The standard line on the release of Wolfenstein sequel The New Colossus goes such – the time between the releases of it and its prequel has transformed political culture and the result is that what was once simply schlocky pulp ur-video game stuff has become something more profound and important by staying the same. I take issue with this; but not because I don’t agree that media that gleefully slaughters Nazis doesn’t feel distressingly refreshing and contentious at the point in history we’re at. Instead I think it’s an obfuscation of what the previous game was, one that is fairly indicative about how the ascendance of the far right in the world of mainstream politics is framed.
Back when I played the “original” part of the new Wolfenstein series, I went in with few expectations beyond some gratifyingly themed video game murder that would likely present a standard pop culture version of Nazism as an isolated incomprehensible evil to be stopped by heroic American troops. What it turned out to be, though, was a very thoughtful story of resistance to a more modern Nazism, a banding together of oppressed categories swamped by an American culture that very deliberately and pointedly doesn’t seem to have diverged all that much from real world America. The New Order uses its readable newspaper clippings to tell the story of a relatively seamless incorporation of American culture into the culture of the Nazi Party. 20th Century American history progresses much as it had in reality, just in German. It even takes the format of American nuclear strike apologism and turns it back on the US, with articles discussing the “need” for the bomb and how many lives it saved in negotiating US surrender.
In contrast to this, the resistance reveals the Nazis’ inability to wipe out the weak and the different. The situation is desperate, but the downtrodden are never fully defeated. The resistance is made up of the racial minorities suffering the most under Nazism; the disabled and the women whose part in Nazi culture is as a seized child bearing industry, never fully human.
The pulp and absurdity of it all covers up a priority in discussing the idea that western culture created Nazism and has always been just so close to sympathising with it. Period piece scenes of psychedelic drug taking with Jimi Hendrix give way to him arguing that, to Black America, any given US soldier is no different to a German one, and that the political priorities of White America has always been as White supremacist as Nazism itself. In the sequel “wholesome” traditional American culture – milkshakes, cheery parades and the burgeoning entertainment industry – all continue unabated, existing side by side with Nazi commandants, secret police and death squads. Nazis walk the streets prepping KKK members for maintaining their rule over America and scenes show that America was full of people ready for the brutal reinstatement of slavery with or without the intervention of Nazism. All of this too echoes the assistance the US provided to fleeing Nazis at the fall of the regime in reality and the core of the argument made is that the western world has never truly been too far from this kind of rehabilitation.
The New Order came out not very long before the fascist youth recruitment flashpoint known as Gamergate. To call it a prediction is, I think, trite and it is in that game’s reception as exciting pulp contrasted against The New Colossus’ (marketing campaign framed) reception as an important statement that my unease lies. My point here is that nothing has changed in what the game has to say and I think that the push to say the cultural shift has made its point more serious than before is a betrayal of the people who were talking about these things prior to it becoming a hot button topic to the press. There may have been one extended explosive moment centred around video game press but it didn’t come out of nowhere and the games industry was never what was really what anyone cared about. The practice of recruiting angry young men with a grudge against women who won’t date them, racial minorities who get “special treatment” or the disabled and the queer who get to “play the victim card” has been a long term strategy. Any member of any minority group who has spent time involved in online communities has experienced this in one form or another going back over a decade at the least. It’s long been an open secret that a mounting far right backlash against minority rights, welfare policies and the like has been growing not only within mainstream society for decades, but influencing members of majority groups in society in their personal interactions. Many lately rush to blame attempts by young people online and in universities to argue for respect and their rights for “creating” a right wing backlash, an argument that revolves around the concept of the right wing springing fully formed from nowhere. This is an argument that says if the violent majority aren’t pandered to correctly then their victims are to blame for their own subsequent suffering.
Prior to the American election and the Gamergate explosion women were being run out of games careers, sexualised beyond belief just for existing and blamed for every single thing male consumers didn’t like. Sexual harassment is rife in all industries and the impulse to cover that up for the sake of not making waves echoes across all of western life. The treatment of minority groups in games and all other industries, in short, was never a secret; it was something people hid, people thought made up, people claimed victims were responsible for and ultimately a subculture formed around the idea of punishing those who “use victimhood” against those who traditionally run society: those who were brought up being told they were the inheritors of White American Capitalism. Women destroyed games, immigrants destroyed the job market, disabled people are draining the nation dry and queers are destroying white identity from inside the family unit – all of these a rallying call to unify the reactionary white man in the cry “we will not be replaced”, a cry that finally links back to the Nazi party’s belief that Jewish people operate an international conspiracy to draw all these groups into an anti-white war.
The point here is this has been an open and growing phenomenon for as long as I can remember being online. Nazis have been in everyone’s periphery for ages, jokes about Stormfront users weren’t exactly uncommon years ago and while often portrayed as “just internet losers,” their ideology was clearly influencing people who intended to practice it in more socially acceptable forms. Indeed the people portraying them as basement dwelling losers often did so to portray themselves in comparison; they were normal people so their beliefs couldn’t possibly be hateful, just realistic. The press now has failed to truly reckon with this, largely owing to the same arguments Wolfenstein makes about western culture, and it has far more in common with the far right than it would like to think. The idea of Nazism as something that stirs in the heart of western reactionary culture that has just bided its time to re-emerge doesn’t fit in with the post-war consensus that the far right and all competing ideologies to centrist capitalism were simply wiped out. It doesn’t fit with a long term cultural drive to make Americans the sole defeaters of Nazism, a deliberate cold war attempt to withdraw not only Communism’s credit for defeating the German Nazi Party but to make them out to be essentially the same thing – obfuscating the Nazi’s belief that Communism was an affront due to their belief in it being a Jewish conspiracy for world domination (a concept that extremely unfortunately is invoked by Wolfenstein in it’s attempt to portray Nazi alt-history successes as the result of stealing from secret Jewish science).
In failing to reckon with white supremacy in the west, in situating it in a single moment nobody could’ve predicted, and in erasing those who did and were subsequently run out of public (or never allowed to be there at all due to the same culture that created these reactionary young men in the first place), the industry has failed minorities. This lays the ground for this to happen again and again as a new discourse is made that ultimately still ends up being white men arguing with white men about the question of minorities. As much as it pains me to say it (and to see him painted as a staunch counter-cultural hero) Phil Fish was absolutely right the other day to say games journalism failed people in ignoring this phenomenon until it was convenient not to, and the damage done hasn’t even nearly been repaired with surface level introspection that doesn’t address the roots of the issue. I’m under no illusions that a capitalist industry is ever going to manage to do away with the heart of capitalist social division, but it is galling to see an industry tell me that our struggles with the people that want to wipe us out have only now taken on significance on the weight of a corporate advertising campaign that tells you it’s your friend and not the work the writers of that series did prior to now to communicate this true face of the western world and, more importantly, the work the people who struggled in the shadows of the industry did to even try to be believed at all about what they go through.
Wolfenstein is great (serious missteps aside) and it is absolutely wonderful to see people getting excited over the destruction of Nazis As a weird sort of corporate agitprop, the ad campaign managed to feel almost comforting in a year as wretched as this. I’m glad too that minorities and the rise of far right ideologues in games are a concern to larger parts of the industry now, I just find it insulting to be told all of this is a recent phenomenon and that “we” did nothing to try to stop it. More importantly I feel that if we allow this recent resurgence to be mythologised into just being drawn from a single moment about anger at a single entertainment industry we risk empowering an idea of history that doesn’t truly challenge them and in the long term gives them room to wriggle back in as they have now as “radicals” and to be portrayed once more as exciting dapper sages with answers to problems or misguided young men who “have a point though”. I wish I could believe this fanciful Nazi murder pointed to a true shift in culture against them but I liberated Europe from Nazism in video games way back in the early Xbox 360 days, while young men around me learned they could turn their hate into a legitimate career path and that not enough people cared about minority lives to really notice when they were run out of their own ones.
In an industry still having debates about the relative degrees to which South Park might be progressive and fondly recalling its “transgression” that is no different to the average internet Nazi’s free speech posturing, it becomes hard to feel optimistic that the roots are being examined. It’s true that Wolfenstein didn’t change while society did, but the degree to which it is actually different is, I think, overstated. It is also being done in a way that credits the discovery of the brutal far right resurgence being suffered across the western world to many of the same people who did nothing as it rose:the people who remained relatively unscathed through its destructive online spectacle. It too relies on the belief that America became corrupted, which in turn requires the belief that America hasn’t been exporting its own death squads and “alt-rights” across the world for decades. Wolfenstein makes me feel like part of a resistance to homegrown Nazism but the standard gaming press lines and the advertising campaigns make me feel as though “resistance” is for people unlike me. At a time when some leftist organisations buy into the insular Angela Nagle-esque idea that minorities “provoked” the reaction, popular ex-internet forum men who harassed people like me in my teens and helped build the culture internet Nazis operate in now successfully rebrand as sensible lefty types with no examination of their behaviour (or often even an end to their participation). Centre-leftists love to talk about how their election was handed over because democrats mentioned queers occasionally, and that worries me.
In the end the distasteful violent face of the far right serves their more “respectable” ideological allies in giving them something to condemn in line with everyone else, allowing their good old classical western capitalist white supremacy to cleanse itself of the association. Capitalism itself is certainly not new to crafting itself as an anti-Nazi brand all the while benefiting from the subjugation far right politics provides. If the bar for what counts as resistance is set too low then things like this genuinely refreshing take on making pulp villains of white supremacy will become as toothless as all the old anti-Nazi culture and even conservatives will be able to pass themselves off as Nazi Hunters.