Don’t, Mention, The War!

Chances are that if you work on big-budget video games for a living you’ll eventually make something with Nazis in it, and while the coming of that day may not be a surprise, the news that your project will be released in Germany often is. Why would Germans want to play a game where they mainly shoot other Germans, you think. But Germany is the world’s second-largest market for many types of games, and a World War II theme has never been shown to harm a title’s sales there. At the same time, playing a game localized properly for Deutschland and set in der Zweite Weltkrieg can be like experiencing an unsettling alternate reality: all the Nazi symbology and slogans are gone– effaced completely. The vertical crimson banners still hang but are emblazoned with the iron cross or another innocuous symbol in the center, and those dual lightning bolts of the SS, so ubiquitous on your reference material, have been totally scrubbed away.

Germany’s laws are strict in this matter (in September last year Activision recalled German copies of Wolfenstein from retail for containing a single swastika texture that its quality-control process evidently missed– never mind that the game has about as much to do with World War II as Moe Moe Niji Taisen does), and since a commercial video game is supposed to entertain and make money, not prompt sober reflections of history, an international corporation’s best strategy is to play it as safe as possible. This approach gets carried to absurd extremes: I once worked on a game for which the German version never mentioned their own historical figures by name: Göring was always translated as the Reichsmarschall, and Rommel was the wüstenfuchs, even to his own troops.

The practice of regional censorship of internationally created media is nothing new, of course. But the technology of video games can make alterations more precise and more surreal than a black bar or a jump cut (the same system that switches out a game’s spoken language or text for localization can swap any asset in the game itself, so it is usually quite simple to configure builds of a game for certain territories that have special rules). One could be in the same virtual room as a player from another country and be looking at the same wall and be seeing two entirely different things. So though we extoll the shared experiences that multiplayer games can give us, the potential for fragmentation of experience– of, indeed, a kind of reality– is just as possible.