I watch myself die in slow motion, shot by an Allied bullet. Then it happens again. I haven’t even figured out how to walk forward yet, and I’ve already died two times.
I’m in Aachen, Germany, fighting a World War II battle that my fellow soldiers manage to win despite my lack of shooting and navigation skills. I move past burning tanks and gutted buildings and end up walking in endless circles. I stop to examine singed restaurant signs to see if my two weeks of intensive German classes are enough for me to interpret them. I understand “biergarten” at least.
It’s my commander’s heavy German accent in my ear, telling me to stop the Allies from building a bridge, that indicates I’m fighting with the Nazi army. Nobody actually says we’re Nazis, and there are no swastikas to be seen, just flags with fancy crosses.
That’s because I’m really in Germany, not just here virtually. I’m visiting Cologne for Gamescom, one of the world’s biggest gaming conventions.
It’s my first gaming conference ever, and I’m a bit — how shall I put it? — overwhelmed. But my editor wanted the nongamer’s perspective on Gamescom, which attracts about 350,000 attendees each year, including members of the public who dress like their favorite video game characters and stand in line for hours to play upcoming titles.
I’m not sure who I would’ve dressed up as. The last video game I really played was Super Mario Brothers on a Gameboy.
I decide to start with something I’ve actually heard of: Activision Blizzard’s highly anticipated shooter game, Call of Duty: WWII.
The game became available for private beta testing on Sony’s Playstation 4 on Friday, ahead of its official release Nov. 3, and I get to try it early. But I’m definitely not a gamer. For about five minutes I can’t even figure out how to move forward and backward. What I do know, though, is history, and I’m very curious to try out a WWII game in Germany.
Unlike the US, where Nazi symbols are used at demonstrations like the violent protest earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia, Nazi symbols such as swastikas and the Hitler salute are banned in Germany. That extends to imagery in video games like Call of Duty: WWII and Wolfenstein. For the new Call of Duty, the symbol ban won’t just be in Germany. Activision Blizzard plans to also keep Nazi imagery out of Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode to ensure the experience is the same for all players.
“It’s a fine balance of not glorifying the symbolism, while also not ignoring or shying away from this dark moment in human history,” Michael Condrey, co-founder of Activision Blizzard’s Sledgehammer Games label, told Forbes in June. The company didn’t make an executive available for an interview by CNET at Gamescom.
At some point during the game, once I finally figure out how to walk around, it occurs to me that I’m fighting a virtual battle in a town only an hour from where I really am. It feels surreal. I never imagined I’d be playing a WWII video game in Germany, let alone one so close to where I really am.
But then again, I never could have imagined quite what Gamescom would be like, either.
Smells like teen spirit
Thousands of teenage boys are coming at me from every direction, pushing past me to play Detroit: Become Human, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, or World of Warcraft, or rather, wait in intimidatingly long lines to play the games. Many are toting around folding lawn chairs, and some have even brought decks of cards to kill time.
Conference attendees stand in line to ride a colorful, electric llama at the Fortnite booth, while others pose for photos on a giant dragon.
At one point, I make my way to a booth, Captiva, where dozens of people are cheering. I wonder what has them so excited. A company rep is throwing what I think are chocolate bars. It’s only when I see a flame flickering from something in a preteen boy’s hand do I realize that the booth rep is actually handing out lighters. I’m definitely not in the US.
A pervasive smell of sweat and cigarettes wafts around the Koelnmesse, the venue hosting Gamescom, and I see Samsung’s booth — the smallest one I’ve ever seen from the company at a trade show. I’m relieved to find it, though. Finally, a name I recognize.
It’s above Samsung’s booth where some of the most interesting attendees congregate: the people in the Cosplay Village. I have no idea who any of them are actually meant to look like, but I’m impressed by the elaborate costumes.
I meet Miriam, a woman from Hamburg who spent 300 hours making a costume for the World of Warcraft character Mila Phylales. “The character doesn’t have an official humanoid form,” Miriam says, so she created her own version of what Mila could look like. Four glowing spikes protrude from Miriam’s head, while others emerge from the metallic armor adorning her shoulders and the rest of her body.
Lady in red. Or is it orange?
The room quiets as a woman enters from the back. Her blonde hair is cut short, and she’s wearing a jacket that looks red in some lighting, orange elsewhere. It’s Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany and the reason I came to Gamescom. She’s opening the conference for the first time, something that’s a big deal for the organizers.
It’s unusual for the 63-year-old leader of Germany to speak at a technology conference, but Merkel’s here, a month before the German national election, to show how she can connect to younger people and to demonstrate how important tech, and gaming in particular, are to Germany. Most big-name game developers are based in the US or other countries, but it’s a growing industry in Germany.
“Berlin is developing into a startup and tech hub really, really fast,” says Jens Begemann, the CEO of Wooga, a Berlin company that makes mobile games like Bubble Island.
Merkel says during her speech that Germany needs to do more to help gaming companies, like providing financial help. “In the next legislative term, we need to get all relevant players to the table and see how we can give German creators and developers more opportunities,” Merkel, who’s running for her fourth term as chancellor, said during her comments Tuesday, according to a translation by German publication Handelsblatt. (My promised English translation during her speech never actually materialized.)
No hamburgers here
The day after my sad attempt at Call of Duty: WWII, I’m back in the demo line to talk to fans. A group of friends who’ve met up in Cologne fill me in on how excited they are for Call of Duty to “get back to its roots” — and how it’s kind of weird to be playing a game set in their country, in places they may have even visited.
“The setting is really interesting,” 18-year-old Ole Schneider tells me. “Especially for Germans, the Second World War was this huge thing.”
For Schneider and his friends, it’s normal to see alternative symbols instead of swastikas. But some online commenters have objected to the move for the multiplayer version. On a message board about Call of Duty: WWII, one commenter, who called himself “Distant20,” said he won’t buy the game if it removes Nazi symbols. “You cant [sic] make a WW2 game and leave out something of this magnitute [sic] to make it politically correct,” he said.
For many game developers, the strategy is just to avoid relying too much on historical events.
“If you want to make [a game] historically accurate, that’s a real challenge,” said Hendrik Klindworth, CEO of Hamburg-based Innogames, a developer who’s made popular games like Forge of Empires. “Our games are based on historical backgrounds but not exactly the details.”
The gamers aren’t too concerned about the accuracy of Call of Duty. But they are excited for it to be placed in a historical setting instead of somewhere futuristic like in last year’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
As for those German signs I attempted to read? I shouldn’t have tried so hard.
“Some German words look really weird,” 19-year-old Arne Meyer says. “Maybe you can read ‘hamburger,’ but that’s not a real German word.”
CNET’s Shara Tibken is working in Munich through the end of September as part of the Arthur F. Burns journalism fellowship program. Tune back to CNET for more reports from Germany.
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