A screenshot from Luftrausers. Image: Vlambeer
Show Hide image

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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
Show Hide image

The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496