Nazi Board Games (Really)

I fell into a board game Wikipedia rabbit hole a couple of days ago (as you do), and discovered there is an entire category of Nazi board games. The games include one called Juden Raus! where your player figures are all Jews (with big pointy hats) who you try to see off to deportation points so they can be sent to Palestine. Another requires the player to bomb London, presumably during the Blitzkrieg. Apparently, Goebbels himself had some hand in the creation of these games – one of his Principles Of Propaganda is:

TO BE PERCEIVED, PROPAGANDA MUST EVOKE THE INTEREST
OF AN AUDIENCE AND MUST BE TRANSMITTED THROUGH
AN ATTENTION-GETTING COMMUNICATIONS MEDIUM

There are worse ways of achieving that goal, especially with children, than creating a board game that models the behaviors you’re trying to inculcate as a propagandist.

Beyond a strong desire to play these games (seriously, if anyone finds a copy of Juden Raus I am very in), finding out about their existence raises a lot of questions about games for me, both about their nature as a formal medium and about their ability to communicate through play. We can be shocked by the existence of Nazi board games, but our own culture is full of children’s games that do roughly the same thing, indoctrinating kids into certain patterns of behavior or teaching them lessons, albeit ones less repulsive than deporting Jews. Certainly, Monopoly (which began life as The Landlord’s Game, designed to teach the unfair economic consequences of renting) and a whole host of other games implicitly and explicitly model the rules and norms of capitalism. Other games are made and played as teaching tools (I know Bea is currently making a game designed to communicate nutrition facts). Do these games serve as more powerful teaching instruments because they force the player to act out the systems they model or create, whether they’re capitalist or National Socialist? Do creators of these sorts of games have more of a responsibility to think about what they communicate? I don’t want to sound like someone trying to ban Grand Theft Auto or something like that, but I think these are super interesting questions about, in particular, the sorts of games we use to teach in early childhood. And come on… Nazi board games.

None of these games seem complicated enough for the play itself to communicate the message in the way, say, Braid occasionally seems to. You could imagine changing the names of the pieces and maybe conveying an entirely different message with the same mechanics of Juden Raus!. But one of the things we discussed (possibly just in my group) as a criterion for the category “art games” was an attempt to convey some idea beyond the enjoyable or “fun” experience of play itself. If that’s a way toward defining what we think of as “art games” today, are Nazi board games art games? Are they just propaganda? If they’re just propaganda because of the obviousness of the message, might a slightly simpler version of Galatea that focused almost entirely on one of Short’s themes (say, the male gaze) also merely be a piece of propaganda rather than an art game or interactive fiction? It’s probably not totally fair to compare those games (if Galatea is even a game), but the ways in which we often consider games to be “important” is divorced from the actual message of the game–it seems like frequently we simply care that there is one at all. Or, similarly, ignore the “message” to laud advances in the gameplay mechanics themselves (Grand Theft Auto). That seems to raise thorny questions about how we think about games, particularly when they communicate things we don’t like.

So where does that leave Nazi board games?

 

5 thoughts on “Nazi Board Games (Really)

  1. I think that raises a really interesting question– how does the form of media change the way it affects us? Like, even just how is seeing a movie different from reading a book different from playing a game? During the presentation on survival horror games, a point was raised (I think it’s in his post, too) about how playing games gives the a cycle of heightened tension and relief. But doesn’t watching a movie, to some extent, do the same thing? So more specifically to your point about Nazi board games– I wonder if having around a game like this, if it were to become a staple in some alternate version of history (like that Philip K Dick book where the Axis won) would be a way of subtly accustoming children to certain ideas. If these games were as popular as Monopoly or something, for children, then maybe they would not only get used to the ideas expressed in it, but also adjust to themselves playing a certain role.
    But, as you compare it to arguments against Grand Theft Auto– I don’t buy the arguments that games like that “make children violent” or something. So perhaps there’s a line between games that seem to uphold certain, realistic aspects of society, meaning that their outcome is somehow achievable, or games that are completely divorced from reality.

  2. This reminded me of something I stumbled on when I was looking stuff up about Braid. I read that Jonathan Blow removed the game from the finalists of the “Guerilla Gamemaker Competition” of the Slamdance Film Competition because the panel had taken a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! out of the running. The game involved assuming the perspective of the shooters at Columbine, and the game’s designer proposed that it would promote better understanding of what went on during the massacre, rather than caricaturing the perpetrators as video game-playing metal-listening loners. I haven’t played the game, but I think that it ends with some sort of bloody revelation which is supposed to make you think differently about how you were engaged as a shooter for most of the gameplay. I don’t think the game itself is extremely sophisticated, and I can understand why it was removed from the competition (one of those games whose “message” people decide to pay attention to, thinking it is in poor taste) but I’m interested in this proposal that inhabiting the “bad guy” perspective will somehow elucidate their motivations better than looking from the outside in. This is related to what we talked in class about w/r/t the potential of video games for fostering empathy.
    Although the Nazi game was originally intended as propaganda, I think it would be experienced differently were it to be played presently. Like the Columbine game, someone might argue that it is a simulation which in some way works to enable the viewer to inhabit an “enemy” perspective (though the Nazi game, in theory, depicts the Nazis as they want to be seen). Grand Theft Auto does this in its own way, as it enables law-abiding citizens to live vicariously as criminals. I think contrasting Grand Theft Auto with the stated intentions of the Columbine game brings out another issue — how to tell whether a game which permits people to simulate “bad” is serving as some outlet for suppressed desires, or if it is actually serving as a tool for understanding? I’m not trying to say that games are necessarily encouraging people to be violent IRL, but I think that it’s strange that people are arguing that first person games are both powerful enough to encourage people to understand one another in spite of tremendous blocks to empathy (such as the objects of the empathy being murderers) but also maintaining that they are, in some sense, only games.

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