BERLIN — It’s a darkish and wet night time in February 1933. Riding your bike via a abandoned Berlin, you see an outdated man being attacked by three males in uniform. The swastikas on the attackers’ armbands are giant and encased in pink.
You should resolve whether or not to step in and save the person, or cycle on and maintain out of bother.
That’s the form of ethical alternative gamers face in Through the Darkest of Times, a brand new online game designed to simulate life and resistance in World War II-era Berlin, and the primary current online game to be licensed in Germany that features swastikas and different Nazi symbols.
Those symbols — together with the SS insignia, the likeness of Hitler and the straight-arm salute — are typically banned beneath Germany’s structure. Until not too long ago, that meant video video games that confirmed them wouldn’t obtain approval from German’s online game licensing board, the USK.
But strikes to modify the principles had been rising since 2017, when a recreation known as Bundestags Fighter 2 featured the politician Alexander Gauland, a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, contorting his body into the shape of a swastika. After reviewing an official complaint, a district attorney dropped it, effectively pronouncing that video games should be treated like movies: If the images were used in the pursuit of journalism, history or art, then the symbols would be allowed.
That position was adopted by the USK in 2018 when it approved Through the Darkest of Times, which was released this year, despite the use of Nazi symbols.
The decision immediately prompted questions about exploitation. When an early version of the game was exhibited in 2018, Franziska Giffey, Germany’s family minister, told reporters, “You don’t play with swastikas.”
“Especially in Germany, we must always be aware of our special historical responsibility,” she said.
The game’s creators, Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian St. Schulz, said they were motivated by a concern that Germans — and other Europeans — were overlooking the dangers of populism. They said the game was intended to educate players about the horrors of the Nazi era.
“Most of the games in which Nazis appear are about World War II and you play them as a soldier, or a commander,” Mr. Friedrich, 43, said during an interview at the office of Paintbucket Games, the studio he and Mr. Schulz, 41, founded to make the game. “And that means the whole story before and after — the Shoah, the anti-Semitism, this slow road to dictatorship — none of that takes place.”
Europe has seen a surge in support for right-wing nationalist politicians in recent years. The Alternative for Germany has lawmakers in most German state legislatures and has become the largest opposition party in the national Parliament. Across Europe, far-right parties have gained traction; in Hungary and Poland, nationalist populists are in power.
That was the backdrop against which Through the Darkest of Times was conceived, the creators said. Mr. Friedrich said they wanted to “make a game which might have a positive effect on this whole polarized society that appears to be tipping toward totalitarianism.”
The programmers said they saw Nazi iconography as important to telling the full story of the Nazi era.
In the past, makers of American video games such as Call of Duty and Wolfenstein have created versions of their blockbuster hits without Nazi symbols for the German market.
But that option was rejected by the makers of Through the Darkest Times. “We were either going to use the swastika, or nothing at all. We were definitely not going to invent some symbol as a substitute,” Mr. Friedrich said.
Through the Darkest of Times uses a palette of mostly black, white and red, and features a period soundtrack to transport players to the 1930s, when, after the Nazis gained a foothold in Parliament, Germany quickly moved from a shaky democracy to a regime of atrocious racial violence.
Although the game is far from a blockbuster (there are about 8,000 registered users on Steam, one of two platforms where Mac and PC users can play the game), Through the Darkest of Times has found use as a teaching tool in schools and colleges across Germany. One class at Pellenz, a high school in the west of the country, played the game as part of their advanced history studies.
Klara Schumacher, 19, a student at the school, said, “The Reichstag fire — I found it really moving that you had the opportunity to be there.”
According to another student, Christina Degen, 20, the game differs from many others because it does not just reward heroic behavior, but rather shows how difficult heroism could be under an authoritarian government.
“I remember thinking in seventh grade,” she said, when first learning about the Third Reich, “‘What cowards, why didn’t people all help?’”
But, she added, “Now that I’ve thought it over — and also played the game — I can see their perspective better.”
Daniel Bernsen, 44, who teaches the class, said he thought the game presented a valuable new avenue for understanding the past.
“It’s a medium that could do much more when it comes to history and the culture of remembrance,” Mr. Bernsen said.
Even Ms. Giffey, the families minister who had criticized the use of swastikas in a video game, seemed to have come around to the idea after meeting with the programmers. In a Facebook post in August 2018, she said exceptions should be made for games that promoted positive debate and education.
Others said they were uncomfortable with the rule change, however. Through the Darkest of Times has an avowedly educational purpose, but that is not necessarily true of all games that might use the symbols.
Thomas Fuchs, who leads of a state media advisory board in northern Germany, said in an interview that he was critical of the change.
“The question is whether this also works for games that do not have an educational background, but are shooters, like Wolfenstein,” he said. He also questioned whether “protecting the public from sensational use of these symbols is less relevant than protecting art.”
Ms. Degen and Ms. Schumacher, the students, said the swastikas did not play a big role in the game. Neither said they thought that the images were crucial for the game’s effectiveness, and they did not express any worry about seeing them. In any case, they said, the symbols are relatively common in movies and TV series.
“I don’t actually need a swastika on the armband to recognize that this is a scary person,” Ms. Schumacher added.