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Videogames’ portrayal of the Holocaust does a disservice to both players and victims

BJ Blazkowicz

While Auschwitz is the most notorious of them all, the Nazis established over 40,000 concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. Some were used to force Jewish, Roma, LGBT, and other minorities to work, while others were used to systematically murder those people. In Treblinka alone, approximately 876,000 people were killed, and over 800,000 of the victims of this abhorrent violence were Jewish. Videogame portrayals of WWII and Nazism tend to shy away from this ugly truth, instead choosing to focus on the gun-on-gun conflicts of the time, ignoring the atrocities that backed them. 

The first game to touch on WWII was Castle Wolfenstein in 1981, but Nazis have been shown across popular culture since the ‘40s, appearing in radio shows such as Fibber McGee And Molly, where they were used as propaganda tools by the anti-fascist movements of the age. Even Superman and Captain America were on the airwaves as the war raged on, bringing down fascism with their fists. Back then, it was a fantasy escape from real-world horrors, a cathartic release to a world where a man in a red cape can zip across the planet in a flash and single-handedly bring down the most hateful ideology our world has ever seen. In comics and on the radio, these pop culture portrayals were a reminder that those reading and listening were on the right side of history. 

Nazis in pop culture have endured, of course, and we still see them appear as bad guys in films and games. But has the prevalence of Nazis in media led to them losing their impact? Once introduced into fiction as a coping mechanism, Nazis as they appear in videogames today are a default bad guy – fodder for you to shoot at without needing to feel bad about it. They’ve become as synonymous with videogame antagonists as zombies (hell, several games in Activision’s Call of Duty series combine the two) and they’re often portrayed as being just as mindless.

“What people don’t get is that this Hollywood image of Nazis was actually a very intentional representational coup for Jewish creators at the time,” one anonymous Jewish game designer tells me. “The Armenians and Tutsis should be so lucky as to have the folks responsible for their genocides thought of as metaphors for pure evil. Post-war Jewish creators in popular media wanted Nazis to be seen this way: rigid, laughable, scary-but-weak, unsympathetic, undebatably terrible. It was an approach designed to make an as-always divided America with pro-civil rights folks on the Left and pro-military folks on the Right both more sympathetic to Jews than they had been up until then, and it seems like it worked, at least for a while.”

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After decades of being shown Nazis in this way, this approach is perhaps beginning to lose its effectiveness on the general public. Rather than portraying them as one-dimensional bad guys, should we also show how someone can slide into such an ideology? “To show them as caricatures is abhorrent – exactly as they did to the Jews,” Daniel Griliopoulos, the Jewish co-author of Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us: (about life, philosophy and everything), says. “They weren’t monsters – they had particular belief structures that made sense to them in the context of their time, and were grounded in philosophies that go all the way back to Plato. They had smart people like Martin Heidegger who thought that they were doing the right thing, because the moral unit for them wasn’t the human being, but the Aryan human being, and everything else should be sacrificed. That’s not an alien thought structure to anyone who values their countrymen over foreigners.

“If we treat Nazism as only manifested in soldiers who can be killed without qualms and evil leaders, we fail to confront the fact of how Nazism took root and could again among ‘normal’ people. Games that want to be taken seriously need to deal with the Nazi regime as it was, in the context of an era that believed in eugenics and racial superiority – as did many in the West – and a group of amoral politicians that capitalised on the desperate. The majority of Nazis looked like any person on an American and British high street, and they tried not to think about the people in the camps, like we try not to think about refugees trapped on our borders. Cartoon Nazis in ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Inglorious Basterds, and videogames alienate us from the everyday feel of these totalitarian regimes. If you morally equate the oppressors with the victims, as Inglorious Basterds does, or force us to be as bad as them, by murdering and torturing them, then you erode the moral lessons we could be learning from these games in favour of entertainment. ‘Boo, Nazis’ doesn’t teach us anything.”

In 2017, Nazism is once again on the rise, hiding under the guise of the ‘Alt-Right’. Those caricatures aren’t cartoons any more: they’re on the news, they’re gathering huge followings on social media, and they might even live down your street. You’ll recognise them by their hateful views and, most tellingly, their Nazi salutes. Videogames, thus far, have stayed away from talking about modern Nazism. In fact, there are numerous instances of triple-A developers distancing themselves from politics. Though it doesn’t feature Nazis, Far Cry 5 is a recent example of this. Nintendo said they would never touch politics at all. Hell, even David Cage, who makes interactive movies over on PlayStation, said his games aren’t trying to say anything.

This is often the same for games that depict historical Nazism. While it appears that Wolfenstein 2 is making some kind of grand political comment on our current world, developers MachineGames have said that this wasn’t intentional. They are clearly stating that Nazis are bad – which is, weirdly, somehow controversial in itself in 2017 – but the game’s lengthy development time meant that they didn’t know the game would launch in the modern political climate.

“I was really encouraged by some early gameplay footage of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, where two Nazis are talking about how violence against them is ‘never okay’, because ‘you can’t just kill somebody with a different point of view’,” Jewish QA analyst Daniel Korn says. “I appreciated this dialogue because it’s ironic and clearly meant to reflect how actual ‘Alt-Right’ Nazis talk on the internet. That is a ‘realistic’ portrayal of Nazis as they are today, even as the game itself takes place in a fantastical setting, and it makes me feel like MachineGames have done their research, and know who our enemies are. This approach to portrayal may also be a better way to illustrate the insidious ways in which people eventually become Nazis.”

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MachineGames may not be aiming to make a broader contemporary point, but they dare to do more with Nazis than turn them into simple shooting targets. Instead, they are mocked through clever, snappy, and cutting writing, which emerges from conversations that the player is allowed to eavesdrop on. But the paucity of such thoughtful depictions isn’t the main problem with portraying Nazism in videogames. You see, we’re also forgetting the victims.

“I would really just like there to be more acknowledgement of Jews in games,” Korn tells me. “I don’t think this is specific to Judaism; game stories tend to be pretty bad at acknowledging any sort of faith or cultural difference. But it makes me annoyed when, in Wolfenstein: The New Order, there are a few lines of dialogue that tease that BJ Blaskowicz may be Jewish, but it’s never been canonically established. MachineGames’ devs have been cagey about it, and John Carmack has admitted that he always thought of BJ as Jewish, but ‘never gave the backstory all that much thought’. That’s frustrating to me, because the emotions I attach to The New Order are fundamentally different when I think of BJ as a Jew. Suddenly, he becomes not just an avenger for his own personal strife, but an agent of vengeance for the entire Jewish people. That’s powerful.”

While Nazis are being glamorised as Bond-esque villains, goose-stepping and twirling their moustaches, Jews are almost entirely absent from videogames. Not just Jewish victims of the gas chambers, but also the Jews who fought against the Nazis, pushed aside in favour for more traditional American heroes or British special forces soldiers. Over 50,000 Jewish men and women served the US army during WWII, there were one million Jews in the Allied forces, 30,000 in the British army, 100,000 in the Polish military, and 500,000 in the Soviet forces. There’s no doubt that videogames are doing a disservice to all of these fighters, as well as those killed in concentration camps.

“There’s just a very difficult balance between making sure a form of entertainment is entertaining while remembering what you’re dealing with is horrific on every level,” Jewish content creator Simon Miller tells me. “In many ways it’s actually impossible to execute properly because of the subject matter at hand. Even if you did present them as true to life as possible, it’s still with the intent and purpose of selling a videogame, and that’s a grey area to say the least. The problems arise because the entire landscape of what happened isn’t covered. We focus on the battles, and we know that who we’re fighting, in terms of ideologies, are evil to the core, but there’s never a mention of concentration camps or the mass killings that went on outside of this, and nor should there be. That’s an area which has no right being in a game in the way they’re approached at the moment, but that does mean from a historical standpoint we’re leaving very important events out.”

However Italian indie developers 101% are attempting to capture precisely such an area in their new virtual reality experience. Witness: Auschwitz is being created by a Jewish team who are hoping to highlight what was perhaps WWII’s biggest atrocity, in an age of social media Auschwitz tourist selfies.

“Witness: Auschwitz is a completely immersive experience that allows users to interact with the world that surrounds them, with the people, with themselves, and become ‘witnesses’ to one of the most tragic events in the history of humanity,” creative director Daniele Azara tells me. “The project is a new approach to teaching about the Shoah [the Hebrew word for the Holocaust]. A highly educational, individual journey, packed with information collected from authoritative sources and eyewitness accounts. Users will participate in the daily horror of the extermination camp, although no scenes of explicit violence are included. The context, generated in VR, increases the emotional engagement and the experience is imprinted in the mind in a completely innovative way compared to traditional media.”

Games can, of course, be a powerful storytelling tool, but is it morally justifiable to make a triple-A game as they exist today that touches on these topics, while also trying to sell DLC and adding in an XP-farming multiplayer component? Perhaps, like with Witness: Auschwitz, the answer lies in the indie scene, where games such as This War of Mine and Papers, Please have proved that games can tackle serious issues respectfully and thoughtfully. Even if a videogame successfully highlights one of the conflict’s horrors, however, WWII is still a vast, complex mess, and there’s no way to capture every single facet of one of humanity’s most disgusting historical periods.

This War of Mine

Still, in the current political climate, it feels important that we try, and that we don’t sugarcoat it when we do. “If you want to show gamers what it is they are fighting for, the Holocaust cannot be ignored,” Jewish journalist Max Covill explains. “There are countless Holocaust deniers in the world that say the events never happened, but well-educated individuals know what happened. Too many of the youths in America might not fully grasp what the Allies are fighting for in these videogames. There is no doubt that videogames have a great deal of influence over young adults. There should be a greater effort to show how vile these times were.”

Since Nazism is on the rise once more, videogames could play a part in counteracting it through catharsis and education, just as Superman and his super-powered friends once did. Today, the Alt-Right are anti-immigration, mock the LGBT community, and scapegoat anyone with a different belief system. Hitler and his forces did the same during WWII. The Führer famously said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” He used lies to control people, and any media outlets speaking the truth against him would be dubbed “Lügenpresse”, or “lying press.” It’s the proto ‘fake news’. History has a habit of repeating itself when people forget, you see, but are videogames the right place to remind us? They’re bigger than any other entertainment medium, after all, but often the medium with the least to say.

Call of Duty World at War

“Do you show the persecution of the Roma, LGBTQ, other minorities, that suffered as well?” asks Larry Kuperman, the Jewish business development director at Nightdive Studio. “Take the story of the Treblinka extermination camp. It was second only to Auschwitz in the number of Jews that were killed there. People were packed so tightly into the gas chambers that when the doors were opened, they were often still standing, dead on their feet, mothers still holding children. Yet an observation window was installed so that visitors could watch the operation. How can you capture the horror? Treblinka was also the site of an uprising in 1943. The starved prisoners stole rifles, burned the buildings, and about 200 escaped. Many were recaptured and the camp would resume operations. At least two of the few that rebelled, survived and escaped would later commit suicide out of guilt at surviving. Do you make that into an action game? Does that distort the memory of the hundreds of thousands that died there or do we use it to celebrate the bravery of those that rose up? The real story makes a depressing game.”

Perhaps the answer lies in metaphor. In point-and-click adventure game I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, players go on a dark, dystopian journey from the perspectives of five different characters. Nazis are never explicitly mentioned in the story and there’s no Nazi iconography, but an entire section of the game was ripped out of the German release because of how it mirrors the events of WWII. “There were depictions of inhumane medical experiments, mass graves, and references to the ‘lost tribe’, who were clearly meant to be Jews,” Alice Grunstra, ex-QA lead at Perfect World, tells me. “Part of what made it so effective is that in that section, you are playing as [a Nazi] – and you are asked to perform some truly horrific acts, as well as some very compassionate ones. The story arc of the character you control during that section is all about redemption, and that provides important context for what you’re doing. Videogames are in a unique position here, because they can force a player to do something morally reprehensible and then deal with the consequences of what they just did, and it can be a real gut-punch when done well.”

I have no mouth and I must scream

A similar approach has been taken in the world of superheroes, holding up a mirror to real-world issues through fantastical fiction. Just like how Superman became a symbol for hope at the height of WWII, the X-Men have been doing political commentary since Marvel introduced them. “It’s never about Jews, it’s never about black people, it’s always about mutants – mutants standing in for the ‘other’, then they explore that with which ‘other’ is the most appropriate in the present day,” CCP senior comms lead George Kelion says. “I think analogy parable is good, because it allows you to read more into it. If you’re too prescriptive, then you’re going to foster a reaction that leads to people feeling alienated. Alienated people tend to form groups and write racist screeds on 4chan. I’d be terrified if there was a Jewish protagonist in a game. Look what happens with women. Look what happens every time there’s a black guy in a videogame. Look what happened with the cover of Battlefield 1! Having a Jewish protagonist would run completely counter to my self-preservation instinct.”

And yet, there is a value to tackling subjects head-on, forcing players to confront horror – to make them feel something. With metaphor, you run the risk that some might not parse the message. Already, we can see the word Nazi beginning to lose its impact, with people using terms like ‘grammar nazi’ and ‘feminazi’, and referring to PC videogame players as the ‘master race’.

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During the course of WWII, the Nazis did extensive experiments based around mass sterilisation, chemically sealing off women’s fallopian tubes, or using X-rays to irradiate people’s reproductive organs. Terrified and starving children were experimented on, too. Dr. Josef Mengele had a particular interest in childhood twins, and would put them through painful examinations over the course of hours. Once finished, they would be killed by injection so the doctor could conduct an autopsy. The Nazis saw these persecuted minorities as subhuman, in a bid to remove themselves from the reality of what they were doing their fellow people. By constantly portraying Nazis as shooting targets and forgetting to show the real horrors of WWII, are we also neglecting to remember the conflict’s human cost?

“Nazis evils must be showcased,” says Ari Marmell, Jewish writer on State of Decay 2. “Their persecution of Jews, Romani, LGBT, people of colour must be emphasised – and not just the persecution, but the results: the camps; the people machine-gunned into ditches they were forced to dig; the people led into the gas chambers – all of it. This must be present, every time. It must be emphasised, every time. If your game does not have room to showcase what Nazis actually are and what they want, then your game does not have room to include Nazis at all. Do it right, or don’t do it – and deciding not to do it because you don’t want to do it right is cowardice. As entertainers, we have an obligation beyond just entertaining. When it comes to major historical or social issues, we have an obligation to educate – not overtly, not by preaching, but simply by making sure our entertainment doesn’t gloss over the truth. We have to keep including Nazis as villains – in fact, we have to do so more – but only in their horrible and disturbing entirety.”