EVER since WWII ended, it has been highly illegal to display Nazi imagery in Germany without an exceptionally good historical, educational or artistic reason.
Section 86a of the German Criminal Code outlaws the “use of symbols of unconstitutional organisations” – including the Nazis – outside the contexts of art, science, research or teaching.
Video games did traditionally not pass this muster, forcing anyone who set their game in Nazi Germany to come up with a nudge-nudge I Can’t Believe It’s Not A Swastika emblem for their 1940s German Totalitarian Fascist baddies.
This partly explains why games set during WWII often use the WWI Hakenkreuz (Hooked Cross) or the Kriegsmarine (Germany WWII Navy) ensign with the Swastika either removed replaced with the Hakenkreuz. It also gives racists and trolls one less thing to identify with, which saves a lot of headaches all round.
One of the most notable series affected by the anti-Nazi imagery laws have been the Wolfenstein games, which are entirely about shooting as many Nazis as possible and naturally feature a lot of Swastikas and SS lightning bolts and other stuff to remind you that the guy in the black uniform you just unloaded an SMG into was an extremely bad person who liked bad things which hurt many people who were good.
Thus, Germans playing Wolfenstein: The New Colossus were not fighting Man In The High Castle-style 1960s ‘America Lost The War Nazis’ (complete with Swastikas etc), but a fascist totalitarian government which had a logo vaguely reminiscent of a swastika but wasn’t (it was a stylised upside down triangle).
Our Germanic friends are also intelligent people and everyone knew exactly what was going on anyway, and in 2018 a court case found that computer games could be considered art, much like a movie or play. Thus a computer game with Nazi imagery in it did not automatically fall afoul of the law and shortly after, the German games classification board USK confirmed they would approve games using Nazi imagery in ‘socially adequate’ contexts.
In other words, as long as the game clearly portrays the Nazis as being the bad guys and makes some comment about how Nazi ideology is bad (a statement up there with ‘water is wet’ and ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury is Anglican’ in the extremely obvious statements department), then it should be OK in some contexts to have their imagery in it, particularly in the context of “These are the baddies”.
Although the changes came into effect last year, they do mean the new Wolfenstein games – Youngblood and Cyberpilot – are “the first Wolfenstein games legally available in Germany that include Nazi-related symbols and content”, according to Bethesda.
They go on to note “The German Age Rating Agency USK has confirmed that [the two Wolfenstein games in question] can rely on an exemption under which the use of these symbols within the games is ‘socially adequate’ and thus permissible, because the games are of artistic value and take a clear stance against Nazi ideology such as nationalism and racism.”
It is worth noting that without such an exemption, the use of Nazi symbols is still a criminal offence in Germany, however, and the exemption does not apply to the previous Wolfenstein games.
Furthermore, the exemption is decided on a case-by-case basis, so (fortunately) it’s not open slather for some edgelord developer to suddenly make a game like Willkommen zu Naziland or Nuremberg Rally Simulator or Swastika! The Game and then sell it Germany.
While Wolfenstein: Youngblood may not have particularly impressed the critics or players, it has at least secured a place for itself in the history books as the possibly first game sold in Germany to legally include Nazi images – thus helping reinforce the idea that video games are indeed a legitimate art form for adults.
Royce Wilson is a Brisbane-based gaming and technology writer; continue the conversation on Twitter @RoyceWilsonAU