My name is Jason Hawreliak. I’m the Essays editor on First Person Scholar. I’m in the midst of finishing up my Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. My research examines the cultural and psychological functions of gaming and gamer culture.
In her 2011 book Reality is Broken (2011), Jane McGonigal argues that videogames can in fact be used for “good:” through harnessing the countless hours gamers spend solving puzzles in videogames, we may be able to solve “real world” problems, such as inequality, sickness and conflict. I really like this idea, and though I’m not sure I quite share all of McGonigal’s optimism, I do think that videogames serve some vital functions – cultural and psychological – outside of particular play experiences.
One of those functions, as Vit Sisler suggests, is that videogames give gamers “a convenient source of cultural symbols, myths and rituals as they produce their identities.” And one component of identity production is antithesis – that is, we in part define ourselves by what we are not. In this brief essay, I’d like to look at Call of Duty:World at War’s Nazi Zombie figure, which I think can be viewed as the ultimate Other. I want to suggest that part of the satisfaction in playing FPS games lies in actively confronting cultural conceptions of Otherness, death, and evil, and defeating them.
Videogame enemies are notoriously one dimensional, particularly within the FPS genre. With surprisingly few exceptions, enemies are depicted as an unambiguous evil, and the player’s job is to snuff it out in one way or another. Granted, game developers are adding increased complexity to their characters – Braid (2008) plays with the typical hero/villain trope in some interesting ways, for example. But even apart from their aesthetic or narratological contexts, from a mechanical perspective videogame enemies are “evil” simply due to their ludic function: they exist only to kill the player, to prevent her from succeeding. They are usually the aggressor and will often attack the player on sight; the player can’t really reason with them or hug it out. This kill-or-be-killed mentality is of course the essence of zombie lore.
For example, in Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie apocalypse novel, World War Z, an American soldier, Todd Wainio, describes the zombie enemy as follows:
For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.
WWI and WWII are commonly referred to as instances of “total war,” since the civilian populations were greatly affected. But if you’ve read World War Z, or are familiar with virtually any zombie apocalypse narrative, then you know that Wainio is describing total war on a totally different level: Everyone is directly involved, and everyone is a target. This makes zombies particularly terrifying, since they don’t discriminate based on political affiliation or ideology; if you’re alive, then you’re it.
Zombies are also terrifying due to their particular mode of attack, i.e. eating their victims alive. This is of course very painful, but more than that, it reduces the individual into raw food energy; the sanctity of the human is robbed, and like other organisms, we become mere food. Us humans don’t like to think of ourselves in these terms; instead, we imagine ourselves as beings of cosmic significance, whose existence means more than a chicken’s or a carrot’s. In actively surviving through fighting and “killing” zombies, we therefore affirm our place as beings of consequence, powerful, defiant, and superior. When we watch a zombie movie or play a zombie game, we of course always identify with the survivor(s), those lucky few who have beaten the odds and continue to defy (un)death.
As many have pointed out, the zombie is a terrifying liminal case: it is not wholly human, but not wholly inhuman, not fully alive, but not fully dead either. We don’t know what to make of it, and as Nick Muntean (2011) observes in “Nuclear Death,” “What makes these figures most terrifying is that, despite the extremely brutal, and uniquely modern conditions that have produced them, we can nonetheless recognize something of ourselves in them.” We are not the walking dead, but we are the walking dead-to-come, and so the zombie is a reminder that we are not long for this world. The zombie is death, and it is coming for us.
Nazi Zombies: Doubly Evil
As Death incarnate, the zombie makes for a great videogame villain; as death and evil incarnate, the Nazi Zombie is even better. The Nazi Zombie combines the zenith of both natural and cultural evil: The zombie is a natural abomination because it defies the natural order of things, and the Nazi is a cultural abomination because it defies the “moral” order of things. Put them together and we get an Uber Other, at once terrifying and absurd. (NB: the folks over at College Humor have a satirical take on this absurdity). In this figure, it is as if all the evils which exist in all the videogame villains come together at once.
In the universe of Zombie fiction, any one of us is a potential zombie; we are only ever one bite away from entering the ranks of the undead. This is one of the principle sources of tension: after death we also un-die and carry on in some wretched existence. But although any one of us can become a zombie, only a Nazi can become a Nazi zombie. So how does one make a zombie a Nazi Zombie? What are the signifiers of Nazi Zombiedom?
Well, one fairly obvious way is to simply dress up zombies in Nazi uniforms, and this makes sense: if the Nazis died in their uniforms, it is only logical that they should reanimate in them as well. What makes less sense is that in games like CoD:WaW, they also often march like Nazis (goosestep), which is interesting because it suggests that there is still some Nazi left in the Nazi Zombie. Although the popular comic/tv show The Walking Dead has explored the idea of a “latent humanity” within zombies, for the most part it is assumed that zombification destroys the former human self; they are simply a virus which must be exterminated.
Of course, this rhetoric of viral extermination was also a common trope in Nazi propaganda against various groups. The Nazi Zombie figure is therefore ironic, since it appropriates the rhetorical techniques for dehumanization utilized by the Nazi Party and plants it squarely onto the Nazis themselves. And like zombies, there is no ambiguity surrounding the evils of Nazism. The unequivocal evil which surrounds both Nazis and zombies is thus part of the reason why they are such popular enemies across media, so perhaps they aren’t such an odd pairing after all.
Nazi Zombies in Film and Videogames
Right around the time that CoD:WaW came out, a friend pointed me towards the 2009 Norwegian film, Dead Snow. In this film, some young Norwegians go into a cabin in the woods, where they encounter zombies who were once Nazis. Apart from this twist on the zombie enemy, it is a fairly unremarkable horror film, but it highlighted the fact that this combination is not so unusual after all. I thought it might be a coincidence, but it turns out that Nazis and Zombies have a fairly lengthy history.
King of the Zombies (1941), and Revenge of the Zombies (1943) are the first time Nazis and zombies appear in the same context, although here there aren’t really Nazi Zombies per se. Instead, these movies mostly involve mad German (or Austrian) scientists using Voodoo magic for nefarious purposes. Since then, there have been dozens of movies on Nazi and zombies, and you can find a great list here via IMDb.
In almost all cases, the basic storyline is that during WWII, the Nazis began experimenting with ways to raise an army of obedient, fearless killers, who could be raised from the dead. At some point in this attempt to play with life and death, things go awry (surprise!), and at least in the later films in the genre, some poor, unsuspecting young people stumble upon the Nazi Zombies, and horror ensues. Nazi Zombies are thus nothing new in film, and they in fact also have a brief history in videogames as well.
The Nazi/Undead combination appears in the 2001 game, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and even back in Wolfenstein 3-D (1992), you had a cyborg Hitler which is a similar idea. Giant Bomb has a small write-up on this figure in videogames, but as it demonstrates, the Nazi Zombie figure didn’t really gain the sort of cultural cachet it now enjoys until the Treyarch Call of Duty games.
Nazi Zombies in CoD:WaW
In CoD:WaW, the wildly popular Nazi Zombies mode is unlocked once you complete the single player campaign. In this mode players must build teams (usually online) and defend a building against waves of increasingly obstinate Nazi Zombies. Like Tetris, there’s lots of strategy involved, but you can’t really “win” – unless you exploit a glitch, your team will be eventually overrun. The players are dropped into a seemingly hopeless situation, where the best they can do is kill more Nazi Zombies than their teammates; you cannot hold out forever.
In this way, the Nazi Zombies mode shares a structural similarity with “real life:” You try to do your best for as long as you can, but inevitably and invariably, your efforts will fail and you will succumb. When we couple this structural representation of life and death with the cultural representations of death provided via narrative and aesthetics, playing Nazi Zombies might be viewed as a way to confront and fight against our own mortal situation in a safe and manageable way.
This might be a bit heavy handed for such a fun and silly game, and to be honest, I laughed the first time I saw the word “Nazi” appear over the word “Zombie” in CoD:WaW. But as I mentioned above, one of the psychological functions of videogames, particularly ones which allow players to virtually kill cultural constructions of evil, may be that they allow the player to feel victory over evil and death, if only temporarily. Thus, I think this fun and silly game might offer some important insights into how we conceptualize decidedly un-silly issues such as mortality, morality, and identity.
As Kenneth Burke, Ernest Becker and even Sigmund Freud have noted, human beings unfortunately appear to require an Other, an antithesis to stand against and, more importantly, to stand above. If this is the case, then I think that the Nazi Zombie is actually an excellent videogame villain, as both Nazism and death (and zombies) are legitimate evils to fight against.
However, when in-game enemies are representative of ethnic, religious, or culturally distinct groups, then this is problematic. Although game companies like to stay contemporary, depicting in-game enemies as Iranians, Russians, or Chinese – actual people who exist in our world – can only ever contribute to the distancing between us and them. Of course, playing violent videogames will not turn our kids into xenophobes with no moral compass, but videogames do comprise one small part of the broader cultural discourse, and so we should pay attention. Moreover, I think we can use the medium to demonstrate that human beings are more similar than different through the same techniques used to represent Otherness. In this sense, I share at least a slice of McGonigal’s optimism, and believe we can use videogames to foster understanding, tolerance, and acceptance, if only in a small part. There are plenty of AAA games which already do this in some ways, especially from Bethesda, BioWare and Rockstar, but unfortunately these continue to be the exceptions and not the norm.