Thursday 1 August 2013

Call of Duty: Heroes of the SS

"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-ObersturmbannfĂĽhrer 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.


Speedy said...

Although infinitely less to say than the forthcoming Battlefield 4 I'm sure ;-)

jk said...

I don't usually read your gaming blogs; this was different. An excellent piece of sociological analysis masquerading as a chat about games. Thanks

Can't wait for your piece about SP shenanigans.


Kantian said...

I'm not sure I agree - I think you're confusing the intrinsic meaning of games with the meaning that is opportunistically attached to them by commentators. There have been plenty of WW2 games which allow you to play as axis powers - in Close Combat 2, one could control SS forces. What would differ in your mind experiment is:

A) The game would be huge (since part of the COD phenomenon), and thus not seen as niche (like the mods which you refer to, or like Close Combat)

B) The title would be a huge red flashing light to opportunists, like the Brass Eye paedophile special (wasn't there a politician who weighed in on this without even seeing it? It's not the same thing, since Brass Eye was satirical, but this is the kind of demotic opportunism I'm talking about).

And possibly:

C) It would be first person, making use of modern graphics, and could thus be said to be 'realistic' and thus 'inappropriate'. I use scare quotes because such claims ignore that it is the imagination which makes someone feel part of a game, not the graphics. Someone can be detached from a modern shooter as they can be 100% tuned in to dungeons and dragons (witness the physical fights which sometimes break out in d and d games...)

These differences matter because they each allow an opening for cynical exploitism: Opportunists in the media, politics, or even the game's own promoters (as with GTA!) would jump on the game to further their own ends. And what would allow them to do this would not be the game's intrinsic meaning itself, but rather our rather inept ability to see meaning in everything (hence the ubiquity of correlation/causation errors).

I'm not denying that games NEVER have a meaning, but rather that they don't intrinsically have them. So it is perfectly plausible that the game in your thought experiment would originate as a successful mod written by someone who spotted a simple opening in the genre, just as it is plausible that it could originate from a devious plan hatched by an influential Nazi sympathiser lurking in Activision's wings. The point is, without further information, we cannot tell either way. I certainly don't think that the game has whatever meaning I, or a more publicly influential figure than me, attaches to it.

So, in summary, I think your claims are erroneous. Yes, something can be in bad taste (because it offends, for instance), and, yes, what we allow to be played/published/said/broadcasted tells us something about our wider political society (perhaps our public sphere is liberal, or perhaps it is organised around communitarian ideals, etc.). But these are aspects of the public culture, not individual acts within it. The meaning of those acts lies purely with the actors. And sometimes people act for acting's own sake.

Speedy said...

on a more serious note, i suspect the increasing realism of FPS and war ones in particular could act as a disincentive to war - certainly battling through the streets of Damascus on BF3 indicates how difficult street combat can be, and as someone who has experienced some of the incongruities of the modern real-world battlefield (which is another story) I can vouch for the realism of at least some games I hsve played. BF at least in some scenarios is particularly good at the "war zone" feel. I say bring it on, although the more reality - less action, less accuracy, less fun and a whole lot more hanging around could perhaps prove something a disincentive...

Phil said...

Spoken like a true Kantian, Kantian.

Intrinsic meaning is a very difficult concept to grapple, especially on a Friday night after a week's work! The point of this piece wasn't that a COD SS game, or any other video game for that matter, has an intrinsic, essentialised (noumenal?) meaning but rather all cultural products are produced in cultural contexts. There is always an indeterminacy - within arbitrary limits set by the content of the game - about the meanings a game can convey, meanings that, of course, depend on the acts of interpretation the consumer subjects them to. As you point out, a SS game under the COD franchise would be big news because it's COD. I know from folk who play war games like the Hearts of Iron series that there are those who adore recreating the 3rd Reich, etc. But again, context is everything.

The point I wanted to make was that, as far as intrinsic meanings go, all cultural products - like games - communicate messages whether we like it or not. People who deny this are kidding themselves.

Phil said...

I'll be comfortable about games' disincentive for war, Speedy, when they simultaneously capture the crushing boredom of hanging around mixed with the heart-stopping moments of terror ...

Speedy said...

yes, i don;t thinking packaging the actual "i could really get killed here" feeling would be very popular. However, I am dead against the sanitisation of war news coverage which i think promotes the impression that modern warfare has no victims just a few people being rushed to hospital - imagine how public policy would be transformed if they actually showed the blasted kids, the random limbs, the blood and guts, even if it was "post-watershed". People would simply not tolerate it and I think they would objectify the victims much less. There actually used to be more of this in the 70s and 80s... and people responded accordingly.

Phil said...

I understand where you're coming from. The cartoon gore that comes as standard in most modern FPS games isn't ever going to be a foil against war. I also completely avoid so-called war porn on the internet as I think it's voyeuristic rather than informative. But as this post is about context, perhaps their inclusion in news bulletins might have a powerful effect.

catherine buca said...

"I'm not sure I agree - I think you're confusing the intrinsic meaning of games with the meaning that is opportunistically attached to them by commentators."

@Kantian - then the same should be said of every single cultural product, be it tv programme, film, novel, magazine article, etc. Yes?

No. Because that would miss the point. It's not about 'intrinsic meaning'. To an extent, that doesn't matter. It's about how these products interact with, are informed by, and go on to inform, society. Everything does, whether it intends to have that message or meaning or not. Nothing is free from the process of being signified, and it's foolish to ignore how games - likewise any other media - are a part of what makes up the white noise of culture that is constituted by and constitutes our behaviours, beliefs and practices on a daily basis.

Games should not be afforded a special ring-fenced area of the media paddock where they can run unfettered from their responsibilities or the consequences of their content.

Kantian said...

So the point of dispute here is not about the meaning of a game (or any cultural activity, to follow Buca's expanse of the question), but about its effects. One would be foolish to concentrate on the meaning given to a game (“it's a means to entertainment and escape” is my guess as to what most developers would say) because this entails ignoring how it contributes to the “white noise” which constitutes our cultural context and “sends messages” to society (or should that be society's most vulnerable/most impressionable? This isn't clear – I can intuit from the fact that I once watched Natural Born Killers but continued to believe that murder is wrong that some people at least have the intellectual capacity to recognise moral distortions for what they are. So you need to be more specific here).

As far as it goes, this is undeniable. We come into a world not of our own making which both shapes us and delimits our flourishing and achievements. It was for this reason, after all, that Kant was so keen on the construction of a public morality and did not trust moral development to our innate capacity. But it is specious to move from this general and necessarily fuzzy statement to a form of determinism which is inconsistently serious enough to cause moral panics about the effects of the culture on the vulnerable and mutable enough to be understood and controlled by elites. Certainly, I am here extrapolating from your brief statements why you think it matters – presumably one could believe both what Phil and Buca say but think it inconsequential, but why then make the point? I expect that you both genuinely believe that the cultural context is of sufficient societal import that it should be constrained by politics, rather than the autonomous operations of society itself (or, worse still, the market).

If I am correct here, you are surely caught between the scylla of ignorance and the charybdis of superfluity. Either the world is so complex, full of so many contradictory and opaque cultural ideas and norms that we couldn't hope to understand it, let alone organise it to specific ends, or it is so straightforward that there really isn't a problem at all. For if we can make sense of society in terms of causal connections between cultural messages and human cognitive processes (i.e., action), then we must already know the brain and its workings in such detail that we can simply pathologise bad behaviour of any stripes. We cannot, of course, do this, so we are left to speculate on the “responsibilities” and “consequences” of media, such that we each develop our own pet theories which easily fit the over abundant data but may bear no resemblance to hidden, real-world causalities.

At this point, it may look as though I've conceded the main point, whatever problems exist with it. But this would be an empty concession, because the unknowability of the effects of cultural acts is so great as to rule out any kind of determinism. In particular, cultural acts are likely to have myriad unintended consequences which may be obstacles to armchair speculation, but which may make the most seemingly offensive cultural messages beneficial (and which may render the most seemingly beneficent messages harmful). This is not to say that we should not look out for societal harm, then, but rather that we should not assume it a priori by virtue of specious theory. Instead, we should focus on the basics of our public morality – the basic institutions of society, to use John Rawls's phrase. If we could improve these institutions (so that we don't allow thousands of children to rot in awful schools, so that we don't imprison huge swathes of the population, and so on) I think that even sociologists might agree that there is nothing intrinsically worrisome about a game that (like many before it) allows one to play as the bad guy.

Kantian said...


I edited this comment to change the last sentence from 'play as a Nazi' to 'play as the bad guy' as there are, of course, numerous considerations we must make to political, historical and moral sensibilities which do not necessarily factor into ontological theory but are nonetheless significant, and which I want to respect. The question is, does this political sentiment invalidate my argument?