It is a form of media that almost all of us have indulged in on countless occasions. The video game industry is an industry that is worth hundreds of billions, and reels in annual revenue that often overshadows even the film, television and music industries (sometimes combined). Often considered to be another form of artistic expression within the world of digital media, video games allow developers to bring their visions of interactive entertainment, story-telling and fun to millions of people across the globe. Such a huge market and influential form of digital media also makes the video game industry yet another area which allows creators an opportunity to explore and discuss real-world topics with their audiences. As video games become ever more realistic, with voice acting and motion capture performances almost matching the quality of film and television, it is only natural that the writers and directors of video games also begin to turn their attention towards tackling real-world subject matter. Politics is no exception.
There have been numerous video game franchises which have tackled an abundance of controversial and taboo real-world topics – some to greater effect than others – but as we enter the 2020s, it is more evident than ever that the video game industry is yet another industry that suffers from the effects of harsh politicisation and even censorship.
Initially, from the 1990s, video games were targeted for content which had then been deemed as “extreme” in nature. More often than not, this “extreme” content was violent and gory in nature, with popular games such as Doom, Soldier of Fortune and Manhunt being key examples. However, as consumers became ever more desensitised to extreme violence in video games, activists against controversial content in video games began to look at other issues within the industry to criticise. Next it was the depiction of criminal behaviour, with Grand Theft Auto being the most obvious example. Again, players were not deterred from one of their favourite hobbies. It soon became pretty clear to anti-video game activists that there was little that could be done to harm the ever-growing video game industry, and that any and all attempts to tackle controversial subject matter depicted within video games would only result in failure, as players only appeared to embrace the industry’s growing trend of exploring more realistic and real-world themes, such as society, warfare and politics. It is precisely here where activists and left-wing and liberal governments saw an opportunity to adopt very different strategies, in order to advance their own ideological interests and agendas.
Franklin Clinton with Dog from GTA 5 (License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike)
We will look at Germany as our first case study. Germany is a country that has very strict laws with regards to what content can and cannot be depicted in a video game. Of course, alongside extreme violence, certain historical and political imagery are banned under German censorship laws. It comes as no surprise that the imagery in question revolves around Nazi Germany. According to Germany’s Strafgesetzbuch (Criminal Code), Sections 86a is a law which states that depictions of “unconstitutional organisations”, the Swastika, Adolf Hitler and other images relating to the Nazis are classified as “racist propaganda”, unless the imagery is specifically used as part of a historical documentary, television series or film, for the sake of “educational” and “artistic” purposes. Sections 130 and 131 prohibit any material which is perceived to be intended for the incitement of the German people to commit violent and criminal acts. Naturally, this presents a number of problems for video games released in Germany which are themed around the Second World War. Historical accuracy is one key example.
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The Crime of Being Historically Accurate
In the 2017 first-person shooter video game Call of Duty: WWII, there are numerous occasions in which, of course, the Swastika is depicted on flags and banners throughout the game’s single-player campaign. This is not the case in the German version of the game. In the German version, the Swastika is replaced with an Iron Cross. A minor change, but a change in historical imagery nonetheless. Another 2017 first-person shooter – released exactly a week before Call of Duty: WWII – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, went much further in its censorship, however. In the normal version of the game, Adolf Hitler himself makes an appearance during the main story, and he is greeted by the people present in the Swastika-decorated room with an enthusiastic “Heil Hitler”. The German version of the game, however, was heavily censored to the point of absurdity. The Swastikas were replaced with a fictional triangular shape (images of the Soviet hammer and sickle were kept in the game, however), the cries of “Heil Hitler” became cries of “Mein Kanzler” (My Chancellor), and – most bizarrely – Hitler himself was edited…with the removal of his moustache. According to modern German censorship laws (apparently), simply removing Hitler’s moustache is enough to fool people into questioning whether or not it is actually Adolf Hitler himself that they are observing on their screens. Such an illusion would, of course, be broken to reveal the true Hitler, if his moustache were included on his face. Jokes aside, such cases of censorship of Nazi imagery in video games makes very little sense. What harm could possibly come out of simply depicting history as it really happened? What will the removal of historical political imagery achieve? Germany is a country that is already very much aware of its past, and anti-Nazi sentiment is constantly being emphasised to the German public almost daily, to the point where Germans nowadays are openly discouraged from even expressing patriotic feelings, in case it “risks a revival of Nazi ideology”.
The absurdity of Germany’s censorship of military-themed video games does not end there. Another recent example is the 2016 grand strategy video game Hearts of Iron IV. Developed by Swedish video game developer Paradox Development Studio – a company that is famous within the video game industry for their many historically accurate strategy game franchises – the German release of Hearts of Iron IV saw numerous changes which not only censored history, but also outright manipulated the depiction of historical truths. Several notable German wartime figures do not have detailed portraits of themselves, but are rather depicted as shadowy silhouettes; certain in-game speeches for Germany are altered; Waffen-SS commanders do not have the skull symbol on their caps; historical photographs which depict Hitler and other Nazi leaders in the normal version of the game are different in the German version; Adolf Hitler is renamed Armand Hiller. Unless there are individuals out there who genuinely hold little to no knowledge whatsoever regarding German history, it is highly doubtful that many Germans who have played this censored version of Hearts of Iron IV – a game advertised as being extremely historically accurate (at the beginning of the game’s campaigns, at least) – will have suddenly forgotten everything about Germany between 1918 to 1945, and will have suddenly become anti-nationalist left-wingers or liberals.
The Perversion of History
Of course, cases of not just censorship, but also manipulation of history in the name of political correctness and social justice within the video game industry continues to increase in intensity, as well as absurdity. Another example of the madness that is political correctness and social justice in video games can again be found within Call of Duty: WWII and another Second World War-themed video game, called Battlefield V. Not only do both games allow the player to choose to play as either a male or female soldier, but players are also given the choice of playing as a member of various different racial backgrounds. While most players will welcome the choice of freedom in creating their own personal video game characters, in the context of a historical setting it is often more than a little bit immersion-breaking to see Black women running around a battlefield wearing the various uniforms of the German Wehrmacht forces. Likewise, as is the case with Battlefield V, it is more than a little odd to see men of East African descent wearing the uniform of British infantry troops and fighting in Western Europe. Then there is the infamous case of the initial reveal trailer for Battlefield V depicting a British woman with a prosthetic arm engaging in brutal combat – both hand-to-hand and armed.
While one can argue that video games are not supposed to be documentaries, or accurate depictions of historical events, there is a significant difference between taking creative liberties for the sake of entertainment value and effective story-telling, and then outright venturing into the territory of the ridiculous for no other reason than to create a more “diverse” video game world. In fact, such attempts at becoming more “diverse” only end up disrespecting – and sometimes even outright omitting – those who actually took part in said events. Once again, to use Battlefield V as an example, there is a mission that requires the player character – a young Norwegian girl, called Solveig Fia Bjornstad – to sabotage German heavy water production plants in occupied Norway. Such missions of sabotage did indeed take place historically…but were primarily carried out by male commandos working in groups. If the developers of the game intended to tell the story of the heavy water sabotage missions in Norway, why was the contribution of the actual heroes who carried out the missions omitted?
If video game developers genuinely do wish to tell stories of other demographics in history – such as women and non-European ethnic minorities – what is stopping them from depicting true events which actually feature these people? Why did the developers of Battlefield V decide to create a completely fictional depiction of a disabled woman fighting for the British Army in the Western European theatre, instead of depicting, say, female fighters in the Soviet Union, of which there were numerous numbers of? Instead of throwing in various Black individuals in settings where there were very few – if any – present, why not portray, say, the various African-American units in the Second World War in settings where they would have been present, thus introducing people to a part of history which they otherwise may not have known about before. At least we can give Call of Duty: WWII some credit for attempting to portray such demographics in a more realistic manner, such as the depiction of female French resistance fighters and units of African-American soldiers in Europe.
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There is nothing wrong with depicting minorities and other demographics in media, whether they be in video game, film or television form. However, where the problem does lie is in the portrayal and depiction of said minority demographics in settings in which they were very rarely present, if they were even present at all in these respective situations. Instead of attempting to manipulate and change our perception of history in order to conform to the more “diverse” and “inclusive” agenda of 21st century left-wing and liberal politics, why not simply tell the truth as it actually happened, warts and all, while also introducing to people new areas of history that would allow minority demographics their chance to shine in the historical spotlight, without taking away anything from other individuals and groups?
Of course, as is the case with social media, censorship and content manipulation within the video game industry is on the increase dramatically. As of 2020, the trend now turns towards the monitoring and censorship of the very language that we use when gaming, both via text and speech. Yet again, Battlefield V provides us with another case of such issues. Upon the release of the game’s open beta in 2018, players of the PC version of the game discovered that typing in words such as “White man” and “Nazi” into the in-game text chat results in both words appearing as “***** ***” and “****”, respectively. Meanwhile, typing in any other colour with the word “man” following it does not lead to a censoring of the words. Apparently, discussion of White men and Nazis is forbidden…in a video game set during the Second World War.
With the next generation of video game consoles looming on the horizon, with Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5 set for mid-November releases, new controversies have already risen. The PlayStation 5 especially has been a target for criticism, as Sony recently announced that it will be implementing a new policy which would allow the company to record private voice conversations between gamers. The purpose of these recordings will be to monitor player conversations for alleged “violations” of so-called “community standards”, such as cases of verbal “bullying” and “harassment” against other players. Below is a statement from Sony via the PlayStation 4:
“ABOUT PARTY SAFETY
We want PlayStation Network to be fun for everyone, which is why we have a Community Code of Conduct. Please be aware that voice chats in parties may be recorded and sent to us by other users. By participating in voice chats, you agree to your voice being recorded. When behaviours that violate the Community Code of Conduct are reported, PlayStation Safety will review the reports to check if there have been genuine violations. These recordings will be used only for safety and moderation purposes by PlayStation Safety.”
While the exact nature of what constitutes as “violations of the Community Code of Conduct” remains vague, it is easy to predict that these will include not only bad language towards other people, but also verbal statements praising or criticising certain political groups and/or ideologies, such as Black Lives Matter (PlayStation have recently released the logo of the movement as a free background theme for the console’s home screen). Suspicions of PlayStation’s censorship campaign are further fuelled with PlayStation’s recent partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, an international NGO based in the United States that promotes so-called “anti-hate speech laws” and other pro-censorship policies.
One theory which does hold some weight is that in the run-up to the US Presidential Election, several social media platforms in support of Joe Biden and the Democrats have been creating new algorithms for their respective platforms in order to target users who allegedly hold right-wing views. Such cases of censorship and the banning of users are on the increase most evidently so on Facebook, as numerous Facebook pages are being shut down en masse for alleged violations of community conduct, as well as the posting of so-called “inappropriate” content. It has been theorised that the new algorithms have been designed specifically for the purpose of targeting people who express language and sentiments which are more common among people who hold right-wing beliefs, as they are the ones who have been most affected in the overwhelming majority of cases. With these new policies imposed by companies such as Sony and PlayStation also, it is likely that we will see such policies extended into the wider video game industry.
As we enter the next generation of video gaming, it remains to be seen exactly how far advocates of left-wing and liberal ideology will go in order to use the video game industry as yet another platform for the promotion and spreading of their ideology.
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