Why Lifting the Ban on Nazi Imagery on Video Games in Germany Was the Right Move

Promotional art from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, featuring a Nazi officer holding a sword as a man sits on his knees, bound.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus self-censored its swastikas (and Adolf Hitler’s mustache) in order to be sold in Germany in 2017. Bethesda Softworks

The next Wolfenstein game might not even need to remove Adolf Hitler’s mustache: Germany’s Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (or USK), an independent, industry-funded board that oversees age and content ratings for videos games available in the country, announced on Thursday that it will now permit the sale of games featuring Nazi imagery within the country, something that had previously been banned. The industry body’s decision reportedly came after a heated debate involving the Nazi-killing Wolfenstein series, particularly a pair of anti–Third Reich games in 2014 and 2017 that were visibly, and somewhat humorously, self-censored in Germany in order to avoid violating a provision of the country’s constitution.

Previously, video games with Nazi symbolism were heavily censored or outright banned based on the German criminal code’s Section 86a, which forbids the use of symbols, flags, insignia, uniforms, slogans, propaganda, and greetings relating to “unconstitutional organizations” (read: Nazis) in German products. Section 86a violations could be met with up to three years of imprisonment or a hefty fine.

While the list of games with German-censored versions is quite long, some of the bigger or more recent affected titles include Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. These two games imagined an alternative history in which the Nazis won World War II, but the German version swapped out every swastika used in the design; renamed the antagonists from the German Armed Forces to the Regime; and in one of the games, shaved off Adolf Hitler’s mustache. It has also affected the World War II strategy game Hearts of Iron IV, which changed art and dialogue to comply, and 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, which is partially set in World War II and had to remove all “anti-constitutional symbols” on top of several gore- and torture-related aspects.*

If German gamers wanted to play the versions of a game available to most of the rest of the world, they were often out of luck. Region-locking of hardware and software has prevented workarounds such as buying non-German digital or hard copies of censored games. Thursday’s announcement did not address how the rule change will affect existing games, if it will, going forward.

The domestic gaming industry applauded the decision, framing it as a win for speech and artistic latitude. “This new decision is an important step for games in Germany. We have long campaigned for games to finally be permitted to play an equal role in social discourse, without exception,” said Felix Falk, head of the industry group of German game-makers, in a press release. “Computer and video games have been recognised as a cultural medium for many years now, and this latest decision consistently cements that recognition in terms of the use of unconstitutional symbols as well.”

USK will now assess games on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet a reinterpreted standard of the country’s “social adequacy clause” that allows for Nazi imagery if it serves one of the following purposes: artistic, scientific, or if it depicts current or historical events. This metric is currently used for films screened in Germany because they are considered works of art. In his statement, Falk stressed that the German games industry is “strongly committed to an open, inclusive society, to the values laid out in the German constitution, and to Germany’s historical responsibility”—and that games addressing sensitive topics like Nazi-era Germany should be made in a way “that encourages reflection and critical thinking.”

If we trust that other art forms can encourage those things, then there’s no reason to exclude video games. The previous hard-and-fast rule—no Nazis in video games, not even once, but movies are fine—was an unusual double standard that didn’t fit in 2018. Germany’s ongoing sensitivity to the use of Nazi imagery clearly still makes sense, but games are worthy of a nuanced approach. Imagining that Hearts of Iron IV, a top-down strategy game focused on World War II, should be subject to the same amount of red tape as South Park: The Stick of Truth—an RPG set in the adult-animated universe that had its Nazi zombies censored in Germany and Austria—takes a bit of mental gymnastics to make sense. USK’s reinterpretation of the standard allows for creative flexibility in an ever-changing media landscape that is still tackling racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, political extremism, and other unsavory -isms. Many German video game–makers are trying to thoughtfully explore this exact space through their interactive medium. Now they’ll have more room to do it.

Update, Aug. 10, 2018, at 5:03 p.m.: This sentence has been updated to reflect that Call of Duty: Black Ops is partially set in World War II.