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

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge