About Eric Thurm

TV, rap, and books at the bottom of The A.V. Club totem pole. UChicago student sometimes, Tim Dog truther always. Dumb jokes @ericthurm.

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:


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?


In Treatment as a meditation on other minds

This is maybe a little too close to philosophy for one of these posts, but I’m very interested in the ways In Treatment almost seems to be a sustained examination of the problem of other minds and a way of forcing the viewer to confront this problem.

It’s true that pretty much all therapy engages this problem somewhat, since what the therapist is trying to do is by definition teasing out the contents of another person’s mind. But In Treatment appears to elevate the question of whether we can ever truly know the contents of another’s mind and, if not, how to deal with that knowledge, through its treatment (sorry) of Paul. His entire M.O. as a therapist seems to entail viewing his patients as puzzles to be solved, with secret “answers” in way that either dehumanizes them (a puzzle isn’t the same as complex human being with a mind as rich as ours/Paul’s) or suggests that Paul views finding the answers as equivalent to knowing another person. And all of Paul’s problems appear to stem from his inability to confront or truly know other people, as he starts to ignore the problems his family is going through in favor of retreating to a place where he feels like he knows his interlocutors.

The show invites us to treat the patients the same way – we talked about “diagnosing” the characters, and whether that even makes sense in the context of fictional characters. That additional level of remove just further complicates the problem of other minds for viewers: We are just as engaged in the game as Paul is (perhaps more so, since he’s another pawn for us but not for himself), but removed from the “reality” of the characters. Maybe this is just me, but watching the sessions (and Paul’s obvious inability to properly remember or characterize them to Gina), I felt a little frustrated by my attempts to actually know any of the characters, and maybe a little despair at the picture of human interaction the show seems to be painting.

Bea’s post seems relevant. Not only does the show go out of its way to present its characters as a collection of (relatively) easily identifiable psychological problems, that attitude toward the characters makes criticism of the show itself somewhat difficult. In a way that’s different from almost any other contemporary television narrative I can think of, In Treatment seems like it has only one thing on its mind (sorry again). Is it possible or useful to use In Treatment-as-text as a way of attacking that problem?

What does it mean to model networks?

There are a lot of issues surrounding network fiction that I’m not sure we really got to in the presentation today (especially since we didn’t spend much time talking through the formal elements of the genre the way we’ve done in other presentations). So I wanted to ask a question that didn’t quite come up during my and Ellen’s presentation today, in terms of what, exactly, constitutes network fiction (not one I necessarily have the answer to).

Most of the examples of network fiction we discussed – The Wire, films like Syriana or Cloud Atlas, etc., all try to tell (relatively) coherent stories that model or compress massive, realistic networks into (again relatively) organized, structured narratives. So The Wire manages to tell a story about Baltimore without actually capturing the totality of the networks that constitute the city (the institutions, economic trade, etc.), which would be impossible structurally (for example, we can only pay attention to one thing at a time, even though all 200-odd characters are acting at the same time). We already discussed the distinction between complex storytelling with multiple plots or character arcs and something that captures and aims to mimic the rhythms of networks, but I’m interested in another possible grey area: What sorts of networks in network fiction are merely models of networks, and which are networks unto themselves?

I’m not sure if there’s an actual answer to this question for all network fiction, but I’m especially interested in its application in the context of games. Lots of games model or create networks, especially in genres like Massively Multiplayer Online games (Second LifeWorld Of Warcraft, etc.). In bigger games you can find whole networks that are facsimiles of “real” networks, or ones that take on individual structure and purpose within the world of the game. Other games like Animal Crossing (I think, I’ve never played that game) seem to mimic networks for single players, who then interact with those networks but not with any other “real people.” In general, it seems like games create a vastly more complex array of ways that networks can be modeled or represented in art than in relatively linear narratives like film or television. So are the networks created by say, a Warcraft guild any less “real” than a similar group of individuals with common goals?

My inclination is that those networks aren’t any less “real,” especially if they’re formed between different players all interacting in a virtual environment (which raises a host of other questions about games that aren’t MMOs or create these networks with NPCs), but that seems to make the question of what networks are or how they’re represented even more confusing. To some extent, most networks aren’t “real” (social networks, etc. are all virtual). But if those networks are virtual, what distinguishes them from the virtual representations of other networks (within a game, say)? Do networks somehow model themselves? I’m not sure.

Self-Destruction In Neuromancer

It seems kind of obvious to say that most of the characters in Neuromancer are self-destructive, but it’s still something I’m interested in exploring.

Case clearly has a bit of a death wish when we first find him in Chiba. Originally, his death drive appears to be attributable to his losses – of both cyberspace via his poisoning, and later Linda Lee’s death. But notably, he doesn’t seem to overcome that death wish by the end of the novel when he gets new organs and resumes his drug use. He might not be taking the same sorts of suicidal jobs, but he throws himself back into a life with low odds of longterm survival. He even uses “Lupus” as a fake name with Cath which marks him as a sort of human auto-immune disease. Molly is hypercompetent but also blase about her possible death, and I’m inclined to read her leaving Case at the end as the rejection of an emotional attachment that could give her a reason to care whether she lived or died. Wintermute is literally programmed to want to destroy itself by merging with Neuromancer.

Why are so many of the characters so destructive? There’s definitely a tie to Neuromancer‘s noir aspects here. Characters in noir often have self-destructive impulses, or at the least a Molly-esque disregard for their own lives in the pursuit of cracking the case (professional success). In particular, noir heroes tend to lose their better judgment and make poor, life-threatening choices under the sway of femmes fatale (Jeff Bailey in Out Of The Past). In this instance, Linda Lee appears to be a femme fatale, but for most of the novel, Case is more entranced by his true love, cyberspace. Given cyberspace itself as Case’s primary love interest throughout Neuromancer, the dizzying role of technology in the novel might be a useful way of looking at the characters’ self-destruction. Confronted with the static of The Sprawl, the loss of any real sense of time (which we discussed in class), and the immutability of the corporate status quo – in which the structures of the massive corporations themselves last beyond even a dozen individuals – it’s hard to get a sense of possible stakes for any of the characters, other than singular emotional attachments they make almost at random. That, in turn, might be a hint toward Case’s motivation when he decides to help Wintermute so that something, anything in his world will change.