Student Competition: Thinking about Computer Games and the Holocaust

In December 2020, as part of a virtual visiting fellowship at the department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to teach undergraduate students about computer games and the Holocaust (a topic that has spurred much discussion amongst our community, see Tabea Widmann and Kate Marrison‘s posts about Call of Duty: World War II, and recordings of our academic roundtable).

After a lively online session, students were offered the opportunity to participate in a challenge – to think through some of the issues we had discussed and create a pitch (on their own or in groups) for a Holocaust computer game. Students gained course credit for this work with a promise that the best pieces would be published on this website and shared with those working in Holocaust and genocide commemoration and education.

The learning resources used for the session are available below for anyone that might want to explore this subject with their students. The lesson overview and resources document includes links to several video ‘walk throughs’ of games:

The best two pitches are published below with the students’ permission, including my feedback and the students’ responses to my questions. Which I must say, the students replied to incredibly quickly and with thoughtfulness. These young scholars show great promise and amazing resilience studying through a pandemic. I invite you to share you own thoughts, questions and reflections on their ideas in the comments section and I will feed these back to the students.

Game Pitch #1: Sobibor: The Brave and the Bold

by Dov Halickman and Kirill Gayvoronskiy, undergraduate students at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem studying on the Global Holocaust Memory, Popular Cinema and the Digital Age module. 

The title of the Game would be Sobibor: The Brave and the Bold. The game is based on the story of the escape of the Jews from the Sobibor extermination camp during the Holocaust in the month of October 1943. In the game, you play as a right-hand man of Alexander Pechersky, the leader of the escape from Sobibor.

The plot of the game starts in the extermination camp a few days before the planned escape, the player has to complete strategy oriented challenges, as well as physical fighting missions. In order to achieve the goal of the game, the player has to succeed escaping Sobibor with the group of the Jews, with as many survivors as possible.

After completing missions and challenges, the game pauses for cut-scenes. These cut-scenes include real testimonies of survivors of Sobibor, which gives the player more insight on the background of the story, which the game is based on. The information presented in these testimonies can help the player in the following missions. For instance, a mission that the player could get might be spying on Nazi guards, get information about the next execution and save himself and his brothers and sisters – the Jews in the camp.

Our game could encourage moral and possibly, in certain cases, active responsibility in shaping the Holocaust memory by the players. We believe the game could engage the player with the Holocaust in a new interactive way which can give a new perspective on this defining event during that period.

Feedback and Response

This is a really interesting case study and refers to issues related to the representation of Jewish people in computer games currently as ‘on the periphery’ or ‘passive’. These are long running debates in Holocaust representation about Jewish stereotypes. I wonder if you looked at the case of the Wolfenstein mod, which was created by a young Israeli man who faced the Anti-Defamation League for making a ‘Sonderkommando Revolt’ mod where Jewish prisoners were the violent protagonists. I have a few questions and would welcome your response to these:

  1. Why do you think it is important to include physical fighting missions in your game alongside strategy?

In our opinion, physical fighting missions in our game are important, since we think that the game should show that the Jews had strength physically to some extent, tried to put up a fight against the Nazis and not just be passive to the situation.

  • To what extent do you think Holocaust computer games need to include archival footage/testimonies? Do you think it is important to ensure any ‘playful’ (and thus potentially fictional) historical narrative needs to be rooted in truth?

We think it is important to include archival footage and testimonies throughout Holocaust computer games because they should not be just fictional games, as the idea is to connect the game to a bigger picture of Holocaust memory and for the players to learn something about that period of time. We think it is important in this case of the Holocaust to ensure that the narrative is rooted in truth to make sure that even in a context of a computer game the Holocaust will be presented as close as it can be to the actual facts, as the Holocaust is a very sensitive topic. We think that the game should show the truth in order to make sure nobody can say that the Holocaust isn’t real or never happened, as it should be remembered forever.

  • How do you think your game will encourage ‘active responsibility in shaping the Holocaust memory’ for players?

Throughout the game play and the testimonies presented in the game, we would hope that the player will want to research further about the Holocaust and how it affected the Jews for years to come. We think that the testimonies aspect in the game can really open the player’s mind to look into how they can be part of shaping the Holocaust memory, whether it’s reading about the topic or taking active participation in Holocaust memory projects worldwide. We see this game as a way for people and the youth to connect to knowing more about the Holocaust and remembering it, and not just as a computer game for entertainment reasons.

Game Pitch #2: The Mystery of Jedwabne

By Catherine Szkop, graduate student in the Hebrew University MA Jewish Studies program.

Photo taken from an article about Anna Bikont’s book on the Jedwabne Massacre [Crime and Silence] and her visit to Jedwabne, Poland with Jan Gross following their books’ publications in The Irish Times

Jews had lived for hundreds of years alongside their Polish neighbors in a small town in northwestern Poland known as Jedwabne. As the Nazis began their invasion of Soviet-occupied Poland in 1941, however, suddenly the town’s Jewish community no longer existed. To the outside world, they seemed to have simply vanished. But what really happened to Jedwabne’s Jews? Did they flee deeper into the Soviet Union as the Nazi army began occupying the town? Did the Nazis round them up and shoot them in the forest? Or was their disappearance at the hands of something much more sinister? Embark on a historical mystery adventure to discover the fate of Jedwabne’s Jewish community by traversing through the Polish countryside and searching for clues that will lead you to the final answer.

The game Mystery of Jedwabne would directly address one of the most controversial mass killings of Jews that occurred during the Holocaust, which remains controversial in Polish Holocaust memory until the present day. The Jedwabne Massacre was carried out by Polish civilians who murdered their Jewish neighbors without any explicit help from the Nazis in the summer of 1941. For decades, the truth behind the murder of Jedwabne’s Jews was mostly unknown to the outside world because the perpetrators and the other townspeople kept quiet about it. Additionally, national Polish memory for World War II embraces the victim narrative without much room for acknowledging the role of the bystander or, even more unsettling to the national historical narrative, that of the perpetrator. As a result of these points of contention and general controversy surrounding the Jedwabne Massacre, the game would have to align as close to historical fact as possible while also adhering to a set storyline and ending that could not be directly altered by the individual player.

The objective of the game would be to uncover evidence, by discovering a series of clues and interviewing older members of the community, that would prove that the Polish townspeople of Jedwabne killed their Jewish neighbors. The game would begin with the player seeing a black screen with a white description outlining the history of the town (how Jews lived amongst their Polish neighbors and even held a majority of the population at one point in the town’s history), how the Nazis invaded the Soviet-occupied half of the former Polish state in the summer of 1941, and how suddenly the Jewish community of Jedwabne ceased to exist shortly after the Nazis reached the town. The player would be instructed that he/she is a detective from Warsaw that is tasked to discover the truth behind the disappearance of the community by interviewing townspeople that would be old enough to remember the massacre, using the “archives” as a resource (like reports from Jews who survived the massacre, reports written by surviving Jews who lived in neighboring towns, from Nazi photographs, from maps of the town in Yiddish, etc.), reading short excerpts from books about the history of the Holocaust in occupied-Poland (as relevant to the town and the massacre), venturing into the woods in the evening (mostly for dramatic effect, but also to learn about the Einsatzgruppen who would murder Jews by firing squad into mass graves), and visiting places in the town where the Jewish community primarily used to live. To start, the player would be given a checklist of places to begin his/her search, like interviewing a specific person or going to a specific place in the town. From these interactions, the player would then move on to different places or clues through the information he/she gathers from those initial people and locations. The game would be played through a first-person POV, so these clues and resources would appear as options for the player to choose (without the opportunity to alter them), and the player would eventually “win” when he/she discovers the clue that leads him/her to an empty field with a few barns dotted across the landscape. The game would end with a short video focusing on a black and white picture of a barn that no longer exists in that empty field and a male actor’s voiceover reading from the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn describing how the Jewish community was burned alive in the barn by the Polish townspeople on July 10th, 1941 without the help of the Nazis and how only about seven Jews escaped the massacre.

In terms of the academic study and review of video games about the Holocaust, the individual player would not be able to change the nature or storyline of the game, so the end result of the game could not change and every single clue in the game would have been purposefully placed in a chain of events. Therefore, the game would not be “free play” and it would also not include any direct violence, since the player and the other characters in the game wouldn’t have access to weapons. The only reference to violence in the whole game would be a black and white picture of a burning barn (without any added sound aside from Wasersztajn’s testimony) at the end. Unlike many other games that are about World War II or refer to it in some capacity, the “Mystery of Jedwabne” would directly characterize that Jews were murdered during WWII and highlight a particular pogrom that occurred during the Holocaust without overshadowing it or ignoring it. Unfortunately, the Jews in the game would be depicted and remembered as nameless victims. In an effort to combat this inescapability reality within the context of the Jedwabne Massacre, the game would include references to their lives before the war, even if only minimally, and incorporate some of their names in order to give them some humanity within the game as the detective progresses through his/her search. The “Mystery of Jedwabne” could also serve to remind people of the actual Jedwabne Massacre, similar to how Jan Gross’s book Neighbors initially shocked the world when it was published at the beginning of the 21st century, and reintroduce the topic of memory within Polish society in an alternative way without the inclusion of graphic violence that appears in Gross’ book. In this case, due to the controversy and sensitivity behind this particular pogrom in Polish-Jewish discourse, the detective that would be tasked to solve the mystery would have to be a non-Jewish Pole, which I chose to be from Warsaw specifically, in order to avoid any criticism or backlash that would attack the first-person player as an “outsider” to the region, especially if the detective came from a North American or Western European country. Despite the fact that the Jedwabne Massacre remains a heated topic in Poland and within Polish-Jewish relations in general, the idea for the “Mystery of Jedwabne” game has the potential to reintroduce the dynamic discourse on the perpetrator-bystander-victim relationship within the realm of Holocaust memory in Poland through a non-violent game as well as pose the notion that so much about the fate of Jews during the Holocaust remains hidden to researchers and the world at large.

Feedback and Reponse

This is a fascinating idea for a Holocaust computer game and reflects on some of the issues raised in our session, particularly in relation to whether computer games need to re-present/ role-play history or could encourage us to explore memory of the past. Your narrative is particularly pertinent at the moment, with the ongoing memory tensions in Poland emphasised with the so-called ‘Holocaust Law’ in the country. You may want to think about some of these questions:

  • Does the protagonist have to be a ‘detective’ per se? Or could they be a 3rd/4th generation individual, who is interested in World War II/ Occupation history? It reminds me of the German film ‘The Nasty Girl’ about a young non-Jewish German girl who wants to find out more about her town during the war and begins to unravel truths about her neighbours’ complicity. How might making the protagonist a local non-Jewish young person add depth to your idea? (Feel free of course to defend why you would prefer a detective from Warsaw)

Interesting idea, I had never heard of The Nasty Girl until now. I definitely accept the perspective of having the first-person player be a person from the town rather than someone from the outside, since it has less potential for a similar reaction to that of Jan Gross as an “outsider” to the Jedwabne community when he published Neighbors. Nonetheless, I think the mystery detective theme for the game adds an alternative audience appeal and would frame it within the context of a “detective game” first, then secondly it would be a game about the Holocaust, rather than just a “Holocaust game”.

In the case that the player is a local to Jedwabne, just to entertain the idea, then the storyline as well as the objective would certainly have to be adjusted and I would have the first-person player take particular interest in learning about the community’s Jewish population after learning about the Holocaust in school. This would add an aspect of innocence from the perspective of the player, since he/she would be interviewing people he/she would know while investigating familiar territory and keep the controversy of Jedwabne within the local community. Furthermore, most of the plot could remain the same, but the character would also be able to add statements in the simulated conversations that they were aware about the Nazis oppressing the Poles of the town and systematically killing Jews across Europe. The player would be able to formulate his/her own questions in these simulated interviews with elderly townspeople, but only questions relevant to the person and the game would be answered. The detective perspective presents an easier, less complicated storyline, but the local youth perspective would add a deeper sense of betrayal and confusion to the story.

  • It is possible given the ‘Holocaust Law’ in Poland that this game would be banned in the country and would cause some heated debate in the international press. Do you think it is still appropriate to release the game? Why? How would you protect yourself and any of the game designers against legal action?

I definitely recognize the sensitivity of the subject material and would anticipate a backlash from the Polish government and some citizens about the game. In an effort to deter a full-scale rejection of the game, considering that the current climate in Poland does not want to fixate on how Poles in particular participated in the murder of Jews, I would strongly consider adding aspects of how Nazi soldiers treated the locals, both Polish and Jewish, when they arrived to Jedwabne. Namely, how Nazi soldiers committed orderly organized murders of Jews in the center of Jedwabne, when they rounded up a group of Jewish men and shot them in the square, as well as in the surrounding Jewish communities in addition to how they did not treat the Poles in the village as equals. In the forest portion of the game, mostly used for dramatic effect, I would include an explanation and description of how the Einsatzgruppen would murder Jews by having them dig mass graves and then shooting them into them (the scene would have a voiceover from the Nuremberg Trial about how it happened and have “flashing, temporary images” of people digging, a soldier yelling in German towards the first person player, and eventually show a row of soldiers with their guns aiming downwards, cutting the visual off at the sound of multiple gunshots). The game it is not making a claim that all Poles committed crimes during the Holocaust, and it is only relevant to the Jedwabne Massacre. If even the topic of the Jedwabne proves too difficult and instigates legal action, then I would also refer to the significant amount of research about the town and the massacre that occurred there against the Jewish population in 1941.

I think it is great that you are still insistent on the necessity for this particular historical narrative to be foregrounded in public memory, even if it could cause debate.

  • You have decided that players cannot change the outcome of your game? In what ways do you consider it to still be ‘interactive’ or ‘playable’? i.e. how will your game cognitively (mentally) and bodily involve the player?

Even though the actual outcome of the game does not change, the player can choose which clues he/she follows and some of them would lead to dead ends or incorrect places. There could also be an aspect to the game that not every document or testimony the player discovers is valid or truthful and the player would have to determine which clues he/she thinks will lead to the next clue. For example, a document that the player finds later on could invalidate a previous testimony that they recorded (the player would have access to all the clues he/she has collected and can reference them at any point during the game), so he/she can mark that particular clue as “false”. Only false clues would be able to be marked as “false” and this could only happen after the player finds another clue that invalidates the previous “false” one. Therefore, every aspect of the game is fully programmed and the first-person player cannot change the nature of the game, but he/she can experience the game differently than say another player depending on what clues he/she chooses to follow or the documents/testimonies they chose to “research” on their journey towards the final revelation.

We welcome readers to share their own thoughts about these proposals for computer games about the Holocaust below.

2 thoughts on “Student Competition: Thinking about Computer Games and the Holocaust

  1. This is an exciting project. The second proposal – and the elaboration of it in response to feedback – is particlarly well thought out. It reminds me a bit of Attentat 1942, but with more branches and details. Perhaps one could build in the possibility for false leads, that would lead to contradictions or dead ends only after an additional number of steps (‘false’ witnesses of the town that deny or seek to cover up the crimes?). How would new information be presented? In the form of ‘handwritten’ documents and snapshots (stills of death pit esecutions, aven if not from Jedwabne?)? Actors? How much bodily identity should be given to the ‘detective’ or investigating 4th-gneration youth from Jedwabne?

  2. I think Jedwabne is a great choice of subject and a game in this space offers some interesting opportunities to understand events in Poland during the war. However, two things strike me. Firstly, I’m not sure why only one ‘correct’ outcome should be possible. Obviously historically there is a ‘true’ outcome, but if this is the only conclusion then it doesn’t seem to offer an opportunity to understand how local consciousness played itself out. Secondly, and related, I’m not sure why the game has to comport with local (i.e. Polish) law. I would suggest that challenging this state sanctioned view of history is crucial to education in this space. (I mean these comments to be constructive, I’m fascinated by this idea).

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