Wolfenstein II: How a First-Person Shooter Game Became a Voice of Real-Life Conscience

First-person shooter games have always been about consequence-free carnage and bloodlust. Perhaps moreso than any other type of video game, they allow us to escape into a realm of zero moral accountability and slake our urges against foes who are designed not to be pitied. Be they zombies, murderous aliens, or demons from Hell itself, foes that are not relatable to human emotions or morality in any way are the cannon fodder de jour.

But among the fictional beasties that take on these thankless roles, one very real type of antagonist stands out: Nazis. These very real men from a very dark time in recent history executed something so horrific and on such a massive scale that there could never be any ambiguity over whether or not it is okay to snuff out their lives in an inferno of muzzle flash.

Or so we all thought.

Since its first incarnation as a shooter developed by Id Software back in 1992, the Wolfenstein series has quietly and successfully chugged along cranking out wave after wave of Nazi horrors and rank after rank of gamers have risen up to gun them down. Back then, shooting Nazis wasn’t some complicated social justice stance: it was simply what you did, and every child from a generation raised on Indiana Jones movies knew that.

But here we are in 2017 where Nazis are actively marching in the street and openly supporting an American president who happily courted them on his journey to the Oval Office. Into this chaotic political climate comes Bethesda’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Following the 2014 reboot of the Wolfenstein brand, this latest sequel takes place in an alternate history where the Nazis have overrun the continental United States and it’s up to the player in the role of hero B.J. Bazkowicz to stop them.

Save the United States from Nazi invaders? Who wouldn’t be down with that?

In an era where Nazis can take over the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia while chanting “Jews will not replace us!” the answer is, apparently, a lot of people.

With cowards from the Alt-Right accusing the game of “virtue signalling” to SJW’s and criticizing the game’s use of a black female protagonist to mock the game’s racist foes as being somehow “racist against white people,” racist strongholds on 4chan, Reddit, and similar sites have been at a constant boil against this simple game. Of course the designers didn’t plan any of this. Indeed, the game was in development long before President Donald Trump’s racism-fueled rise could have been foreseen. But they have leaned into it hard with an ad campaign encouraging players to punch Nazis – a riff on the humiliating blow to the face that Neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer took during Trump’s inauguration – and also with the marketing slogan of “Make America Nazi-Free Again. This apes the words of Donald Trump himself, who rose to power on the slogan of “Make America Great Again.”

Unlike the 45th president, who has had trouble fulfilling the grandiose promises he ran on, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus seems intent on keeping its promises and then some. You can punch Nazis in the head or tear them limb from limb with every form of high tech weaponry you could possibly desire. Major game-oriented such as IGN and Kotaku have blessed it with highly favorable reviews. Sales appear to be strong. Everything is going Wolfenstein II’s way right now, and all because it is founded on a principal that has been common sense in America since at least 1942: that Nazis are evil and stopping them is good.

It is sad that it takes a video game propelled by gory, over-the-top violence to remind us of this. But maybe in this insane age we’ve created, it’s the only thing that can. America’s hands are not clean with regard to racism, as anyone who has the slightest familiarity with its bloody history is aware. Indeed, Nazi thinking about race, genetics, and eugenics were so thoroughly modeled on contemporary American thinking that it’s difficult to argue that Nazism isn’t a monster of our own creation that we’ve been battling ever since.

Then there is gaming culture were racism, misogyny, and homophobia have been spreading like cancer for years and now, emboldened and infiltrated by the Alt-Right, have burst into an open festering wound. Wolfenstein II’s s unapologetically pro-American message (the real America of our ideals, not the dark America of our actions,) in spite of this anti-American element among its consumer base says that there is hope yet. If there truly is still a market for this proven historical narrative where good triumphed over evil, and it takes a video game to remind us of this, then so be it. We have received a strange – yet hopeful – message for these dark and troubling times: that even in an ultra-violent video game world that asks us to leave our conscience at the door, our conscience – both as a country and as a people – can still be found.