Discover more from Jello Menorah
How to Make a Holocaust Video Game
Fortnite isn't the answer, but the medium has incredible potential.
This week, game developer Luc Bernard made headlines for creating a Holocaust memorial within Fortnite, a massively popular video game. The memorial is, by all accounts, perfectly fine. Tasteful even.
It’s easy to sensationalize this story, but I want to take Bernard’s idea seriously. Is the future of Holocaust memory in Fortnite? No. But that doesn’t mean a Holocaust video game is a bad idea. In fact, there are already games that suggest how one should be made.
First, a little context. Bernard, who is clearly anxious about people forgetting the Holocaust, has tried gamifying the atrocity before. The Darkness in the Light, a game that Bernard developed over many years, allows you follow the story of a French Jewish family that is ultimately murdered in the concentration camps. The whole game is less than two hours long. You can watch a full playthrough here.
I don’t want to diminish Bernard’s efforts, but both the Fortnite experience and the standalone game are underwhelming. Both are focussed on exposition, and neither succeeds at creating an emotional connection to the past. A “good” Holocaust video game is probably possible—but it requires a better grasp of what video games do well.
Games are about choice. It is this that distinguishes them from all other forms of entertainment. According to philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, a person playing a game is choosing an artificial end because they like the means. You like the experience of shooting aliens, so you choose to play a game that demands you kill all the aliens.
Because the process of getting to the end is what matters, game design places a major emphasis on creating a specific kind of process. This can mean small things, like making the onscreen character fun to control, or big things, like making the player curious about what would happen if they tried going over the next hill. For puzzle games, it means that challenges need have an “aha!” moment that makes the players feel smart.
Most developers want players to feel a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment. But a few games do things a little differently. One of the most interesting is Papers, Please, a game by Lucas Pope released in 2014 that I have not been able to get out of my mind. (The game was just released for iOS; I played it on PC.)
The premise of Papers, Please is simple. You are an immigration officer sitting in a tiny booth on the border of a fictional Soviet-bloc country. All day, people approach your booth to gain admittance and it’s your job to decide who gets in. That’s the whole game.
How exactly do you decide? The easy thing to do is just to follow your government’s rules. These start out simple but quickly get very complicated while constantly changing. The pressure to do things right is very real: if the state doesn’t like your work they’ll dock your pay, and if you don’t have enough money your family members—whom you check on every night—may get sick or go hungry. If you do a good job, on the other hand, you might get a better salary, or even a better apartment.
But doing a good job is hard. You’re on the clock, you are reprimanded for processing people slowly, and the game intentionally makes it hard to view all the documents at a glance. You don’t have time to think about your work in the abstract or to develop broad principles. All you have is the person right in front of you, and then the next person, and then the next.
Along the way, the game presents you with moral choices that prod at what kind of person you want to be. If your house is freezing cold because you don’t have money to heat it, do you detain people without cause for some extra cash? Do you let in a woman without the right papers because she’s escaping an abuser—and do you take her bribe? Will you help people rebel against the state if it puts your career or your life in danger?
The most insidious part of the game is how it desensitizes you to the ugliness of your actions. At the beginning, your hardest decision will be separating a husband and wife because one of her documents expired yesterday. A week later, you might find yourself detaining journalists, or photographing people naked to verify their sex or check for weapons, or even shooting those who try to dash across the border. You don’t directly choose to do any of these things; instead, you do them because surviving means adopting an approach to your job that allows you to survive. Your own consistency dooms you.
Crucially, the game never tells you which is the “right” way to play. Instead, Papers, Please has 20 endings, each based on a different pattern of behavior. Whether your end is satisfying is ultimately up to you.
Towards a Better Holocaust Game
Papers, Please isn’t a Holocaust game, but it isn’t far off. If you want to know what it feels like to embody “I was just following orders” as a boring bureaucrat in a giant machine, this is it. The gameplay just sticks with you in the way that an antiseptic conversation cannot.
Other mechanics might be appropriate for future Holocaust games, too. For example, a Holocaust game might portray the arbitrariness of survival by presenting itself as a game of skill before evolving into a game of chance. It might show the player suffering from the fatigue of making impossible and heartbreaking choices, choosing not only which family to leave behind, but which parts of one’s self. Neither of these games would need to be loaded up with facts. They just need to replicate a certain type of agonizing choice.
If teaching people about the Holocaust means putting basic information in their heads, video games are not the way to go. Basic knowledge, however, isn’t enough to make people really understand the Holocaust. Instead, we want something more: a window, however tiny, into what it felt like to live it.
The best way to support my work is subscribing. Thank you!