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.)

7 thoughts on “Ephemeral games: Is it barbaric to design videogames after Auschwitz?

  1. These games make me sick.

    On Martin Luther King Day, Resistance Records, a distributor of racist, The Title Screen of Ethnic Cleansinganti-Semitic “White Power” music began to advertise Ethnic Cleansing, a CD-ROM based computer game whose object is to kill “sub-humans” ? i.e. Blacks and Latinos ? and their “masters,” the Jews, who are portrayed as the personification of evil.

    If you google “Racist Groups Using Computer Gaming to Promote Violence” you can find the full article on this from the ADL. Tolerance of such hate only fans the flames. We need to take a stand and do something before the fire gets out of control… like it did in Germany. Remember Hitler told the world exactly what and how he was going to do what he did in Mein Kampf.

  2. Certainly in multi-player games, cooperation can be an important part of the gameplay. But you’re right to note that no genre can affect us positively if it isn’t also able to affect us negatively. A painter needs darkness in order to illustrate light. Good observation. And while some game genres do “story” better than others, I think you can reach quite a long distance towards narratology before you stop being a game.

  3. Stephan- Your comment just reminded me of an excellent quote (which I can’t attribute because the name left me):

    “Theory is when everything makes sense, but doesn’t work. Practice is when everything works perfectly, but no one knows why.”

    Integrating the two is very important. But remember, not everyone is a visual or textual learner. Some people require aural experience to get the point. Some of my music-majoring friends would find this to be true.

    I can’t say much about the culture surrounding video games, but I find the culture surrounding the internet has historically had trouble communicating concepts beyond a logical, literal sense. This could be attributed to the already-established culture of programmers and high-flown theorists that once dominated the WWW.

    I guess what I want to say is: video games are a fairly new medium, so I personally would exercise caution in using it right off the bat to communicate a concept that many already-established media can barely do themselves.

    Suppose a game produced a simulation of the experience of a concentration camp, perhaps had the ability for you to make acquaintances with other people, and even simulated the fear and uncertainty of the camps. My concern is simple: If games do not affect us in a negative way, how on earth can they affect us in a positive way?

    I picked up on this issue being raised in your post, but it seemed only as an aside. The concept of Ludology makes the case that there is a fundamental core of games, right?–the ludeme–which is nearly independent of (perhaps only superficially related to) the shell or narration.

    From the perspective of ludology, you must alter the ludeme to make the effect change (Like the demented Koster example Dr. Jerz pointed out). With this understanding, it would be very hard to communicate the concept of racial/religious acceptance if such narrative features (religion, appearance) are not in some way working with the ludeme to affect gameplay.

    On the contrary, if you are arguing from a narratologist paradigm, you’d have to remove all the violent videogames from the shelf because the narration would have the main effect on gameplay.

    Perhaps if you integrated this theoretical game with other media (especially conversation), it wouldn’t pose as much of an issue. Games are good for what they do: communicating broad, experiential concepts like persistence, logic, spatial perception, etc. And if the narration is skillfully integrated into the ludeme, friendship, working with others (or for others), etc.

    My question is: can a game really combat against hate without losing the qualities that make it a game and stepping into the realm of narratology?

  4. One problem I have with hypertext fiction is the deisre to click “go back” whenever the story seems to be headed down a wrong path… so that could be an issue when creating a story set in the world of “Night”. On the other hand, what about asking middle school students to write a one-page design document, describing a game that teaches one specific lesson from a Holocaust curriculum. I think the teachers would be surprised at the level of sophistication kids would be capable of applying to a task like that.

  5. I’m reminded of the Laputa in Gulliver’s travels. The people who conceptualized everything, but when applied practically, the buildings failed.

    Trying to teach students with literature and sparce visuals, only implants conceptual methods. Soley conceptual learning of a topic comes short of the broad range of types of learners.
    In community service students not only have to be made aware of the need for service, but have to work X hours. Both conceptual and experiential involvement is necessary for critical learning and to involve a greater number of students.

    Why can’t a game just follow exactly what happens in ‘Night’? Allowing variations, the issues facing a game like that would be providing a situation where the player can’t “win,” but surive. At the same time, when a player can die in a game, but can’t ‘win’. Obviously it does not offer a equal success/failure ratio. Maybe a game that the player can neither lose nor win. An interactive narrative in many ways.

  6. Yes, I felt Adorno’s “barbaric” observation needed some context, which is part of the reason I blogged Frasca’s article.

    That Left Behind game is another good example, Mike. The enthusiasm with which evangelicals have embraced technology — going back, I suppose, to the commission of oral tradition to paper — has resulted in some interesting new media artifacts that raise quite a few questions.

    I found an example of Salem Witch Trial Jeopardy and a review of the card game Witch Trial (by an outfit called Cheapass Games). So that’s part of American history that’s not taboo.

    Slavery is another matter. The phenomenal popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first as the novel and then as a melodramatic spectacular, ostensibly spread abolitionist sentiment, but also perpetuated the image of the “good” Southern master and the devoted slave who loved him for his benevolence. The Uncle Tom phenomenon did inspire all kinds of spin-offs, “from ballads and minstrel acts to nursery rhymes and card games” History Cooperative. But who’s up for a version of Frogger that features Liza skipping across the ice floes?

    Civilization III permitted the sale and trade of “workers,” but Civilization IV comes right out and calls them “slaves.” And, from the world of role-playing, comes this “Faith and Gaming: Slavery” article that offers an apologia for the ancient practice of slavery. (“That arrogance is a greater moral issue than the existence of slavery, particularly in a society in which slaves are lovingly treated and embrace their position as a good thing.” The author goes way beyond what I think would have been necessary to suggest the interesting psychological and narrative complexities involved in imagining a “good” society that include slavery… but I digress).

    In a comment attached to a recent Water Cooler Games post about the Super Columbine Massacre RPG, Nick Montfort suggests it’s a question of genre. For most people, TV news coverage of Columbine would be considered acceptable. “They would be more bothered by a made-for-TV movie, and would probably be very troubled by a reality-based TV show about Columbine.” Richard Castaldo, a former Columbine student who was paralyzed during the attack, told a gamer website, “But ‘m not sure the ulitimate intention was to trivialize it. It seemed like the purpose was to expose people to what happened in a unique perspective. There are probably a lot of people that would find it and play it out of curiosity. And find out more about Columbine than they usually would have were it not in game form. And in this process learn that what they did was not glamorous in any way.”

    I’m not comfortable putting “Super Columbine Massacre” on the same level as a Pulitzer winner, but many academics and teachers have no problem teaching from a Holocaust comic book.

  7. Didn’t Adorno mean “to write poetry at all” (e.g., to whine about life’s suffering) rather than “to write poetry ABOUT Auschwitz” (e.g. Frasca’s video game comparison)? Perhaps a better video game analogue would be something like “it would be barbaric to play Nintendo after Persian Gulf I,” the so-called Nintendo war. http://www.roxie.org/books/moths/crystal/2.html

    This post reminded me of the debates surrounding the new LEFT BEHIND computer game, which involves a self-righteous “Tribulation force” killing the non-Christians who are ostensibly under the sway of the Anti-Christ. See also: http://www.leftbehindgames.com/

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