How shooting Nazis in video games became a political statement

Ysabela Golden

Tensions have been high since the 2016 presidential election: protests are occurring more and more frequently; a constant stream of White House leaks have been dominating everyone’s weekly news; and, for some reason, Nazis have been reintroduced into the U.S.’ modern political scene. As a result, our culture has become so saturated with politics that people have been finding the subject hard to get away from, even in places that would never have seemed controversial this time last year. 

Such has been the case with the “Far Cry” and “Wolfenstein” series of video games. The first features lawless frontiers ruled by evil despots, the second an alternate-universe version of World War II. For years, the two first-person shooters have used their inherently violent settings to allow players to let loose on their world’s inhabitants without the resulting mayhem having any actual moral ramifications. Nothing says “acceptable target practice” like mercenaries, pirates and Nazis. It’s not surprising, then, that neither series has ever been considered particularly politically groundbreaking—at least not before the introduction of their new installments, “Far Cry 5”  and “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” at the 2017 Electronic Entertainment Expo.

The reveal that the “lawless frontier” of “Far Cry 5″ would be on U.S. soil—fictional “Hope County,” Montana, to be precise—was a surprise to many and a first for the series. Apparently more surprising was the new despot for players to depose: Father Joseph Seed, the charismatic leader of the Bible-thumping, flag-waving and rifle-toting members of the cult “Eden’s Gate.” Despite the game’s creative director, Dan Hay, saying “the idea of going to the states for ‘Far Cry’ has existed for almost five years,” many fans thought the premise was specifically making a statement about our recent political situation in the U.S. Not only that, but many considered the cult as depicting the demographic responsible for President Donald Trump’s election, an interpretation that evoked strong emotions from both sides of the political spectrum.  

While the creators of “Far Cry 5” attempted to distance themselves from any actual political statements, the “Wolfenstein” team took the opposite route. It’s hard to miss the tension around the subject of Nazis in the U.S. in the wake of the sudden, post-election media presence of the so-called “alt-right”; months of think pieces on whether or not it was okay to punch white nationalist Richard Spencer; and, finally, torchlit marches of actual swastika-bearing Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. Not one to miss an opportunity, the official “Wolfenstein” Twitter released a short clip Thursday, Oct. 5, of uniformed Nazi soldiers marching in the streets with a new slogan: “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” You probably don’t need me to spell out what this tagline is referencing, and neither did the Twitter users who responded with various levels of vitriol and enthusiasm.

It’s depressing that a speculative, fictitious version of a war that happened more than 70 years ago can fit itself so neatly into our contemporary political conversation. It’s depressing that “creepy, Midwestern cultist” can apparently be read as caricatured shorthand for a significant portion of our country’s voting population. But what’s even more depressing is that two video games are creating this much discussion and controversy when they were clearly never intended to carry any deep political meaning in the first place. “The New Colossus” is just rehashing the same premise the series has had since 1981. “Far Cry 5” was just trying to cash in on the unexpectedness of a game set in the U.S. Both were conceived before any of the events they’ve been seen as commenting on even happened, and neither make any actual political statements outside of “cults are bad” and “Nazis are evil.” Even our president was recently willing to make a statement confirming the latter; it’s the bare minimum of human decency, not a political opinion.

That’s what makes people finding controversy in bizarre places like this so unnerving because the announcement of these two games should have been utterly par for the course and would have been if they had come out even a year earlier. But instead, our country has shifted and is continuing to shift, and suddenly, shooting Nazis in a videogame is a political statement. Really, it is. We’ve had enough debate lately about their right to freedom of speech and the morality of Antifa’s counter-violence that a depiction of a man murdering people for being Nazis is now inherently political, even though murdering people for being Nazis has been a staple in U.S. entertainment for more than 70 years. 

I hope this is as far as this particular controversy goes. I really do. But if you had told me this time last year that “Make America Nazi-Free Again” would be a 2017 videogame tagline with a cutting and relevant reference to recent events in our contemporary political climate, I would not have believed you. And that thought makes me very, very nervous about what might be “controversial” next year that I would never expect based on where we are today.