The censorship in the German version of the up-coming newest installment of the Call of Duty series should be well-known by now, and was little surprising to begin with. Speculations about alterations surfaced shortly after announcement of the World War II setting. After all, the Call of Duty series seemingly never deterred from using the symbols of the Third Reich generally prohibited under German law, erasing them from all German versions of previous titles as is industrial practice. A Call of Duty in World War II without swastikas or other Nazi symbols would be difficult to imagine and for some fans simply a bad deal. In Black Ops III’s DLC pack Zombies Chronicles such a compromise was chosen once already, as updated maps of the zombie maps from World at War and Black Ops had been deprived of their symbols, as reported by Censored Gaming. The trailers of WWII were, as usual with Call of Duty, without symbols.
According to a statement by those responsible, WWII will only use legally difficult Nazi symbols in its campaign mode. The multiplayer and zombie modes are globally liberated of this burden. This could very well be attributed to potential compatibility issues (e.g. Sniper Elite: (Nazi) Zombie Army). It would also be plausible, however, that YouTube channels are to benefit because of monetization concerns (a simply on/off switch would have sufficed then, though). The goal could ultimately also be to create equal opportunities in the competitive or cooperative modes.
The Steam Store page offers a special license for German customers. All other uncensored licenses (for consumers) are region locked: the activation of international retail keys of the PC version is denied with a German IP address. Unlike ZeniMax’ Wolfenstein 2, Activision doesn’t make use of the more severe locks which would block the game’s start and download. WWII is the first censored game of the main series in Germany in seven years.
Whether violence is also censored remains unknown. In light of recent USK ratings, that’s of course Germany’s rating board, developer Sledgehammer Games would have to make a considerable effort to cross the lines in terms of youth protection or legal limits. According to an interview, the shooter does not ignore the Holocaust or war crimes: “We absolutely show atrocities. […] It’s an unfortunate part of the history, but … you can not tell an authentic, truthful story without going there. So we went there”, as said by the senior creative director Bret Robbins. Considering this, ironically maybe, self-censorship is possible, regardless of whether it would be necessary for a USK rating or not, and regardless of the fact that the player only takes on the role of a good guys in the campaign mode. Examples include the denazified version of Wolfenstein: The New Order which was also cut in one instance that might have reminded one too much of those atrocities, and Steel Division: Normandy 44 where the USK itself suggested post release censorship in regards to the inclusion of the (playable) Nazi war criminal Kurt Meyer.
Banned symbols, banned game?
Considering the two confirmed triple A releases with Nazi symbols and the prospect of a censorship hat-trick with South Park: The Fractured But Whole, we’d like to also [i]briefly[/i] discuss what’s the matter with this ancient symbol, yet again. As is tradition, popular gaming sites – nationally and internationally – are a source of questionable assertions, and even the publishers display crude views. Ironically, the gaming community itself seems to be eager to talk the artistic merits of their favorite pastime activity down, to conjure up the alleged German swastika ban in video games, as a quick glance in many commentary sections proves. The ones actually knowledgeable, legal experts, seem to think different, for instance the recent article at GamesLaw – and that is just one example.
Unlike explained in the description of the official YouTube Reveal trailer of Wolfenstein 2 by ZeniMax, the distribution of Wolfenstein 2 is not “strictly forbidden by German law” just because it uses Nazi symbols covered by German penal law. In fact, such a nonsensical statement can, in principle, be only attributed to an attempt at deliberate manipulation of the public in order to increase the acceptance of this kind of self-censorship and, above all, the actually controversial geo/region locks. Applying Hanlon’s Razor, it’d still be a display of remarkable ignorance. After all, of course, games can also use the symbols legally, enjoying the exceptions for social adequacy provided for all media. Nothing speaks against it. Contrary to the often parroted claims, computer games are by no means explicitly not art in Germany or legally toys – on the contrary, they have already been examined before courts as a form of art. The German games industry association, the BIU, is a member of the Cultural Council, and the state offers funds and awards for games. The biggest difference remaining between video games and movies is interactivity, and it’s also negligible when a Wolfenstein 2 will apparently feature over 100 real-life actors and three hours of cutscenes. The efforts in production, the creativity at display, are in no way of lesser qualities than those of movies, and clearly display the same critical position toward the Nazi’s ideology. Essentially the same but treated unequal.
If South Park as a TV show makes liberal use of Nazis symbols, why cannot Ubisoft’s strikingly similar game? If Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds celebrates ultra violence against Nazis and is critically acclaimed, why cannot MachineGames do the same in Wolfenstein? If a ridiculous Iron Sky pastes swastikas on moon Nazis and their evil lair, why cannot Call of Duty do the same but authentic and serious in the setting of the Second World War? The answers are clear: self-censorship. A blanket ban derived by an almost 20 year old verdict by a (relatively) lower court against a neo-Nazi who intented to spread his ideology with Wolfenstein 3D, ironically a game that lets you shoot Nazis. A legal decision which should not have had these lasting consequences, that – while correct in the sentencing – was heavily flawed in regards to the potential of video games or even that very game in question, even when considering the back-then infantile medium. The only actually known case of legal prosecution against a distributor of a commercial game featuring these symbols. And still to this date it serves as an excuse for the USK to not even consider rating games with these symbols.
What can the USK do though? It’s not unlikely a distributor might end up getting sued and has to attend before a court of law, all things considered. A USK rating does not protect from prosecution – neither does a FSK rating for movies – even in regards to certain depictions of violence. The USK’s reputation is at stake here, being unable to even properly assess the legality of the symbols’ usage. If no one tries to publish, however, there is no new decision and there will never be the desired (supposed) legal certainty which is promised by a USK rated release. The USK will likely never change its regulations of their own accord, and the relevant law needs no changing to begin with. Potentially high costs or valuable release time missed on by such a case are excuses; the German versions are enormously expensive to develop, and the time loss can be compensated for. Suing to have the USK rate a game with swastikas in it is not legally incriminating in itself, after all you sue for an administrative act. The central question is: can or should the gaming industry insist on its right to release a “Nazi game” even if the gaming press and their readers themselves declare the international versions illegal for distribution? Do we need a “Nazi-Spiel-Debatte” just after the infamous “Killerspiel-Debatte” seems to be over?
Note: German version censored, uncensored version cannot be activated without VPN!