"Why don’t you just enjoy the fantasy? Games are a special medium, completely separate from our wider culture and any attempt to put them in context is just insulting." So begins a spoof article from last month's New Statesman, but like all good parodies it sends up the kind of reaction anyone - not just feminist comrades - receives when they burrow into the cultural artefacts we produce and enjoy. Some might moan that cultural criticism "spoils" a film, a TV programme, a piece of music; that they're on a hiding to nothing. But such a view is fighting shy of the deeper implications some of our favourite pastimes might have. Like it or not, an episode of Coronation Street is as political as the output of this blog.
But I want to question the forced cultural innocence that says nothing really matters in the fictions we tell ourselves, and especially in the make-believe scenarios that populate our video games. And I want to do this with a thought experiment.
Imagine Activision, with all the fanfare their biggest franchise deserves, were to announce their latest iteration of the phenomenally popular Call of Duty series for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and (maybe) Wii U. It's title? Call of Duty: Heroes of the SS.
In this fast-paced, stylish shooter you can, of course, fight intense multiplayer battles in the Ardennes, the Pripet Marshes, Stalingrad's Tractor Factory, or Monte Cassino. But it also comes with two fun-packed, realistic single player campaigns.
The game finds you cast as a raw recruit in the Waffen SS. For the more stealth-minded COD player your career with Himmler's men begins at the border with Holland in the uniform of the Dutch, not the Deutsch. Your task is to overpower a group of border guards so the tanks of the Wehrmacht can roll in before the alarm is raised. There follows a small series of interlinked set pieces that also involves gun battles, raids on airfields, and culminates in the final surrender of the Dutch army outside Rotterdam. From there the action moves to the Ardennes Forest as you quietly assault and "neutralise" scouts of the French army. Meanwhile, had you selected the other campaign you are a foot solider attached to the under-strength SS Totenkopf division. Having burst out of the Ardennes the tanks streamed across Northern France where they meet a surprise counter-stroke from the British. At the Battle of Arras, where the Waffen SS suffered its first military reverse, you have to relieve groups of your comrades caught behind the advance of the Matilda tanks and make it back to German lines. It variously involves commandeering motorcycles, out of action tanks, and culminates in operating anti-aircraft guns Rommel actually used to prevent the British from breaking through.
The two careers continue their divergence after the fall of France. As a foot soldier, you are transferred to play out a series of scenarios and missions stretching from Kiev, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Stalingrad and; after a period of leave, redeployment in Italy on the Gustav Line - culminating in the Battle of Monte Cassino. The stealth missions move to an undercover mission to Lisbon to assassinate a suspected double agent, recruitment by SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny for the rescue of Benito Mussolini and attempted assault on Tito's command infrastructure (the 'Raid on Drvar'). Following a narrow escape from the latter, you are then thrust into 'Operation Eisenhower' - the infiltration of American lines in American uniforms just prior to the Battle of the Bulge. It may involve operating the feared Tiger Tank. And then, with the vice of the Allied and Soviet armies crushing Nazi Germany between them, our protagonist finds themselves in the Battle of Berlin. The infantry man fights house to house, and attempts to lead the old men and boys of the Volkssturm against the advancing Red Army. Our stealth player finds himself in the dying hours of the Berlin Bunker. Hoping to meet the Fuhrer before his end, he is tasked with taking up position outside the bunker to keep advanced Russian stragglers away, as well as covering the escape of Hitler's henchmen.
Call of Duty: Heroes of the SS is a straight forward historical fantasy. The player participates in actual, lightly fictionalised WWII encounters and battles. There are no playing out of actual atrocities, no repeat of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's infamous airport scene. There are no death camps, no killing of POWs, and no racist or anti-semitic dialogue. The difference is one of perspective, of being on the losing side. And, of course, going into battle in a coal scuttle helmet.
This game doesn't exist, of course. And is unlikely to do so outside of a few enthusiastic modders. But why not? If video games are innocent and just a bit of fun, why can't disbelief be suspended as one takes up arms for the Axis Powers? Is it a question of bad taste, especially as it involves shooting American and British soldiers? Could it be that game players might, as they battle the Allies and the Soviets, start developing an identification with the 3rd Reich? Might the omission of the foul crimes committed by the Waffen SS lead to accusations of soft soaping the Nazis? Would it be enough to violate the moral probity of our hysterical press, or be seen as a video game recruitment sergeant for the far right?
If the answer to any of these is 'yes' - however grudging - then it goes to show things like video games are not 'innocent'. They all have things to say, all weave a series of codes and messages that promote, inculcate and diffuse certain sets of cultural mores, expectations, and ideologies. It does not mean gamers playing this hypothetical title would turn into a jack-booted goose-stepping moron anymore than playing official, actual Call of Duty releases would make them uncritical cheerleaders for the American Way. But it is part of a complex of messages our culture transmits all the time which, in turn, conditions our social being and subtly influences it.
Nothing is voiceless. Everything has something to say.