I don’t know if it is sheer coincidence or shrewd marketing foresight that governed that Quentin Tarantino’s re-imagining of Inglourious Basterds and id’s re-envisioning of the classic Wolfenstein FPS arrivred for public consumption in the same week. Somehow it seems appropriate that Tarantino’s pleasure in providing his audience the chance to play voyeur to a heap of Nazi bashing and id’s return to its roots with what is kind of the original Nazi killing simulator would remind us of how we feel about violence and justice. It seems that we take enough joy as a post-World War II generation in the witnessing of and even taking a hand in the disposal of the men of the Third Reich tto warrant two big budget media events that would celebrate this similar idea.
The intriguing thing to me about this seemingly well timed reminder of who really deserves to “get it,” though, is in the distinct difference between what a film can provide in considering this experience and what a game provides, which might tell us a little something about how we see ourselves ethically as players of games as opposed to viewers of movies. As noted, Tarantino’s Nazi slaughter is voyeuristic in nature, but id’s is participatory; Tarantino’s is about witnessing the termination of the “master race,” while id offers the opportunity to take a hand in this extermination.
Since the release of the original Castle Wolfenstein in 1981, Nazis have served as a fairly common enough enemy in a host of games, be they fantastic villains as they are in id’s game about escaping from a fictitious Nazi castle culminating in a final battle with the Fuhrer himself in Wolfenstein 3-D to the more “historical” recreations of the European Theatre in games like Call of Duty. They seem appropriate enough enemies for a game, though, especially given id’s even more successful cloning of the frantic FPS action of the Wolfenstein in the Doom series. Like the horrible monstrosities that crawl out of Hell in Doom, the very appearance of the Nazis in the Wolfenstein games tends to provoke a rationale for killing. Neither game needs to justify much to the player in pointing out that these are the “bad guys” because, for all intents and purposes, there is a presumption on the part of the narrative that we have enough historical and cultural understanding to presume that demonic hordes and Nazis essentially boil down to the same thing: monstrosity.
I do emphasize appearance in drawing this conclusion as Doom plays on some fundamental levels of the human psyche (appropriately enough, those most likely arising from the id) in demarcating its villains through pure ugliness and difference. The first time that I ever saw a Cacodemon in Doom for instance (those creatures that resemble a gooey mound of flesh surrounding a giant levitating eyeball), I immediately wanted desperately to make it go away. Luckily, I just happened to be holding a shotgun at the time. Much like being surprised by a bug as big as your hand crawling near your shoe, your first instinct is to kill that thing because it is too alien to bear or, more simply put, too ugly to live.
The swastika and the uniform of the SS seems to provoke a similar response in anyone in the least familiar with the actions of the Nazis during World War II, and thus, like that massive bug they become something alien and too ugly to live. Most importantly, they are reasonable to kill.
As noted earlier, this otherness is very appropriate to games because it is an easy way of representing evil without much need for narrative and ethical justification for the player to actually participate in a behavior that might otherwise seem morally questionable. But it is also appropriate given that video games despite being participatory media have a seemingly morally neutral quality in the choices that they represent to the player. If I kill a Cacodemon or a Nazi or a Space Invader (the original “monstrous” alien Other in the shooter genre), what difference does that action make? Rather than merely taking pleasure in seeing justice meted out or the destruction of something “other” to myself as I might in a film, I have participated in the act of destroying pixels, and that act amounts to little more than the “termination” of flashes of light on a screen.
Nevertheless, what the Nazi killing simulation does remind us (especially when we begin to make comparisons to other games) is that simulation is still representational and meaningful and that representation does matter to us in a way that the more clinical ways of considering what simulated murder amounts to (flashing lights on a screen) fails to address. While politicians and parents might level criticism at the violence in Wolfenstein, it seems unlikely to me that anyone is upset that the game represents “violence against Nazis.” However, I find it more likely that criticism of Grand Theft Auto might focus on violence generally but also specifically on violence against women. Clearly even the notoriously libertarian Rockstar seems to recognize that what is being presented in a simulation and how it is represented may make a difference in an audiences’ reasonable or unreasonable reactions to such seemingly “unreal” activities. For instance, I remember reading an interview with someone over at Rockstar a number of years ago concerning what fans often requested for upcoming Grand Theft Auto titles. The developer said that while fans often wanted to know why there were no children or dogs in GTA games that—given the freedom the series affords in taking violent action against others—including character models of children and dogs was simply “not funny,” and thus, not in the developer’s plans for forthcoming titles.
Frankly, anyone who felt squeamish (as I did) upon learning that you had a choice to either rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in Bioshock understands what this Rockstar developer is getting at. While simulating killing may be an activity that is functionally morally neutral, a lot of the experience of playing a video game and how we react and respond to the choices that we make have to do with the packaging and appearance of those choices. Representation matters.