Well Intended But Ill-Conceived / Part Two

PART II: Exploring the Potential of a Holocaust Video Game

In Part I, we touched on the fundamental difference that distinguishes video games from other media: interactivity versus passivity. Within a game players create, or re-enact, rather than witness. This level of interaction and creation has an incredible potential beyond fictitious revenge fantasy. The idea of a revenge fantasy game is possible and even desirable; but what if there’s potential for something more meaningful, respectful, and constructive, given the subject matter of the Holocaust? Sonderkommando Revolt developer Maxim Genis argues that as a creator of video games, he attaches no meaning to his creations. While this may be true on a conscious level, as human beings we instinctively imbue meaning onto the world around us. The unique interactivity that characterizes video gaming gives it potential to impart meaning ‒ to teach and shape opinion, which arguably transcends traditional, passive media. While the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemnation of the Sonderkommando Revolt treatment is understandable, it's knee-jerk rejection of the medium in totality, suggests that the group subscribes to a negative stereotype of video gaming. If this is the case, then one would suspect the ADL wouldn’t agree with the US National Endowment for the Arts.

If we accept the US National Endowment for the Arts’ position ‒ that video games are an art form akin to film, literature, and music ‒ then neither the ADL, nor anyone else would reject the Holocaust as a video game's subject. Therefore, the focus should be content, and not the medium. Potential exists for a Holocaust video game that accurately depicts historical events in an appropriate manner ‒ even more so, in a video game that’s accessible to a younger audience. If the great lesson of the Holocaust is “never again”, then who better to educate then the generation who will author the history of tomorrow. That the video game is a burgeoning medium is important ‒ surpassing film in terms of market share [1] ‒ and shouldn’t be rejected, as it has been by the ADL. Essential to the argument of the Holocaust as a viable subject for video game interpretation, is that video games present the Holocaust in an interactive way. It’s an interactivity that transcends the impact of literature, museums, and film in terms of Holocaust education and awareness. This leaves us with two central subtopics: the effect of the video game on its player, and what a game contributes in terms of education, and as an art form, with the Holocaust as its subject.

Header image via Crave Online

Header image via Crave Online

Defending the Holocaust in Video Games

There is a common assertion amongst critics of violent video games that video games “have the power to change us, that games can teach us to hurt and kill.” [2] This still unproven [3] theory has another side to it: video games can change us in positive ways, such as improving our abilities to think critically and problem solve. [4] However, a recent study on the way in which video games interact with their players, shows an altogether different process at work. Yes, we learn from the medium through our actions in the game, but are our decisions in video games representative of our actions in real life? According to the study, “Players experience one thing but take away from it something else. That is, players pretend to be criminal but appear to only take away un-associated pleasures from the game, not felonious instincts and a desire to act.” [5] In fact, many players see games as an opportunity for escape – to try things they might not otherwise do (i.e. perform a violent act). In a related study, it was found that respondents either found games appealing because “being able to do things you cannot do in reality can have a liberating effect,” or because they thought of video games as a “‘safe environment for experimentation,’ allowing one to find out what would be the real-life consequence of a specific action one could undertake, without however having to deal with the consequences.” [6]  

Applied to Stephen Totilo’s example of catharsis and concept of ‘striking back through video games,’ could the video game offer a harmless way of venting anger and aggression and exacting revenge?  This seems to be what Sonderkommando Revolt was attempting to do, and what Inglourious Basterds (2009) has already achieved. Of note is the statement made by the ADL on Tarantino’s film. A statement which, put in context with their judgement of the video game as ‘off-limits’, reveals an archaic understanding of the medium:

Inglourious Basterds is an allegory about good and evil and the no-holds barred efforts to defeat the evil personified by Hitler, his henchmen and his Nazi regime. If only it were true! Employing drama, comedy and romance with the quintessential Quentin Tarantino touch, the film is entertaining and thought-provoking. Christoph Waltz's portrayal of Col. Hans Landa, "the Jew Hunter," is chilling; Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine signifies the determination and brashness of Americans to get a job done. [7]

Image via Pinterest

Image via Pinterest

If a film such as Tarantino’s can be championed by the ADL, why can’t a comparably meritorious and more engaging art form be allowed to do the same? The ADL’s judgement, consistent with several other vocal groups in society, [8] rigidly adheres to the paradigm that the video game is a plaything unable to convey meaning or have artistic merit.

What players take from their interactions with video games is still not known definitively. However, as stated earlier, studies suggest that gaming offers an environment for incredibly engaging yet harmless experimentation. A greater understanding of what players take away from this interaction, would be useful given the preponderance of gaming in contemporary society. A player can be a murderer, drug dealer, or perform other immoral actions in a video game, and still remain a perfectly well adjusted individual outside of it. [9]  Once this psychological exchange between medium and player was better understood, the window opens for developers tweaking their games to deliver different messages and meaning. Thereby, educators have another tool to convey important lessons ‒ such as those central to the Holocaust ‒ in a more engaging and lasting way.  Given the entertainment market share it controls, [10] the video games’ ability to engage youth in ways that other mediums can’t, and the experimental simulations it can create, the video game offers a unique opportunity for Holocaust education and awareness.  

Of the many ways the world has changed over the centuries, the field of education has stayed largely the same.  Education is the interaction between teacher and student, and for the majority, is state-directed. John Stuart Mill, in his On Liberty, famously criticized the education system as largely failing its participants:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another; and the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind leading by natural tendency to one over the body. [11]

Mill speaks of a state induced conformity through the standardization of the educational process and the death of critical thought.  This is also one of the main dangers that the Holocaust exposed. ‘Modernity’ and conformity allowed for, and didn’t question, the extermination of millions until it was far too late. Society needs more critical thinkers – people who break the ‘mold’, and question the actions of their fellow human beings and political leaders.

Video games hold the potential to break this mold and foster an environment of critical thinking and inquiry. Critical thinking is difficult to teach, and is largely a self-exploratory practice that’s self-directed. Contemporary, sophisticated and complicated video games offer choice and allow for the exercise of free-will in how one approaches and interacts with the game. As a result, the lessons learned ‒ and the achievements of the student ‒ are that much more powerful, because the student has ownership over them. This is what J.S. Bruner calls discovery learning, “where learners use problem-solving and critical thinking to construct their own understandings of the material.” [12] In any other medium, the potential for discovery learning is much more limited. Discovery learning is central to what makes a video game a video game ‒ choice, or at least the illusion of it. Building on this idea of discovery learning, is an idea that game players are “coauthors along with the game designers, co-constructing the game-as-text through their own action.” [13]  Thus players are constructing meaning from their interaction, which they believe to be their own, but is in reality a co-authored product between themselves and the creator.  

Almost fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan was eerily prophetic of a future in which students simply aren’t engaged, because old methods of teaching were no longer applicable to how they learned. He writes:

The young student today grows up in an electronically configured world. It is a world not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns. The student today lives mythically and in depth. At school, however, he encounters a situation organized by means of classified information. The subjects are unrelated. They are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the “mythic” world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted. [14]

Traditional pedagogical methods are arguably losing their efficacy, because they increasingly fail to engage a new generation of students that think and learn differently. Accordingly, video games could be a powerful educational tool.

Image via US Air Force

Image via US Air Force

One study which investigated the introduction of video game mechanics into teaching found that, “just as some video games have used technology to leverage established pedagogical techniques, pedagogues can creatively employ motivational and pedagogical aspects of video games in their teaching – with or without technology,” and this style of teaching was a “distinct improvement over direct instruction.” [15] If it’s more effective at engaging its audience, then clearly a Holocaust video game could be a very powerful and compelling supplement to more traditional media. The study found that the reason for this distinct improvement was that the interactivity provided by video games encouraged failure and learning from mistakes. Students took more risks in the decisions they made, because there was no punitive measure for failing. Essentially, one fails until they succeed. Meanwhile, standard pedagogy teaches that assessment is a onetime occurrence, in which the student is either right or wrong. [16] Therefore, the potential for education here is dramatic and astounding.

A Holocaust themed game wouldn’t only teach facts, but also provide experience in moral decision making. The moral negotiation between the player, and the decisions of the avatar they control, could provide a wealth of experience in morality ‒ transcending that afforded by conventional schooling. Students could be presented with moral dilemmas in the form of simulated conflicts, in which choices hold no real-world consequences (but still a realistic in-game consequence). Failure could result in the student being repeatedly faced with the question until they’ve succeeded. Or, perhaps more powerfully, the student having to live with the consequences of their actions, with no option to load a previous save. In this way, students could be taught compassion, along with the positive and negative ramifications inherent in all decisions. Video games could provide essential training in critical thinking and problem solving that is missing in today’s classroom, and facilitating students’ ability to grapple with moral issues.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia


There are several problems with the idea of a Holocaust video game as an instructive tool, which would need to be solved for the appropriate message to be received. Mainly, can we responsibly ask someone to make a moral decision, such as one that might occur in a Holocaust setting, even if it is asked virtually and holds no real consequences?  In addition, how can the moral lessons chosen be agreed upon as being universally true?

The ADL, while perhaps justified in their criticism of the Sonderkommando Revolt content, was misguided and prejudicial in their assertion that videogames are ‘off-limits’ for the Holocaust. Videogames are an art form, and as such represent a valid vehicle for exploring emotionally charged and difficult subjects. Like any art form, the content of videogames is subject to public scrutiny and judgment from the perspective of prevailing social and cultural norms. However, the real focus should be on the substantial potential of the videogame medium to foster moral education. This still relatively new medium could play an important and constructive role in creating a new generation of morally grounded citizens. Citizens that are instinctively predisposed toward critically analyzing the world around them – incapable of blindly obeying the directives of those in authority. In such a world the promise of “never again” would truly be fulfilled.


1 Darren Murph, “Video game sales surpass DVD / Blu-ray for the first time,” January 24th, 2009, http://www.engadget.com/2009/01/24/video-game-sales-surpass-dvd-blu-ray-for-the-first-time/
2 David Thomas, “Messages and Mediums: Learning to Teach with Videogames,” On The Horizon Vol. 13 No. 2 (2005): 89.
3 Science Daily, April 2, 2012, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120402112828.htm
4 Thomas, “Messages and Mediums,” 89.
5 Thomas, “Messages and Mediums,” 92.
6 Steven Malliet, “Adolescents perceptions of videogame realism,” Learning, Media, and Technology, Vol. 31 No. 4 (2006): 389-390.
7 Anti-Defamation League, “ADL Statement on Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’,” August 18, 2009, http://www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa_52/5585_52.htm
8 See Senator Joseph Lieberman, lawyer Jack Thompson, Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence (MAVAV).
9 I sure like to think I am proof of this.
10 Ben Kuchera, “63 Percent of US Population Now Plays Video Games,” Arstechnica, 2008, http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2007/12/report-63-percent-of-us-population-now-plays-video-games.ars - over 63% as of 5 years ago and increasing.  
11 From On Liberty. Quote found here: http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quotes_by/john+stuart+mill
12 Janna Jackson, “Game based teaching: What educators can learn from videogames,” Teaching Education, Vol. 20 No. 3, (2009): 292 and Bruner, J.S. 1961. The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1): 21–32.
13 Ibid 293
14 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 2nd ed., (New York: Penguin,1964), viii.
15 Jackson, “Game-based teaching,” 299.
16 Ibid 293