We’ve taken a brief look at how modern games have handled the delicate subject of Nazis and the Holocaust. Now let’s go back to see how older games dealt with controversy. Let’s see if things were easier for game companies back before the rise of AAA games.
Wolfenstein 3D came out back in 1992, and it was a huge hit for the time. However, Germany was not happy with the Nazi symbolism, and like nowadays, the release had to be censored, which led to Nintendo making their SNES port of the game very different than the PC version. Including changing blood with sweat, dogs with rats, and removing all Nazi symbols, including shaving off Hitler’s moustache. Although Electronic Gaming Monthly said, at the time, that the censoring was inconsequential on the overall fun of the game. Atari was not as careful with their port to the Jaguar, and copies of the game were confiscated following a verdict by the Amtsgericht Berlin Tiergarten on December 7, 1994. However, despite the censorship in Germany it wasn’t widely controversial (though that may be because video games were not as wide spread as they are now). Hitler is also still seen as one of the best bosses in video game history, and one of the most memorable moments.
Wolfenstein 3D had high praise from critics for just how much it pushed the technological envelope. The enemies being Nazi’s was not a huge focus in most reviews as they seemed more concerned with gameplay and visuals. The game did receive some controversy for the violence and Nazi imagery, but it was nowhere near the negatives we see today with games like Call of Duty and the newer Wolfenstein games. Although, that could be attributed to the more niche area games filled back in the 90s. Still a game that revolved around Nazis was not seen as particularly controversial.
There were a few fairly early computer games that directly dealt with the holocaust. One of the more well-known ones released in 1990 and is called KZ Manager. It is a simulation game where you’re in charge of a Nazi concentration camp. It is a management game where you manage the resources of your prisoners and try to achieve various goals, like increasing killing rates and public opinion. This was received with completely negative attention from the press. Similar to the 2002 video game Ethnic Cleansing, it was seen as only Neo-Nazi propaganda. The game seemed to push the shock and horror of running a concentration camp and nothing else. It never made it to store shelves, and was instead sold under the table and sent through email.
Did this game push things too far? People struggle to see the benefit of something made in this way where the protagonist is a Nazi who is trying to kill Jews, Turks, and other people they’re put in charge of. To the few people who spoke about it, it was just propaganda to dehumanize the victims even more. Clearly, when done like this, it was unacceptable back in the 90s. Other games like this did not receive praise, and were seen as in poor taste, similar to games like Active Shooter and Hatred. Unlike Wolfenstein 3D Nazis were playing the role of the good guy in KZ Manager. This may have had a big impact on how poorly it was received in contrast to Wolfenstein 3D. However, it was not a very popular game, and was only found thanks to the efforts of groups who search for these sorts of things.
So what does this mean? Did older games get a pass because the video game industry was much less popular back then, or was it more strict because they were less understood? Well, we know that in some ways it was more limited at the time, especially in regards to violence, and this controversy would lead to the forming of the ESRB ratings board to help classify games for consumers. Now that games are in the public eye more, they get caught on the radar of a lot more people who would be upset about what they portray.
So it is hard to say whether the public perception made it was easier for games a while ago, or if the popularity they have now just puts them under greater scrutiny. Was being mostly unknown keeping games safe to express the holocaust, or was the public perception of games what made it easier. Well, looking at the reviews of games, it seems like they were pretty much all done by people who enjoyed video games. There wasn’t as much of a reason for people to critique games unless they already liked them. So the people talking about these older games seemed to review games and give them the benefit of the doubt. Nowadays though, people will review games simply because of the subject they cover, not necessarily because they like video games.