Well Intended But Ill-Conceived / Part One

Author’s Note:

This paper was originally written in the spring of 2012 as my final submission for a seminar course on Holocaust memorialization. I was searching for a unique topic that my Professor likely hadn’t engaged with before. I recalled a series of articles by Stephen Totilo and Brian Crecente which expertly explored the controversy over a fan-made Holocaust mod for Wolfenstein 3D. I was immediately intrigued by the position that the Jewish Anti-Defamation League took in an interview with Kotaku: “The Holocaust should be off-limits for video games.” Considering some of the powerful ideas I’d engaged with through gaming, I questioned whether this wholesale rejection of the medium was appropriate. Yes, the mod in question is rather crude and fails to take the subject-matter seriously, but what if a game did take the topic seriously? What if a game could maintain a sensitive balance between artistic license and historical accuracy, AND take its players on an impactful narrative journey that no other medium could achieve?

In the interest of readability, I’ve made some minor alterations, and separated the paper into two articles. The first article will introduce the debate over Sonderkommando Revolt, an unreleased Wolfenstein 3D mod which depicted a prisoner revolt in a concentration camp. In the second article, I will look at the potential good that could come from a video game depiction of the Holocaust. A follow-up article will be posted in the coming weeks to see what, if anything, has changed in the last five years. If you’re interested in reading the paper, in its original form, don’t hesitate to send me a request.

In 2007, production began on a Wolfenstein 3D mod [21] entitled Sonderkommando Revolt. The mod depicted a scenario in which the player controlled a Sonderkommando (work units comprised of Nazi concentration camp prisoners who were tasked with disposing of recently gassed victims), who “revolted against the Nazis in the Auschwitz Extermination Camp.” [1] At the apex of its development cycle, just prior to its release, mainstream news sources caught wind of this “revenge fantasy”. [2] In response, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemned it, judging that "Perhaps well intentioned in its creation, its execution and imagery are horrific and inappropriate," and finally arguing that “The Holocaust should be off-limits for video games.” [3] This series of articles will look at the various perspectives on the viability of the Holocaust in video games, ultimately proposing that video games – as an art form and tool for the dissemination of information and moral lessons – are too valuable a vehicle to deem ‘off-limits’. The related and underlying topics of video games as a medium, the effects they have on their players, and what they offer to understanding of the Holocaust, will also be critically examined.

Sonderkommando Revolt – The Holocaust Revenge Fantasy in Video game Form

The mod itself is a work of fiction, loosely extrapolated from an actual revolt that took place in Auschwitz – Birkenau. During the event, Sonderkommandos, [4] armed with crude grenades and makeshift weapons, proceeded to revolt in several Crematoriums in the camp. The result was a brutal counter-attack by the Nazi guards that resulted in over 450 deaths of Sonderkommandos and prisoners [5] and only three SS members. [6]

The mod reverses the result of the revolt described above, in a wildly violent revenge fantasy. Unfolding as the player takes control of the protagonist, and real-life Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner, Zalmen Gradowski, the mod depicts a Sonderkommando who embarks on a first-person Nazi shooting spree. [7] The protagonist travels through various locations in the camp such as “Crematoriums, Block 11, Gas Chambers, execution, interrogation and torture areas...,” all based on actual images taken from the camps. [8] Indeed, one of the mod’s main programmers and the only one of Jewish descent, described the game as “very realistic, moody, challenging and detailed.” [9] Some of the more brutal and sensational images in the game, were that of Jewish prisoners hanging bloody from a hook, being engulfed in flame, and eaten by a dog. All of which, was featured in the game’s pre-release trailer.10 Although primitive in its visual quality by modern standards, the message is clearly conveyed to the player: you have been brutally persecuted – now is your chance at retribution.

The revenge fantasy created in Sonderkommando Revolt can be likened to that of director Quentin Tarantino’s contemporary Nazi-killing film, Inglourious Basterds (2009). However, where one is maligned and condemned to the point of cancellation, the other is critically acclaimed, and its creator is lauded for his work. The question to be asked then is ‘what is the difference between the videogame medium and other art forms depicting Holocaust events?’ and ‘why are film and other media allowed artistic liberties while videogames are demonized?’


The Debate

Journalist Stephen Totilo calls for the medium of video games to be utilized for what it can offer above other media. He admits that the mod in question, Sonderkommando Revolt, is quite possibly exploitation. Although, perhaps on a subconscious level, in that its creators had honest intentions with no agenda beyond entertainment. [11] However, Totilo applauds the game’s ability to evoke a revenge fantasy that “make[s] [its] audience feel better,” and that the revenge fantasy as a genre itself is nothing new. [12] He points to Tarantino’s film, as well as pornographic materials called Stalags introduced in the 1960s which depicted female SS officers abusing prisoners “before [the] tables [are] flipped and the women are raped and killed.” [13] This sparked considerable controversy with the central question of “whether perversion justified perversion” being debated, and much material being confiscated by the police. [14] As Totilo makes clear, there is a natural and inherent desire for any persecuted or subjugated people, regardless of the nature and rationale for the persecution, to retaliate against their persecutors. Totilo uses the examples of Japanese manga depicting a defeated America after World War II, and hip-hop songs that fantasize about cop killing. [15] Perhaps the video game offers a safe environment to release anger and violent tendencies – even in a setting like the Holocaust. This is not to say that Sonderkommando Revolt is exemplary of this phenomenon. Nor is it a work that engenders genuine understanding and insight into the horrors and reality of the holocaust. Rather, that the video game medium has the potential to facilitate achievement of these desired psychological ends.

Totilo sees the video game as the perfect vehicle for catharsis –  allowing the player to effectively “[strike] back through video games.” [16] He argues that “[it’s] odd we’ve seen so little of  [revenge fantasy in video game form]. In a movie we can watch someone else’s revenge. By controlling a game, we could pretend to be having our own revenge – or someone else’s, considering we could be anyone.” [17] Ultimately, Totilo argues that it can only be an appropriate revenge fantasy if it feels good. [18] In Inglourious Basterds, we revelled in the retribution carried out by Lt. Aldo Raine and his Basterds on the Nazis. It felt good to see justice served, in such palpable and unequivocal terms, albeit in a fictional and fantasized way. As such, Totilo concludes that we cannot pass judgement on Sonderkommando Revolt until we have actually played it. Until we know that it “feels good, and if it did, if feeling good would feel right.” [19] Contrasted with the ADL’s position, we start to see the futility of judging a work of art (or, for that matter, if we can call a mod like Sonderkommando Revolt “art”). Totilo’s willingness to engage with content, that is initially deemed taboo, should be commended. He notes the potential for such a game, while acknowledging the problematic nature of Sonderkommando Revolt. The ADL’s statement only serves to stifle discourse on the subject. Totilo wants to move the discussion forward through nuanced debate, and a genuine curiosity for the potential of video games.

Despite Totilo’s reasoning, the intense negative spotlight on the mod was such that the developer chose to cancel the game indefinitely. In several interviews, and an official statement on the development page, creator Maxim Genis (under the handle ‘Doomjedi’) defended his mod. Genis’ reason for cancellation was that the attention he was receiving had “devastate[d] [him] completely,” and that being called an anti-semite “killed [him] emotionally.” [20] In a notice, the development team stated that the project’s overexposure was “way beyond its context, proportions and intentions... this mod was made for modding fans, particularly for a quite limited community of Wolf3D [Wolfenstein 3D] fans, as Wolf3D mods (being mods of an 18 year old game) are not much played nowdays [sic].” [22] Genis notes that one of the basic rules he subscribes to as a modder is to attach no meaning, no political agenda to his creations and as such, those playing it should not try to attach meaning to it – rather, they are to simply enjoy it for what it is: a game. [23] Interestingly, Genis has also said that he drew inspiration from his spiritual convictions; believing that in a previous life, he was a prisoner of a concentration camp and served as a Sonderkommando. [24]

Perhaps the ADL is right that the creators of Sonderkommando Revolt were misguided but in their defence, its creation was honest in intention. It was meant to be fun. They were genuinely naive and ignorant with respect to the moral debate inherent in their creation. Yes, it was made solely to be ‘fun’ with no political agenda. Yes, it is a mod made for an 18 year old game that would not see a widespread audience. But despite its insignificance, by virtue of the nature of its subject matter, it has triggered an emotionally charged and contentious debate over what is acceptable for videogame representation. Thereby presenting another chapter in the age-old debate over freedom of speech and artistic expression.

The ADL, however, were quick to condemn the game in an official tweet, saying that the “Sonderkommando Revolt video game’s Holocaust imagery is horrific and inappropriate.” [25] The ADL continued to say that the Holocaust should be off-limits for video games, with the closing statement that “This rudimentary video game is an offensive portrayal of the Holocaust... With its unnecessarily gruesome and gratuitous graphics, it is a crude effort to depict Jewish resistance during this painful period which should never be trivialized.” The argument against the game itself has merit, but where the ADL’s judgement falters is in its condemnation of the medium as a whole. The game should be judged on its content, not simply because it is a game. Why should the Holocaust be off-limits for what is now recognized as an art form by the US National Endowment for the Arts? [26] The ADL’s blanket and unequivocal statement poses the question: is there a place for interactivity in understanding the holocaust and its critical lessons?

Next week, the second part of this article will elaborate on these questions, and further consider what good could come from a Holocaust video game.


    1     “Sonderkommando Revolt,”  http://wolfsource.dugtrio17.com/wiki/index.php?title=SonderKommando_Revolt
    2     Stephen Totilo, “The Ugly Fantasies of Revenge,” Kotaku, December 10, 2010,     http://kotaku.com/5710755/the-ugly-fantasies-of-revenge
    3     Brian Crecente, “Anti-Defamation League Slams Fun Holocaust Video Game As Horrific and Inappropriate,” December 11th, 2010,  http://kotaku.com/5712163/anti+defamation-league-slams-fun-holocaust-video-game-as-horrific-and-inappropriate
    4     Dueck, Lecture, September 21st, 2011. Special Command Units who were forced to take part of the Nazi killing process and tasked with the duty of burning the bodies of prisoners in the crematoriums.
    5     “The Community of Płońsk During the Holocaust: Płońsk Jews in Auschwitz,”     http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/communities/plonsk/auschwitz.asp
    6     “Sonderkommando Revolt – Auschwitz – Birkenau: 7 October 1944,”     http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/revolt/sonderevolt.html
    7-9     Michael McWhertor, “The Concentration Camp Video Game,” December  9, 2010, http://kotaku.com/5710328/the-concentration-camp-video-game
    10     “Sonderkommando Revolt,”  http://www.moddb.com/mods/sonderkommando-revolt. The trailer can be seen here – it was difficult to find a video that hadn’t been pulled by the games creators.
    11-19    Totilo, “The Ugly Fantasies of Revenge.”    
    20     Jonathan Poritsky, “Auchwitz Video Game Cancelled – ADL  Overjoyed,” December 21, 2010, http://heebmagazine.com/auschwitz-video-game-cancelled-adl-overjoyed/21538
    21     Referring to a modification to the structure and design of a game to look and/or play differently; colloquially referred to as ‘mods’.          
    22-23     Moddb, “Sonderkommando Revolt.”
    24      Allan Hall, “Jewish Groups Slam Violent Blast Nazis Auschwitz Uprising Videogame,” Dec. 17th, 2010,     http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1339253/Jewish-groups-slam-violent-blast-Nazis-Auschwitz-uprising-video-game.html
    25     @ADL_National, Dec. 13, 2010.     http://twitter.com/#!/ADL_National/statuses/14368688106897408.
    26     John Funk, “Games Now Legally Considered an Art Form in the USA,”  May 6th, 2011.     http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/109835-Games-Now-Legally-Considered-an-Art-Form-in-the-USA