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How video games can make young people more aware of the Holocaust?

Some developers are now creating games that don’t shy away from the horrors of the Holocaust, once a taboo in the industry

Deutsche Welle Published 23.05.23, 05:01 PM
Video games often feature Nazis, but rarely focus on the Nazi dictatorship's crimes and the Holocaust. That is changing.

Video games often feature Nazis, but rarely focus on the Nazi dictatorship's crimes and the Holocaust. That is changing. Deutsche Welle

Paris, July 1940. A child looks out of a window. People walk by on the street carrying boxes and suitcases.

"Are we going to flee?" Samuel asks his parents. "No," his father replies. "We are going to be brave and stay right here."


Shortly after, Samuel is sent to his room. He listens to his parents talk. "It's not safe," he hears his mother say. "We're as good as dead if we stay here."

"We have nowhere to go," his father replies. "What choice do we have?"

They have no choice. The Jewish family is torn apart. First, the father is deported, then the mother and finally the boy. All die in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The video game, "The Light in the Darkness," then rolls the closing credits that incorporates black and white photographs of children who did not survive the Holocaust , when more than six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

Worried by rising antisemitism

"I can't get over the 6 million dead. I can't get over it," Luc Bernard told DW. "I remember those who died. I am not just reducing them to numbers because to me they were kind of our families, friends, neighbors and citizens."

Raised in France and now based in US, the 37-year-old British Jewish game developer created "The Light in the Darkness" almost entirely by himself.

It's a project close to his heart that he's been carrying around since 2008. But it took almost 15 years before he could finally release the game.

There are so many World War II games, but none about the Holocaust, he said, adding that changing that was his motivation. The rise in antisemitism around the world frightens him, he explained. "I think it's just going to continue to get worse. Unless we change the way we do Holocaust awareness."

For a long time, it was taboo to depict the horrors of the Nazi-era in a computer game. Bernard was considered the "Holocaust guy" within the games industry. He did not receive any funding or support from NGOs. He put all his own money into the game and still offers it for free.

Only now, after the game has been released, is he receiving encouragement — mainly from Europe, but also from the Israeli government. In the first few weeks after its release, some 100,000 people downloaded his game, he says.

How can Holocaust awareness reach young people?

The more time that passes since the Holocaust, the more difficult it is to create a social awareness of the mass murder of Jews, says Bernard. He wants to use his game to draw young people's attention to the subject in particular, arguing for the importance of reaching them with content instead of hoping they will go to museums or visit memorial sites of their own accord.

Bernard's own family history was affected by the Nazis. His British grandmother, whose first husband was a German Jew, cared for Jewish children who were brought to safety from Germany to Britain in 1938 and 1939 on the "Kindertransport" (Children's Transport), an organized rescue effort for children.

"In the video game industry, if I'm honest, as a Jewish person in the gaming industry, Jews don't really seem to count much in terms of representation. And our history and trauma doesn't really seem to count much,” says Bernard.

Although World War II has for decades been one of the most popular historical settings for video games, especially in the strategy and first-person shooter genres, these stories are usually told from a military point of view.

The players are either heroic US Army soldiers saving the world from the Nazis or they command troops and recreate battles. But one central historical aspect almost always remains unmentioned: the Nazi genocide of Europe's Jews.

Video games influence our memory

But games influence our cultural memory and color our concept of historical events.

It's problematic for the Holocaust to not appear in games, says Christian Huberts of the Foundation for Digital Games Culture, which wants to encourage developers to have greater sensitivity towards this topic.

Huberts told DW that, while it may have been unthinkable a decade ago to represent Nazi crimes in video games, there's since been a shift in sensibilities within the games industry.

Now games are criticized for completely ignoring the persecution of Jews or for falsely representing history.

German version of shooter game sparks debate

For example, the first-person shooter "Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus," which is set in an alternate reality in which the Nazis won World War II and have occupied the United States, has particularly polarized opinion.

It's a long-standing game series that sparked a scandal in the 1990s due to the high levels of violence depicted.

There are two versions of the game released in 2017 — a German version and an international one.

Due to laws in Germany banning the depiction of unconstitutional symbols such as Nazi swastikas in public — including in video games — all elements of the game that could be illegal in Germany were removed from the German version.

"The result was that Adolf Hitler was called Herr Heiler and didn't have a mustache. And the protagonist's mother was no longer Jewish, but instead was described as a traitor who is arrested and killed,” explains Christian Hubert. "That means that the German version of the game deliberately disregards the persecution of the Jews.”

These measures sparked a debate that ultimately led to the legal framework in Germany being adjusted. Since then, video games may also show unconstitutional symbols when their depiction serves "to promote the arts or science, research or teaching, reporting about current or historical events, or similar purposes.”

Studies by the Jewish Claims Conference, which works to provide compensation and support for victims of Nazism, have found that many people in the US, France, Canada, the Netherlands, and Austria are unaware of the Holocaust. Especially among Millennials and Generation Z, many are convinced that the number of Jews killed has been exaggerated. Some even believe the Holocaust never happened.

Interactive media offer new narrative forms

At the same time, games are the main entertainment medium for more than half of all Millennials. So why not link Holocaust remembrance with games?

Video games are a good way to learn, confirms Huberts. They can make it possible to directly experience not only historical spaces and landscapes, but also how political systems work.

For example, if players are given fewer and fewer opportunities to intervene in a plot, they could experience "how a fascist political system can spread its power, how rights suddenly disappear," Huberts explained.

But most players tend to ignore educational or "serious” games.

That's why Berlin-based studio Paintbucket Games is taking a different approach. Founders Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian Schulz want to make games that distinguish themselves from common themes.

They're behind the 2020 strategy game, "Through the Darkest of Times," in which players lead a resistance group of civilians fighting against the Nazi regime between 1933 to 1945.

And in the studio's detective game "The Darkest Files,” set for release in 2023, players slip into the role of a fictional prosecutor uncovering real Nazi crimes. The boss is Fritz Bauer (1903-1968), who played an essential role in launching the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials.

"We're not trying to produce software that's admonishing, moralizing, instructional,” Friedrich told DW. "We want to create an interesting, exciting, engaging game that gives a topic long neglected in games the attention it's due.”

More games about the Holocaust

Video games shouldn't replace books, exhibitions and documentaries about the Holocaust.

But they can be a good supplement and have the potential to reach people who otherwise pay little attention to the persecution and extermination of Jews under Nazism, according to games developer Luc Bernard.

"There just need to be more games about that period," he said. "Not just war games."

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