Ephemeral games: Is it barbaric to design videogames after Auschwitz?

Adorno once wrote “it would be barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz”. Based on what we previously described, it seems that it would definitively be barbaric to create videogames about Auschwitz. However, if we could find a kind of environment where actions are irreversible, some of the main obstacles for designing “serious” videogames would disappear. — Gonzalo FrascaEphemeral games: Is it barbaric to design videogames after Auschwitz? (Ludology.org)

In this article from 2000, Frasca asks why it is that the only computer games to deal with the Holocaust are neo-Nazi propaganda games. (I haven’t seen or played any such games, but the Anti-Defamation League has an article on hate games in general.) In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Ralph Koster dismisses the idea that plot and moral context does not affect gameplay. He imagines a game that is played entirely like Tetris, except that “You the player are dropping innocent victims down into the gas chamber… they grab onto each other and try to form human pyramids to get to the top of the well…. I do not want to play this game. Do you?”

Graham Nelson’s 20th Century time-travel romp, Jigsaw (a game from the early years of the post-commercial interactive fiction renaissance), features a brief non-interactive narrative sequence in which the player is placed in the role of a Jewish child watching what appears (to the child) to be a parade. In an interview with XYZZY News, Nelson described the creation of Jigsaw: “I felt that overmuch social history would be undramatic. But the largest element I (mostly) omitted was genocide. The Holocaust was not fair, the victims had no winning line.”

Certainly playing WWII military strategy games would have little entertainment value if the winner of the simulation was always the winner of the historical event being simulated. The same can be said of the instructional value of such a game.

According to a widely-distributed set of teaching guidelines from the U.S. Holocaust Museum:

Even when teachers take great care to prepare a class for such an activity, simulating experiences from the Holocaust remains pedagogically unsound. The activity may engage students, but they often forget the purpose of the lesson, and even worse, they are left with the impression at the conclusion of the activity that they now know what it was like during the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses are among the first to indicate the grave difficulty of finding words to describe their experiences.

I agree completely that asking school kids to role-play guards and concentration camp victims would be problematic. The guidelines I quoted above do recognize the value of simulations that focus on general concepts (like solidarity and altruism), rather than specific Holocaust scenarios. But how much can we really learn about the holocaust from reading a story or watching a movie? Any representation of the Holocaust is going to be simplified. The question is, what do you choose to simulate, and is it possible to move from that simulation to a discussion of what the real system (the one being simulated) is like?

We have more vivid, first-person Holocaust stories from people who survived than we have from those who died. Might that fact give a skewed impression about survival?

A few years ago, blogger and columnist James Lileks recalled the joys of shooting bad guys in the morally unambiguous, simplified world of the first-person shooter, but used it in order to frame a different, more subtle question:

In “Wolfenstein,” every room you enter has Nazis. You never enter a room full of startled film editors piecing together an anti-Jew screed, family men who’ve been incrementally co-opted by three years of occupation. You never find that room.

And what would you do if you did?

Regarding poetry in the aftermath of Auschwitz, Adorno later had second thoughts, writing in Negative Dialectics “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living – especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.”

(I’m going to have to end this in progress and get back to it later…)

It’s a few hours later…

On the same blog entry, Lileks says about realism in games: “I came up with a good definition of a ‘realistic’ war game: they ship 45,000 copies, and only 15,000 of the games allow you to proceed past the beach. That’s it. No refunds, either. You get off the landing craft; your screen goes black; your computer seizes up and cannot be rebooted. Game over, man.”

A little Googling brings me to an update, of sorts, as Frasca reflects on Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story from the US Holocaust museum (a spatial narrative for children, in which the visitor walks through a series of representations of life under Nazi Germany). Of Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came for the Jews/and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew,” Frasca writes, “Right there, you have the rules for a simulation that analyses how your everyday actions affect the system, the big picture. In such a complex system like the Holocaust, the key element for understanding is how minimal discrimination may allow the emergence of the ultimate horror. And that‘swhere simulation can be an excellent rhetorical tool. Museums generally deal with the past, but just because we want to look forward.”

Frasca has elsewhere invoked Augusto Boal’s distinction between oppression and aggression, and the Theatre of the Oppressed (which is designed to simulate oppressive acts, and to invite the audience to interrupt, forcing the actors to improvise their way towards a collaborative solution). (Next on my reading list — Frasca’s Videogames of the Oppressed.)