A screenshot from Luftrausers. Image: Vlambeer
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Why do gamers get squeamish when they might play as Nazis?

Plane shooter Lufthausers has players fighting on the side of a team that looks suspiciously like the Third Reich - a design choice that's left some players feeling uncomfortable.

Sometimes it takes a silly controversy to see something interesting. The silly controversy in this case is that provided by the indie shooter Luftrausers which has been attracting some attention for the fact that the developers have denied any particular intent to make it look as if you play as a Nazi in the game. It is notable that the actual denial made a much bigger story than anybody claiming that the game, which has been around a while now, has a touch of the Third Reich about its aesthetic.

Personally I was more surprised by the denial than I was by people taking offence. To me it made some sense, in what little narrative Luftrausers has, that you might be playing as some sort of fascist bitter-ender, railing against the forces of freedom from a submersible aircraft carrier in a spiffy Hugo Boss uniform and a top secret jet plane. The fact that skull motifs feature so much in the game was in itself enough to trigger my "Hans, are we the baddies?" instinct. The imagery is not as blatant as the Nuremburg Rallies, but the hints are there. And just hints, mind you, which in some ways is the greatest strength of Luftrausers' design - it never tells you whose side you are on. You have to figure it out for yourself, if it matters to you. I had presumed the games characters were villains of some sort and it didn’t bother me.

With a lot of games the goodies and the baddies are very clearly defined and even if you happen to be a baddie, well, that’s okay, at least you know. However, Luftrausers' nearly-Nazi design for the heroes of the game is interesting precisely because it’s unclear. When you know you are playing as the villains it is not necessarily a problem - it can even be liberating - but not knowing creates uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds discomfort. Luftrausers never gives an answer to who you are fighting for or why, but the implication of the aesthetic that the people you are fighting for are possibly not on the side of righteousness is one that provokes some thought. That Luftrausers can make some players feel somewhat conflicted in the gleeful destruction of ships and planes merely through character design and visual style is quite an accomplishment, even if this effect might be unintentional.

Usually with a game like this the developer will take pains to ensure the players can enjoy their violence entirely without having to think or feel in any way like their actions in the game are not morally justified. This is exemplified by the original shooter itself, Space Invaders, where the enemy were invaders, from space. Clue is in the title. Over the years plenty of different groups have filled in for aliens as the target of choice for violent games of whatever sort. Aliens, zombies, monsters, robots, we can shoot them all to bits and it doesn’t really bother anybody. When games start to put human faces on the victims things can get a bit more conflicted (even when we know that what we are seeing on the screen isn’t real), but often games will paint the villains as the worst kind of scumbags: Nazis, mercenaries, terrorists or, increasingly in recent years, police officers.

But that’s not the only way that a game can try to make a diet of destruction more palatable - they can also try to make the heroes of the story more relatable and engaging. This is where the choice of protagonists for Luftrausers hits complications, because not everybody wants to help what looks like a bunch of caricatures from Wolfenstein blow up, well, anything.

Obviously Luftrausers could have taken the direct approach and just had you play as a German in WW2 shooting down Spitfires and whatnot, but that wouldn't have had the same effect. Knowing you are the bad guy is not as unsettling as worrying that you might be him, because it suggests that your actions might have some effect in ultimately determining which side you end up on. At least this is true for most games. Luftrausers doesn’t do anything with the ambiguity however; you still just launch from the submarine and shoot everything that moves until you are blown up.

It is ironic the game itself isn’t nearly as interesting as the art style would suggest. There have been better shooters than this one going back a couple of decades, dozens of them in fact. Beneath the swagger and bold presentation is a game that doesn’t do very much - there are no levels, only a tiny number of enemy types, frustrating controls and little continuity. At times it can feel a bit like Flappy Bird, except the bird now has a gun bolted onto the front. Luftrausers generally serves more as a reminder of how much fun a good shooter can be rather than being one itself.

That said, if a game encourages critical thinking from its players through the way it is presented then that can only be a good thing, even if it does it in a way that is largely unconnected to theact of playing the game. Of course for all we know Luftrausers might have just been trying to mooch the edgy coolness of a fascistic style for its characters and all the speculation about it could be an unintended consequence. Or maybe it is a very clever subversion of the typical militaristic setting of a game. Either way the only downside really is that it’s not that good.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism