Complex Narratives, the Rise of Fascism, and Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein is no longer appealing to the target demographic that the series has historically adored it, and there are two main reasons why.

As October creeps ever-closer, so does the release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, MachineGames’ sequel to the 2014 revival of the iconic nazi-killing action series. Wolfenstein has been a mainstay of video games since the third title in the series, Wolfenstein 3D, revolutionized the first-person perspective by introducing simplistic, fast-paced gun combat into the series’ anti-fascist formula, and practically inventing the FPS genre back in 1992.

And once again, it’s bringing a revolution to the industry: or, more accurately, to an alternate version of 1960’s America where Germany won the Second World War. Nazi flags fly in the streets in place of the star-spangled banner, Klansmen talk with SS officers about catching up on their German lessons, and game shows like “German… Or Else!” are broadcast to every television set in the United States. And we, dear old B.J. Blazkowicz, fight alongside a unified resistance movement to try and bring freedom back to the land of the free.

And that’s all well and good, you’d rightly assume. If you asked someone to list things that they could kill in a video game, Nazis will almost always be one of their first three responses. Their historical hatred and acts of genocide has cemented their ideology as one of society’s generally-agreed true evils.

But in the past decade, far-right mentality–not limited to Fascism and white supremacy–has experienced somewhat of a mainstream resurgence. It’s always been there, creeping in the shadows and manifesting with subtlety in power structures across the globe, but until recently it hasn’t been worryingly-common to see them marching in the streets brandishing swastika flags. The normalization of such bigotry can no doubt be attributed to a fast-growing movement spawned by the likes of the National Policy Institute and 4chan: the Alt-Right.

The loosely-defined group of extreme right-wing thinkers purposefully evade any definitive goal or official organization, allowing them to dodge critique and paint the left as paranoid and reactionary. But in observing the beliefs of many who claim ownership of the term, much of the Alt-Right stands for one thing: the advocacy of a socially-conservative white ethno-state. They’ve always walked the fine line between what is considered socially risqué in a liberal-centrist society and outright Nazism, aiming to present a less-threatening image, tidying up their language; opting for dog whistle terminology like “identitarianism,” and “preserving Western values.” But in doing so, they’ve shifted the global political spectrum far right enough that bona fide fascism is beginning to be seen as simply a “differing political opinion,” and as such, more and more have begun to openly espouse the rhetoric of groups like the National Socialist Party of America.

Now, how does this all relate to Wolfenstein II? Well, Wolfenstein as a series and the countless first-person shooters that have spawned from its legacy have always marketed to a stereotype target audience: the young, hyper-masculine “dude-bro” archetype. This demographic is seen to have an undying love for fast-paced, action-packed, gun-running violence, and for a significant portion of the genre’s history, this was almost always directed at video games’ favourite villain, the Nazi.

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And for a while, this was absolutely fine. But, as with many things, we can apply a Venn diagram, and there’s a large intersection between the target demographic of the FPS, and the target demographic of Alt-Right recruitment: insidious propaganda campaigns designed to appeal to both the impoverished white working class and the middle-upper class yearning for a sense of purpose, making promises like “reclaiming the honor of your ancestors.”

Of course, nothing definitive or factual can be said of the circumstances without conducting studies and surveys, but we can at least theorize that a chunk of the typical first-person shooter demographic may have fallen victim to the temptations of the Alt-Right. This in turn may introduce these same people to other flavours of pie in the far-right pie shop, so to speak, possibly explaining fraternal groups like the Proud Boys.

And with the FPS genre focusing more on the modern day and futuristic landscapes in recent times, it makes sense that we haven’t seen this politically-incidental backlash until recently. Only now that video games are really returning to Nazis as the central villain in their worlds are we feeling the heat from Alt-Right gamers. The comment sections of The New Colossus’s trailers, the replies to tweets from the Bethesda and Wolfenstein Twitter accounts, and threads on forum sites like Reddit and NeoGAF are worryingly filled with comments decrying the game for encouraging the murder of ‘people with different political beliefs.’

But killing Nazis isn’t the only part of Wolfenstein II that’s fueling far-right outrage. Many are also critical of the diversity present in the resistance, and accompanying the defense of Fascism are accusations that Bethesda are pandering to ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice warriors.’

Those that Blazkowicz will ally himself with in The New Colossus are quite the varied bunch: people of colour, those experiencing varying degrees of disability, and even a positive portrayal of (genuine) Communists. B.J. himself even fits into this crowd, as a now paraplegic jewish person who only finds himself on his two feet and slaying Wehrmacht thanks to a futuristic exo-suit. And in reality, these are groups of people that would and do in fact lead the charge against Fascism wherever they see it.

The representation in Wolfenstein II is an example of how far video games have come in their ability to convey rich and complex narratives. In Wolfenstein 3D, due to technical limitations and societal perspectives on what video games should be allowed to explore, all you really did was run around a castle and shoot SS soldiers. But now that we have even bigger studios with teams dedicated to storytelling, all existing within a slowly-maturing industry, the stories that we tell in games have a heightened potential to show us more of the intricacies and details that one would find in the real world.

We saw resistance movements resembling that in The New Colossus in Nazi Germany. They were small and often disorganized, but they were certainly there. Red Orchestra, a group of anti-fascists, Communists, and Anarchists, assisted in the production of anti-Nazi propaganda and aided Jewish people and other targeted minority groups in fleeing the country. Not to mention the countless attempts on Hitler’s life throughout the period of the second world war. And it’s this aspect of a Fascist occupation that we can realize in games, with more dedication and time put into them, and it’s exactly what’s being realized in Wolfenstein II.

This no doubt contributes to the greater outrage surrounding the game. But it also has another impact: it’s making it more appealing to the progressive left. Whether intentional or not, MachineGames have, in their fleshed-out depiction of a Nazi United States, given the voiceless and the downtrodden some representation in a fight against Fascism. If it weren’t enough that one could enjoy killing Nazis with giant guns as it is, we can now do so alongside people that we feel stronger connections and a greater degree of empathy with.

Through a mixture of a global political shift, a rise in Fascism, and a greater ability to construct narratives in video games, the target audience of Wolfenstein, be it intentional or not, has shifted. No longer is the demographic the hypermasculine with a penchant for violence. Wolfenstein is now a game for the exploited, the minority, and the unashamed anti-Fascist.

(Special thanks to my editor Wesley Elkins for helping me with what was a very lengthy job.)