Update: After VICE published this story, EA reached out to announce that it is changing Wilhelm Franke's name so the character no longer shares a name with an anti-fascist hero. Read the story here.
Battlefield V is a strange beast. It’s a fun and visually stunning World War II shooter that has taken up nearly 200 hours of my time since its November launch, and lately it’s got me thinking about the difficulties inherent in handling playable Nazis in a way that all my time with various Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games never did.
For some reason, in the past, having playable Nazis in multiplayer WWII shooters felt mechanically necessary and nothing more. This may be because microtransactions and customizable online avatars didn’t become the norm until recently, or because I was a dumbass kid. Whatever the reason, things have gotten really weird with Battlefield V’s Nazi-themed microtransactions recently, and it starts with a guy named Wilhelm Franke.
In real life, journalist Dom Schott pointed out, Franke was an anti-fascist resistance member in the city of Dresden in Nazi Germany. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, and he and his family were killed during the Allied bombing of Dresden. In Battlefield V, presumably thanks to an oversight, Wilhelm Franke is a deadly and ruthless high-ranking Nazi with a penchant for dramatic coats and wearing a partial mask (a real prosthetic for soldiers in WWI).
A promotional video depicts Franke as a Nazi badass, and he’s purchasable as an “elite” cosmetic skin for roughly $10 USD worth of virtual money. There are three other elites for players to choose from to spice up their in-game avatars: two allied fighters, and another Nazi, the “cold, calculated” Ernst Schubert.
On one hand, microtransactions are part of how games like Battlefield V make money nowadays, and it would be a bit odd to only sell Allied skins because the game forces players to alternately fight on both sides. On the other hand, there’s something deeply and undeniably off-putting about making Nazis look like cool and desirable characters for a profit.
It’s bizarre, because Battlefield V has otherwise gone to some lengths to sap most of the Nazism out of WWII. You won’t spot a swastika in the game, and terms like “Hitler” and “Nazi” are banned in chat. Developer DICE has even added women and people of colour to both the Allied and Nazi fighting factions in the name of inclusivity and diversity. All of these decisions inspired vitriol from reactionary video gamers.
One could be forgiven for presuming that these steps meant that Battlefield V was doing its best to work within the limitations of the WWII shooter genre to avoid glorifying Nazis or their ideology. The Wilhelm Franke avatar, besides being an affront to the real-life man, is the exact opposite of whatever restraint DICE might have been going for with their in-game Nazis. Its entire purpose is to entice players to spend money on stepping into Franke’s jackboots.
EA spokespeople were not immediately available to comment.
And so now we have a situation where, officially, talking about Nazism is banned in a game crawling with Nazis (although anybody committed to being a racist neo-Nazi troll can easily get around the chat filter). At the same time, DICE has to make Nazi soldiers desirable in some way so players will want to spend money on cosmetic items. And so, if you have the money, you can enjoy the fantasy of being a Nazi death-god in a designer overcoat.
It’s just very weird, and feels completely different than, say, Wolfenstein II’s approach to stylized Nazis, which is: you kill them because they are evil. That game has more swastikas on display than Battlefield V and literally features Hitler in one (fantastic) scene, but it knows which side the player is on.
I like Battlefield V a lot; it’s a great game that I play all the time. Having played a ton of multiplayer WWII shooters over the years, I also understand that any game where half of the players have to be the bad guys is going to come with some baggage. But the added layer of microtransactions and “elite” skins has heightened those inherent contradictions to an uncomfortable degree.