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?