At E3 2017, Call of Duty: WWII's multiplayer mode was discussed in detail and playable to those who attended. One of the biggest additions that people noticed was that you could heavily customize your avatar in ways that you couldn't in previous titles — including their race and gender. That led to some bizarre new options, like the ability to play as a black Nazi.
Polygon's Charlie Hall brought this feature to the public's attention after writing about the experience of meeting a black, female Nazi in-game — an interaction that would obviously be ahistorical. For Hall, as well as many other gaming fans, this has facilitated some interesting discussions about historical and political accuracy and representation.
Should you be able to shoot black, female Nazis in Call of Duty: WWII? The problem is deeper than that.
It's a complicated issue, and, unlike many other debates when it comes to diversity, both sides have valid points. Arguably, including black Nazis in Call of Duty is a step forward: After all, if we want representation and the ability to look like ourselves in video games, we need to accept that it can come in many forms. True diversity means anyone of any background can be the hero or the villain, even if that sometimes makes us uncomfortable.
On the other hand, changing this particular point in history can serve to reduce the historical impact of World War II. Aligning characters of color with real-life Nazis may muddy the real-life effects of the Nazi regime throughout history and up to the present,
The real issue here may be a deeper question that's worth interrogating: Why do we spend so much time playing games about World War II, anyway?
Black Nazis in Call of Duty: WWII are part of a bigger problem in video game culture
Literally hundreds of video games have been made about World War II. That may be because Nazis are a very specific and very famous enemy that lends itself well to video games. Hitler can easily be portrayed as the main antagonist without requiring much context or exposition from the developer.
It's too easy to make Hitler a bad guy — and too easy to make America a hero.
Comparatively, relatively few games have been made about, for example, World War I or the Vietnam War. That may be because the historical context is more complex — and so is the United States' legacy.
In WWII games, though, America can easily be portrayed as the protagonist without having to address any complicated history. While it's understandable from a business perspective why developers would want their games to be easily digestible and marketable, this slant toward glamorizing the United States in wartime settings is a slippery slope.
The oversaturation of World War II content risks desensitizing people to the horrors of the Holocaust and misrepresenting the contemporary violence of white supremacy — often committed by people who don't look anything like Nazis of yore. Turning Hitler and the Nazis into standby video-game villains desensitizes players to their real-world impact — particularly for some white male gamers, who seem particularly susceptible to white supremacists' line of reasoning.
So in some ways, adding the option to play as a black female Nazi is a step in the right direction. But when you look at the big picture, it's still part of a wider issue that helps explain the alarming state of politics today.
More gaming news and updates
Check out the latest from Mic, like this essay about the sinister, subtle evils lurking in rural America that Far Cry 5 shouldn’t ignore. Also, be sure to read our review of Tekken 7, an article about D.Va’s influence on one Overwatch player’s ideas about femininity and an analysis of gaming’s racist habit of darkening villains’ skin tones.