support from the highest level of government. The Holocaust is a chilling reminder of what institutionalized racism can lead to. Using that as the inspiration for a casual video game feels mildly irresponsible given the stakes for everyone involved.
Those concerns won’t derail the Call of Duty hype train and I’m not even sure if they should. I don’t want to tell anyone how to consume their favorite media, and I certainly don’t think Sledgehammer set out to make a game for white supremacists (the studio has handled the controversy reasonably well, all things considered). The point is that studios aren’t doing enough to discourage such associations, instead trying to distance themselves from any sociopolitical implications. That abrogation of responsibility is a time-honored tradition in the games industry, where even an otherwise well-worded and unambiguous statement from Bethesda comes with a disclaimer that Wolfenstein II is not supposed to be “political”. It doesn’t matter where or when a game takes place. If the imagery is problematic, we’re always told that it’s entertainment and that we’re not supposed to take our games too seriously.
And again, that’s just not good enough in 2017. Sledgehammer made a game set during WWII. There’s nothing wrong with that, but those Nazi connotations are present whether the studio wants them there or not. The implications need to be acknowledged.
That’s really what this is about. I don’t have any answers, and I’m not sure what Sledgehammer should have done differently from a design perspective. For now, I’d settle for basic self-awareness. A game like Call of Duty: WWII demonstrates that there’s no such thing as harmless entertainment, especially when the past reflects the present. The games industry needs to stop avoiding difficult questions because – like Nazis – ignoring them won’t make them go away.
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