What ho, dear readers! As one may be able to discern from my title, I am discussing something of no controversy. Absolutely none. Zilch. Am I still not being believed? Aww bugger all…
A bit of context before I start. Prior to being chained to a basement chair and forced to spin sparkling yarns of gold quality, I saw a short career in college academia. As an educator, I was constantly looking for new and improved ways to present information to students. Thus, when I began to read up on the research linking games and education, I was very excited for what it meant to history teachers. Games provide some of the best opportunities for exposing students to the strangeness of the past, providing possibilities for exposing players to things like agency and choice, they are interactive experiences which can immerse their players in the worlds they create. Thus, thought I, there was a chance to take a different crack at one of the most challenging things to teach in European History- the Holocaust.
I was not the first person to consider games an opportunity for Holocaust educators. Brenda Brathwaite, now the Game Designer in Residence at the University of California, attempted to create a board game about the Holocaust with Train. In the game, players guide a train loaded with yellow figurines along rails, addressing obstacles detailed on cards along the way. Players pick up their terminal station card once they reach the end, revealing the name of a prominent concentration camp like Auschwitz or Dachau. As she explained to the Jewish Chronicle, Brathwaite “was trying to figure out a way to show people how you can be complicit in a destructive system…Players have to feel like they made the decisions that sent those people to the camp.”
Coming from a historical background, I have some real problems with how the game sets out to accomplish its goal. To begin with, I find it dubious that players will feel complicit if they are tricked into complicity. I further charge that the bait-and-switch nature of the objective actually propels the game further from historical truth; it is the very core of the evil found in the Holocaust that those who directed the trains knew what they were doing but just did not care. Brathwaite believes that she made the references in the game to the Holocaust explicit, even expressing surprise that so few caught on before the end of the game, but the fact that so few did catch on does little in her favor. The second issue is that by setting the players in the position of the perpetrators, Brathwaite literally enforces the stereotype of the completely passive Jewish population by making them into tiny yellow figurines. This stereotype is a bit more grounded in broader historical trends (which use fancy terms like agency), so I will oversimplify it by making the point that the Jews, whether in the ghettos, the train cars, or the camps, took as much of a non-passive role as they possibly could have given the historical circumstances. So what does the exact opposite, a violently active population with no regard to historical circumstances, look like in a game?
Enter the mod Sonderkommando: Revolt. Developed as a modification of Wolfenstein 3D, Sonderkommando Revolt was to be part one of a mod trilogy, with parts two and three to be set during the Warsaw Uprising and in Treblinka respectively. Sonderkommando: Revolt had been in development for four years, merely weeks from its release, before a trailer unleashed an onslaught of pressure to close shop. Depicting scenes of both torture and massacres of Nazi solders, the response was, to be put mildly, rather rabid. “I can’t believe I have to say this…” wrote one commentator, “Gallivanting around a pixelated representation of the very real horrors of the concentration camps makes light of these dark days of humanity.” “If videogames have really come to the point where all the makers care about is getting cheap thrills out of being offensive,” wrote another, “then I’m sticking to my older systems.” Probably the most notable comment came from the Anti-Defamation League, who proclaimed that “The Holocaust should be off-limits for video games.”
The knee-jerk outrage over this modification is, naturally, deplorable. That it, in turn, prevented the release of the modification is equally condemnable. Yet the ADL’s primary concern was worry about the mod’s “crude effort to depict Jewish resistance.” As a historian I am sympathetic to this concern. One of the most common questions to hear asked is why nobody attempted to break out or rise up against the Nazis while in the concentration camp. A Holocaust survivor I had the honor of listening to related a tale of a young boy who, after interrogating the survivor about the layout of the camp and placement of guard towers, could not understand why the survivor did not just kill a guard, navigate through the camp, and steal a truck to escape. This is, once again, tied to idea of a passive Jewish population; that they allowed themselves to die. Where the ADL and I are coming from is that stories like the one in Sonderkommando Revolt, even fictional ones, beg the question “So why did the Jews not do something like that?” Borrowing a quote from a review of the film Defiance, these stories unintentionally have “the effect of making the timidity of the Jews, rather than the barbarity of the Nazis and the vicious opportunism of their allies, a principal cause of the Shoah.”
It should not be expected that a game about the Holocaust be historically accurate. To paraphrase Sid Meier, when choosing between historical detail and fun, developers should always choose fun. Yet as a historian who has had to field countless questions about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, I do try to expect Holocaust games to hold up to broad historical truths about the time period. For a time, I thought this may only be a pipe dream, that no possible game could adhere to my exceedingly picky standards. During the research I performed for this article, however, I came across one game which dazzled me beyond the words available for this week. Thus, feel free to return next week when I regale you with a sad tale involving a young boy, a talking fox, and Reggie Fils-Aime.