Welcome back from GenCon, fellow gamers! To all those who attended as part of the nearly 50,000 gamers who hit the Indianapolis area… are you as tired as I am? Good lord, it was a heck of a convention. I will talk more about it in my next post. First, however, I’m going to riff on a different problem. Let’s talk together, shall we, about Nazis.
Nazis are the bad guys in so many games its hard to make a list. They serve as the ultimate expression of evil given form. Nazis represent the boogeyman of human devastation, of dehumanizing monsters in uniform who have no consideration for their fellow man. They are the perfect example of a person divorced from their empathy for the ‘other’ in the world, willing to destroy lives based on their rhetoric. It’s hard not to see a Nazi in a piece of work and not say ‘that is purely evil.’ That is, in fact, what most game designers count on when they add Nazis into their work. Need a villain that everyone can rally around kicking around? Make it Nazis! Want people to feel comfortable with walloping the crap out of a person in a game with, say, a rocket launcher? Make the villain a Nazi and suddenly people don’t feel anything anymore because, well, it’s the personification of evil. That’s what Nazis have become in games – the shorthand for a villainy so vile there is no explanation needed. It is #evil with a capitol hashtag. And for some people, that’s all Nazis are.
For other people, they are the nightmare of our grandparents’ childhood. They are the stories we heard growing up about relatives we’ll never meet. They’re the reason our relatives never felt safe all the remaining days of their lives, and named their daughters and sons after children that were no longer alive. They were real boogeymen that crawled out of history and into our lives. And to some, they’ve become a media punchline.
I won’t go into how difficult that can be for me. After seeing my third product in the dealer’s hall at GenCon, I may have exclaimed loudly that I could use a moratorium on Nazis for a little while. I could go one year without seeing Nazis used haphazardly in a game. Then I considered that thought and moved beyond it. Nazis being used in games might bother me, but they’re contextualized in those games as the villains they are and ought to be in media. I even saw games that treated the material well, such as Ken Hite’s book Nazi Occult and realized that not all Nazi representations were created equal. The content might be difficult for me but that is me. I can avoid those games, or choose to appreciate them from afar.
Then, I encountered the Nazi cosplayer.
I wish I had a picture of this person, walking down the street past the noodle shop in downtown Indianapolis. I was sitting with a friend, talking about how wonderful the convention had been so far, but not five minutes before I had been discussing how tired I was of seeing Nazi EVERYTHING lately. Then, no sooner had we moved on to another topic but BAM. Here comes a Nazi down the street. I got a good look at the whole outfit and even as I tried to place what he might be cosplaying from (was it a video game? an anime? a film?) my brain came up with the only answer that counted: NOT OKAY.
Context is a very important consideration when looking at difficult content in media. If there is, say, racist content in a piece of media, is it contextualized to represent that racism as acceptable or unacceptable? Is it historically placed? What does the piece of work say about racism through the events going on around it? All of these things provide context. However, cosplay is one of those mediums that offers very little context. Unless someone is crystal clear what that person is costuming as, there is no context between a cosplayer in a Nazi outfit and, say, just someone wearing Nazi regalia and walking through a convention. And left without the context, I couldn’t tell what the hell this cosplayer was intending. Was he intending to just represent the villain of some piece of fiction, or was he glamorizing Nazis through his pristine costuming? I had no idea. All I saw was a Nazi walking down the street past where I was eating and I couldn’t drive that image out of my mind.
Say what you want about freedom of expression. Say what you please about being able to wear what you want. But when you put on a swastika or the whole regalia, death’s head and all, you are taking on the symbology around that and the context that comes with wearing the uniform of one of the most reviled groups in the 20th century. And you carry that around with you into other people’s lives. Is that what you want to bring to a convention of 50,000 people who are there to have fun? Is that what you want people to see?
Now let’s talk about retail. There’s been a lot of talk about what I like to call UnderwearGate 2013. A booth called Belle and Blade (adorable name) put up some underwear that was some of the most ridiculously offensive merch I’ve ever seen at a con. One of the undies actually said “I could use some Sexual Harassment.” Gareth Skarka pointed it out and I got a photo of it out on Twitter, which got folks talking, and there were complaints about it. It’s all chronicled here on Skarka’s blog. But here’s the other part: did you know this booth, which makes its bones selling military movies and gear, also has tons of Nazi stuff?
Previous to seeing what kind of awfulness was available, I went to buy a ‘zombie killer’ patch from this booth for some LARP costuming. It was only after I paid that I turned around in my half-exhausted state and saw boxes with Nazi symbols on it, Nazi signs, and even Nazi pin-up posters on the inside of the booth. That is ALONG with the underwear. So in one shot, Belle and Blade became one of the most egregious examples of what not to represent at a convention by repping sexual harassment AND Nazis in one cash grab.
“But Shoshana,” you might ask, “isn’t it freedom of expression? Isn’t that his right?”
Actually, not entirely. See, the sexual harassment stuff is straight up against the terms of GenCon’s policies on convention harassment and reports were made. But the Nazi paraphernalia is more of a grey area, just like Nazi cosplay. The policies say something about not being able to costume anything that resembles a uniform from the 20th century, but that certainly didn’t stop Nazi cosplayers that I saw. That didn’t stop the stuff from being sold in a booth.
Freedom of expression is the backbone of so many conversations about offensive content. However just as it might be someone’s right to go out and walk the streets of a convention wearing Nazi gear (barring any rules at that event that says you can’t), it’s my right to feel that is unacceptable. It’s my right to question what that person is trying to represent or express. And it’s my right to say that maybe you ought to consider the time and energy you’re putting into so meticulously glamorizing such a symbol of human evil.
Note: In my consideration of the situation, I want to make clear that I don’t blame GenCon for the situation. GenCon is a wonderful convention that I enjoy very much and that puts on a hell of a show every year. Take that as a disclaimer.