Phil Hartup on videogames

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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.

A screenshot from Luftrausers. Image: Vlambeer
A screenshot from Luftrausers. Image: Vlambeer

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.