Flash of Steel header image 2

Dealing with “The Hitler Problem”

January 19th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 21 Comments · Design, History

A writer with the name “Poisoned Sponge” has written a long post dealing with a question that I have tackled before many times. Taking the Total War games as his starting point, the writer asks about how far game designers can deal with the moral horrors of the 20th century. Creative Assembly is making an 18th and 19th century game that has no slavery or slave trade; can you make a game from our century that avoids Hitler?

The problems with a Total War game held in the 20th or 21st Century is that instead of one political mine, there are dozens. Maybe hundreds.

The Holocaust. Ethnic Cleansing. Two World Wars. Atrocities in Africa and the Middle East. Those are the biggest four I can think of off the top of my head, and all of them are incredibly divisive issues. There is no way they can avoid the World Wars and still have a game that is any semblance of relation to our world….The Total War series brings you back further, allowing you to parley, trade and declare war. By allowing such a vast political playground to explore, you are, without doubt, creating a set of tools with which to bring about a World War.

And yet, there are lots of games that deal with the World Wars and don’t touch genocide. And I’m talking about Company of Heroes, which Poisoned Sponge rightly notes is a toy army game. Clash of Steel (no relation), Hearts of Iron, Commander: Europe at War…all take a broad view of the immediate war period, with diplomacy and production, and don’t delve into the true darkness of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. The tyrannical governments become ones with different troop dispositions or, in HoI, different limitations on production and diplomacy. In fact, Paradox may ban you from their forums if you go there and advocate the historical inclusion of forced labor, death camps and organized relocation of entire populations.

Does the war they present bear any “semblance of relation to our world”?

Poisoned Sponge (there’s a reason I avoid nicknames…) thinks that the main distinction is time and romance.

Yes, Medieval: Total War had the crusades, but, like everything a few hundred years old, the Crusades have been romanticised by the Knights Templar, Assassin’s Creed and Bernard Cornwell. We now think of glittering knights, dirty Persians and flaming balls of catapult fodder. So you play it with a clear conscience, taking the Holy Land back from the heathens. It’s not a problem for the modern conscience.

It’s folly to assume that World War II has not been romanticized. The actions of America’s so-called Greatest Generation and the gallant Brit standing alone in the blitz have obviously taken on some glamor. Patton and Rommel are this century’s Richard and Saladin, figures of mythic stature. In many corners of the Internet, there is considerably more romance around the dark black SS uniform and “professionalism” of the still white-washed Wehrmacht than there is around the East India Company.

Given the number of World War II games out there, PS is presenting a bit of a false dilemma. And this pattern continues into other 20th century themed games. Combat Mission: Shock Force, though set in a contemporary Middle East, avoids the place of civilians in insurgent warfare. Refugees almost never clog the roads that a tank needs to use. The calculation of the media equation is avoided.

Grand strategy games have always been able to elide some of the messier parts of history. Colonization doesn’t have slaves, though the new version lets you choose it as a civic for your newly freed nation – you get a production bonus but don’t seem to lose your soul. The game has always given you the option to relive the displacement/eradication of the local natives. So, for Firaxis, the latter is a more central fact of the settling of the Americas than the former. By focusing on the work of diplomats and generals in the pre-modern era, grand strategy gamers don’t have to deal with the fact that half the human population is little more than chattel, fit to be married off to produce heirs but little else.

You could, of course, go in circles arguing about whether games are capable of dealing with the ugliness of history in a classy way, and even if we want them to do so. Games are about abstraction, and anything not germane to the design is, arguably, better left out. (In the Total War games, that means those little emissary units that die once they finally get to Constantinople.)

(Spotted at RPS.)


21 Comments so far ↓

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    The folly is in assuming that this is somehow a new problem. It’s been inherent in wargaming since, like, forever. I remember having long arguments with my college roommate about the morality of playing Germany in “Clash of Steel”, and I’m sure board wargamers have been having the same arguments for decades.

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    “Yes, Medieval: Total War had the crusades, but, like everything a few hundred years old, the Crusades have been romanticised by the Knights Templar, Assassin’s Creed and Bernard Cornwell. We now think of glittering knights, dirty Persians and flaming balls of catapult fodder. So you play it with a clear conscience, taking the Holy Land back from the heathens. It’s not a problem for the modern conscience.”

    This bit is a red herring. It ignores the political reasons for which the Crusades were originally organized (relieving Byzantium from invasion) and the fact that they were only a minor setback in an expansion already underway for a few hundred years that brought war into southern France and saw Vienna under siege in the 16th century.

    Then again, it is a good example of how messy situations are simplified to fit into a coherent game.

  • Bruce

    I like that you said “elide.”

  • JonathanStrange

    I suppose whether or not we’re offended by a wargame depends on how recent the event is, whether its effects still resonate today,and if it has a vocal constituency.

    The destruction of Carthage or the sack of Constantinople doesn’t make the news today. We can make a game and play it without offending anyone. It was a long time ago and they’re all dead now anyway.

    I suppose 1000 years from now, the only thing that will be remembered about America is its monstrous cruelties and its role as prime culprit of global warming which the saintly Euros, Canadians,et al. begged them to prevent. A great wargame of the future! But who will play the evil Amerikans?

  • Scott R. Krol

    Seems like every six months or so some far left looney tries to create drama where there is none. Colonization should give us white guilt! War games should remind us about atrocities!

    There’s a very simple reason why consims and strategy games don’t deal (for the most part, I’ll get to the exceptions in a minute) with things like ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust…because they have nothing to do with what we game: the military aspects of the conflict. I mean jeez, read a book on the Battle of the Bulge and I guarantee you that the holocaust doesn’t get mentioned once, but there’s probably a chapter about the defense of Bastogne. Because again, we’re reading about a battle, not everything else that was happening in the world at the time.

    And as a side note it’s always hilarious that it’s the “Hitler” problem. Stalin and communism in general has killed more people than the Third Reich, and yet the left idolizes communism.

    Now, there are games that do cover such issues in some aspects. Operation Whirlwind, which is about the Soviet invasion of Hungary in ’56, has civilians on the battlefield (the main conflict did take place in urban centers after all) and they can be massacred by the Soviets, which takes away victory points. Not having civilians would seem odd, considering the situation.

    Ambush Alley, an excellent miniatures system on modern COIN operations in urban environments, has rules for civilians on the battlefield, because again it’s appropriate to the simulation.

    Those are a couple of games off the top of my head, but the darker nature of warfare is sometimes covered.

  • Neil

    This is a pretty silly discussion. War games typically are the way they are because of what their players want to play. Perhaps I want to face the same military challenges a German general faced, without being lectured for supporting a fascist regime led by a brutal madman. Maybe I want to smash my Zero into an aircraft carrier without learning about the Nanking Massacre.

  • lesslucid

    I think there’s nothing wrong with the current way that historical strategy games deal with these issues, which is to blur them almost-out of the picture and let the player concentrate on the most game-like parts of the conflicts, ie, the strategic decisions regarding how to overcome enemy armies and so on. But I also think there’s a potential for an interesting game which looks at history in a more detailed way and offers the player some understanding of the reasons that things we now regard as morally beyond the pale happen. If the player is in the position to, say, try to buy valuable land from the Boers or choose to displace them militarily, that’s a strategic decision which is also a moral decision. And if it turns out to be very difficult to beat the Boers without building concentration camps… ditto ditto. Of course, some people would make a hue and cry about such a game but the point is not to glorify or excuse such decisions being made, but to show that these things mostly happen not because “crazy evil people decided to do crazy evil things” (which actually pretty much fits in the case of Hitler, making him a bad example) but because, in terms of the “game” they were playing, pursuing the objectives they were determined to achieve, doing something immoral seemed the best (or only) way to get it done.

  • JonathanStrange

    Yes, a good point. I dislike the dismissive “it’s only a game” comment – we know it’s a game, but content is not completely irrelevant. If someone had a “serial rapist” game where the goal was to commit as many sex crimes as possible, I couldn’t honestly shrug off what the game was portraying. Or if a 9/11 hijacking game was based on successfully crashing a plane into the WTC, I’d have a problem with that game most definitely.

    Yet, I can commander a Tiger tank platoon without in any way subscribing to Nazi ideology. I’ve lead Confederates at Bull Run, and British redcoats at Bunker Hill with no qualms – and I’m neither an admirer of the old South or an Anglophile. Far, far from it. And if someone were to say “How can you ignore the history behind such things?” I don’t know what to say except that I am aware of it.

    Maybe history is like the man (Macauley? Gibbons?) said “just a record of the crimes and follies of mankind” and I’ve become insensitive to it?

  • Neil

    There’s a huge gulf between the simulated commission of crimes like rape and mass murder and working for the benefit with a faction that, in the altered history presented in the game itself, is not inherently dispicable. Even if you ignore the disconnect between real history and the sterilized version in the game, playing on the “wrong side” is more like an actor playing the role of a villain. You can’t make a judgment about his nature based on it.

    On a tangent, though, the serial rapist example highlights the absurdity of our sensitivities. In GTA and countless other games, you murder people in cold blood for no reason other than because they were in your way, or because you were amused by the death sequence. In any society anywhere, murder is a worse crime than rape. So why it is acceptable to sell a game where you murder for kicks, and unacceptable to sell a game where you play a rapist?

  • Thomas Kiley

    A difficult discussion for sure. I think lesslucid had a good point. In hundreds of games you do stuff that is morally questionable (in Civ 4, how many cities have you raised to the ground because they were too much effort to keep”) In theory, it is the same concept (providing it is a decision made for rational reasons). The annoying difference is that, by saying that X made Y decision for a logical reason is kind of nasty when the decision is very horrible.

    For example, it is arguable that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many peoples lives as it terminated the war very quickly. I think what it boils down to, or at least it should, is whether you are still enjoying yourself. If making such horrible decisions is turning you off the game, then it shouldn’t be included for the sake of controversy or inclusion.

    However, like at the end of Fable when you had to choose between two horrible things (I talk about this game too much!) it is one of the most interesting and memorable moments. Difficult decisions are at the heart of good games.

    Finally, I think how recent an event is is vitally important. I was not alive for WW2 or the Cold War and my parents didn’t fight WW2 so therefore I find it more difficult to relate to. Yes, I can see Hitler was evil, but I can seer that he helped Germany also. But, a game about 9/11 or the London bombings I would find sick.

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    I don’t play GTA for precisely this reason. I’m not sure why I feel, in a grand strategy game, it is okay to leave out certain things or even include and play them.

    As for playing as a functionary of some sort who is a member of a faction or nation who has commited atrocities, often those events have no obvious bearing on the role we take. We can’t even say what the opinion of the character would have been historically. Shelby Foote relates, in Ken Burn’s documentary on the American Civil War, a story that two Union soldiers met a Confederate soldier on the road. They asked him why he was fighting since he was obviously too poor to own a slave. The Confederate was said to reply, “Because you’re here.” In the same way, the commander of a Tiger tank platoon would be unlikely to have the murder of Jews in concentration camps as his primary motivation.

    In the end, a game should only include things that are appropriate to its scope and objectives. That includes, of course, the possiblity of games designed specifically to highlight the reasons and effects of things like genocide and slavery. But it also means they shouldn’t be forced into a design that would ordinarily include similar, noncontrovertial things.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    As for playing as a functionary of some sort who is a member of a faction or nation who has commited atrocities, often those events have no obvious bearing on the role we take. We can’t even say what the opinion of the character would have been historically.

    That’s true, of course, but there are plenty of examples of people who did horrible things without ever really understanding or appreciating the full impact of their actions. The Germans even came up with a word for such a person after WW2 — Schreibtischtäter, which is generally translated as “desk criminal” or “desk murderer”. (The archetypal example of the desk murderer is, of course, Adolf Eichmann.)

  • Bruce

    “And as a side note it’s always hilarious that it’s the “Hitler” problem. Stalin and communism in general has killed more people than the Third Reich, and yet the left idolizes communism.”

    Scott Krol is my hero.

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    Jason, you are entirely correct in terms of real-world culpability. As for game design, I remain unconvinced.

    I also want to note that the last sentence of my previous post should have read “… that would *not* ordinarily include….”

  • Broken Toys » The Real Hitler Problem

    […] gaming blogger Troy Goodfellow links and comments on an article talking about a subject that often comes up in gaming, especially the strategy […]

  • Kalle

    The “left” idolizes communism? Technically I guess you can still find de facto communists who worship Marxism-Leninism somewhere, but they’re petty rare, so don’t act like a jerk and lump everyone who doesn’t happen to agree with your particular politics in with the Stalinists.

    Even when the Soviet Union was alive and well the communists only made up a small fraction of the “left”. These days the only idolizing going on takes place in Russia, which should know better you’d think, where the current non-socialist authoritarian regime thinks it’s a good idea to promote the glory of the previous socialist authoritarian regime and remake Stalin into a great man who threw out the foreign invaders.

  • JonathanStrange

    Ender Wiggin, please feel free to comment.

  • George Geczy

    In our original design for Supreme Ruler 2010, we had a section on supporting terrorism – this was before Sept 11th… In the “Post 9/11” world there was discussion on our forums and our blogs about whether the terrorist element should or should not be maintained. As it turns out, a number of redesigns resulted in those features not making the game for many other reasons, but it was an interesting discussion.

    One thing that SR2010 and SR2020 does is report to the player the number of civilian casualties caused, and also affect world relationships based on those factors. And, like in the real world, those news reports and public perceptions are very easy to ignore.

  • Primemover

    I have always felt that the these “political” (more appropriately: moral) issues have their place when it fits into the context of the game. To “not include” them because of the moral backlash that their inclusion may provoke is secondary and separate only if their inclusion allows the game to fulfill the designers’ vision of how the game would play. For example, it sounds as if CoH is criticized by PS (have not read their comments, so I may be wrong) for not addressing an issue like “genocide.” The spirit of CoH is in the story of one faction that historically, had no involvement/experience in genocide or other the other known atrocities. To arbitrarily have included it detracts from the essence of the game (as well as risks historical inaccuracy in a game that appears to be trying to stick to it).
    I think a game that “coldly” addresses what is a moral political issue of the 20th century is Defcon. Each time you nuke a city, a stat like “1.2 million killed!” pops up. I know I felt the visceral reaction of that the first few times I saw it. It certainly makes me think about the morality behind nuclear war. I did not want to play the game any less though, and it served (appropriately) to motivate me to better execute the primary tasks of the game, which is to be a better commander in chief. If I want to succeed in a game like Defcon, that is what must be done, as a victory of peace (arguably, the better “moral” choice) is not an option to completing the game. Overall, I think the issue of glossing over atrocities in games is way off.

  • JonathanStrange

    Sometimes, I can’t bring myself to raze the last Orc city – it’s troubling to eliminate all trace of any civilization – so I usually spare them. Bloody Orcs!

  • The Poisoned Sponge

    Hey guys,

    Firstly, thanks for linking to my article, it’s certainly traveled further than I ever thought it might. It’s certainly very vilifying to see it stimulate such discussion.

    I’ve now shedded the name ‘Poisoned Sponge’ as a writing name because it was just far too awkward to see people quoting me under it, so thanks for that too.

    As far as the article goes, I can see a lot of people drawing up either existing RTS games set around WW2 that don’t deal with the whole issue I raised, claiming that that makes it a moot point. Really, my argument pretty much only applied to the Total War franchise, as they have you playing a country, rather than a commander; the commander doesn’t have anything to do (usually) with the acts of government beyond carrying out his orders, whereas the ruler of the country has to deal with all the things within their power.

    @Primemover, I actually mentioned Defcon in the article, and by no means am I criticising CoH, which I think is an excellent series of games. Again, this is a problem pretty much unique to Total War, so CoH doesn’t really apply.

    Thanks for the attention guys, and feel free to comment on The Reticule whenever you like, we love to discuss!

    Phill Cameron