Month: June 2017

The Meaning of Multiplayer: Call of Duty and Black Female Nazis

Sledgehammer, one of the three development teams working on the Call of Duty series, made a couple of interesting decisions in the upcoming release of Call of Duty: World War II (CoD:WWII). In spite of the games setting in Europe, the swastika is not going to be present in any of the online modes and, much more controversially, that even though the teams in the multiplayer were still going to be identified as the armies of World War II nations, you could play as people of any skin colour or sex on any team with the custom character feature. So what that means is basically black female Nazis.

This is an issue past that simplistic and somewhat stupid historical accuracy argument that would demand that everyone run around in Battlefield 1 as white boys with bolt-action rifles. Video games are for the most part unrealistic fantasies that mesh with a common theme. The argument against black multiplayer characters in Battlefield 1 for ‘historical accuracy’ is revisionist in and of itself because it forgets the African or Pacific colonial armies that pretty much every power in that war had. This is definitely true of all the nations within the game’s initial multiplayer teams on release. If the numbers are fudged for representation, what does it matter? There are prototype automatic weapons in that game that only saw use post-war, so if the guns can be fudged for user enjoyment why shouldn’t the numbers of ethnic variance in the soldiers for representation? Battlefield 1 presents a realm of believably in its variations from history not so much as that it presents an non-factual account of reality but that within the world of the game itself these variations from our reality seem reasonable. The consistency of this representation within the stories presented in the single player of the game adds to this as well.

Contrasting this with the decision for CoD:WWII we see some problems. Whilst the campaign of CoD:WWII will maintain its swastikas and accurate representation of an ideology bent on demagoguery and genocide both multiplayer modes will not. On the surface, a sound idea that fits in with neoliberal trends; Sledgehammer and Activision have to protect everyone from feeling slightly uncomfortable or being challenged by their art so that they can rake in those fat fat FAT stacks of cash, because god forbid anyone treat the other worst event in Europe in the 20th century with a bit of the dignity or respect that it deserves when money is involved. However, one cannot apply the same logic to CoD:WWII as Battlefield 1 to justify these inaccuracies. According to statements by Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey in an article with Forbes, the issue of Nazi iconography was a very big deal during development. Condrey establishes that “we also wanted to be authentic in our approach to game design. It’s a fine balance of not glorifying the symbolism, while also not ignoring or shying away from this dark moment in human history,” continuing to tout the historical accuracy of the campaign by establishing the employment of a military historian to ensure the game’s accuracy (Kain 2017).

And now, here are Condrey’s comments, as presented by Kain in his article, on the multiplayer:
“‘First, these are visceral experiences that are as much social and competitive as they are historical depictions of the conflict,’ he says. ‘Including Nazi symbols wouldn’t bring honor, nor be appropriate, without the rich history of a WW2 story to ground their context in Multiplayer.'”
“Condrey says that Sledgehammer ‘wanted our players, regardless of gender or ethnicity to feel they were represented in Multiplayer. The Call of Duty soldier you customize and play as should be a representation of you, your avatar in MP, and that soldier can look however you choose. Allowing players to take themselves into battle, whether assigned to the Allied or Axis factions, was a strategic decision which we believe strikes the right balance of fun and inclusiveness.'” (Kain 2017)

This perspective is immensely problematic in my opinion. The removal of swastikas in the online is understandable, with one build of the game making the most financial sense for European distribution. Realistically, swastikas aren’t actually that important. The symbol is a corruption of a Buddhist peace sign, in and of itself meaning very little in a material sense other than being the symbol of a failed state. The ideology that the symbol represents is what is dangerous, not the symbol itself, and as seen by United States politics and the rise of the alt-right that ideology can exist easily without the swastika being attached to it. As long as you present the Nazis as being ideologically Nazis in the game, you’re still properly recognising the setting and doing justice to the weight of the atrocities committed by those subscribing to that ideology. Call of Duty: World War II does not do this because apparently a full two-thirds of its game rejects the ideological principals of the Nazis entirely through its visual presentation and through choices given to the player, which are the two largest parts of the interactive medium of video games.

The use of custom characters in the online is a business decision to continue the cosmetic micro-transactions that have been a constant in the series for the last couple of iterations, however it thoroughly spits in the face of every black person of whatever ethnicity who during the Nazi regime and occupations was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp. It doesn’t matter if you want to address World War II ‘playfully’, that is the fact of it; millions of people died in forced labour and death camps and to have to have an element of your game that ignores that within a historical setting is to have your game as a whole become ignorant of the weight of the scenario it is set in. For an example of a piece of media doing what I’m talking about right, watch Inglorious Bastards. Unless Sledgehammer is making a very bleak statement about the nature of colonialism then there is no reason for people of colour to be playable in a capacity where they are explicitly in service to those who wished to execute or enslave them, and I’m pretty sure from Condrey’s statements there is definitely no attempt to make any intentionally explicit or implicit statements in the multiplayer.

This decision also says something about the way that Sledgehammer view the modes of play within their game, the artistic integrity of their online component, and their game as a whole. The assertion that the campaign needs to retain historical accuracy whilst the multiplayer is in service of the greater idea of a different kind of enjoyment that is removed from the historical context that it is itself set in is completely devoid of any honesty on Condrey’s part or the company’s for letting him go on public record with such hot, wet garbage. The statement implying that the multiplayer needs the “rich history of a WW2 story” is stupid when you consider that the game is being marketed as having that story present in its campaign. The multiplayer isn’t sold separately, last I checked. This statement seems to read as either a concession that the campaign is going to be completely inaccurate and just generally trash, or alternatively that Sledgehammer doesn’t think that the campaign is worth playing and doesn’t expect anyone to play it. Both of those then pose the question from the consumer: why is it in the game and why am I being charged for it?

The comments about representation in the multiplayer being a prime concern are also shallow and dishonest if not a worrying misinterpretation of what representation actually is. Its kind of safe to say that black Nazis misrepresent both what the Nazi movement was about and how most people feel about the idea of their ethnicity being faced with proposed eradication; something tells me that most people wouldn’t willingly join a group advocating for their death. You could then make the point about unwilling service through colonialist slavery but as mentioned before there is no indication of the multiplayer trying to make any kind of point about anything, with Condrey’s comments seeming to reinforce that sentiment. In this case, the only assumption then becomes wilful service and hence the misrepresentation.

From a games-as-art perspective, this attitude brings into question whether Sledgehammer sees the multiplayer elements of their game having any artistic value, since they so readily disregard the subject of their art and the impactful statements that they claim to want to make with their campaign. The disregard for their setting and its themes in two-thirds of the game seems to present the multiplayer as being artistically lesser in terms of importance to the campaign, meaning that the final product of the game as a whole is less than each of its parts in isolation. There’s much more to go into with this argument because its largely theoretical and debate worthy, so leaving it here seems apt until I’m both more informed on art theory, but still I wanted to present this as more food for thought.

Finally, the statements made by Condrey bring into question what significance Call of Duty’s settings actually have for the series’ multiplayer. If the focus of the multiplayer is on representation then why does the multiplayer assign players to opposing militaries at all? Why not just have Team Red and Team Blue like Overwatch (a game that actually does care about representation legitimately) and have people run their custom avatars around the World War II battlefields with World War II guns and leave the multiplayer at that? The reasoning for this becomes obvious when observing Condrey’s statements about there being no honour in the swastika or fighting under it, and his comments about people creating their own soldiers as themselves. Call of Duty has often been criticised for being a glorification of war, and those who publish and develop the series as well as critics and fans have rejected these statements with the sentiment that the series does the opposite. The Modern Warfare series, World at War, and the first two Black Ops games all posed direct critiques of the state as a violence monopoliser and of war itself, with Modern Warfare being notorious for its shocking scenes that demonised those who exploited war and violence for personal gain. Condrey’s statements and their contextualising of this decision present it as a blatant promotion and glorification of war, something which spits in the face of the series’ position throughout the years and removes a lot of credibility from the artistic-based arguments which pointed to the campaigns in defence of Call of Duty’s multiplayer over the years.

The way that we view video games is important, as well as reading into what they are telling us either intentionally or otherwise. To treat this medium with lower standards just because of its age or its nature, or simply because it is this medium, is basic and an excuse for laziness on the part of creators. The only way that we, as a community can make video games better, to have them recognised as art, is by analysing and scrutinising them the same way which we treat other art forms in media such as books or film. Ergo: just because our standards are low with this series, does not mean it CoD:WWII gets a free pass with this poorly thought out move. And even larger than that we now have the question of ‘what is a multiplayer mode in relation to its single player and the game as a whole?’, which I am very interested to follow the discussion around.

What do you recon? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Want to spit on my grave because I made you so goddamned ANGRY by being so WRONG or do you worship me as the second coming of Christ for my arguments? Leave a comment and tell me what you think!