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I have previously talked about how some games try and tackle a serious topic and treat it with the respect it deserves. Some games also go one step further and try and educate us about the topic as we play the game. My article "Sensitive Settings" tried to look at games that tackle plagues, wars, colonialism, genocide, executions, experimentation, extinctions, terrorism, abuse and death in a sensitive and meaningful way. In this article, I want to look at games that use a specific setting as a backdrop for a fun experience and that make no attempt at treating the serious issues in a serious way - and that setting is Nazi Germany. So, please bear this in mind when you decide if you want to continue reading this article or not.
A game about carrying out the Holocaust is very different from a game about how a political figure managed to take over 100% of a country's government with only 32% of the people's support. Though this game does feature Hitler, playing it provides modern-life lessons on just how close some of us live to falling into the same condition in our own countries. More than a few people reading this will be nodding their heads. In some ways I think this game would be an abject failure without its historical setting and the cataclysmic events that followed.
The feedback I've gotten from my kids on the game clearly indicates that they've learned from Secret Hitler, perhaps the most important lesson they've gotten from any game they've played.
For what it's worth, a linguist friend of mine once designed a game that would help players learn another language. He tried to find a publisher of educational games that would buy it, but it turns out that educational games are held to a very strict standard that he didn't meet. So I mentioned to him that German always struck me as a great language for profanity, because everything sounds so harsh, and his game could instead focus on teaching German profanity. He eventually re-themed the game and self-published it as Dirty Deutsche. The last time I helped him move, he still had half a closet full of boxes of the game. The individual game boxes were the exact same size and shape as the double-wide CCG starters that Alderac used for Legend of the Five Rings and Legend of the Burning Sands after the Hasbro takeover.
But WW2 opposition war games exist in abundance. So playing the Axis powers is quite well established even in kids games like Axis and Allies. So some level of tolerance for playing a Nazi (or at least Nazi-adjacent) already exists. Heck, mocking Nazis was around in the50's(?) with TV shows.
I'm reminded of a recent SNL skit with the iceberg that sunk the Titanic bemoans his demonization for the incident. It is totally dismissive of the suffering of that event and outright racist with comments about loud irish riverdancing. It's pretty funny for SNL but you gotta swallow some grit with it if you wanna get triggered about folks playing with other historical events. Was the Cameron Titanic film any more respectful, really?
Still, at some point are historic events far enough into the past that they become fair game for any and all discussion? Dan Carlin delves into this brilliantly when comparing views of Hitler with Genghis Kahn and how time has a way of smoothing out the rough spots. WW2 ended almost 80 years ago, in another 20 years or so there will be no one living with clear memories of it. Projects to archive memories, including interactive holographic displays of concentration camp survivors will probably keep WW2 "fresh" for time immemorial since I suppose if some 1912 film footage of the Titanic going down with women and kids getting tossed to their death the social empathy would be much higher.
Let's be honest, the game is just a reskin of The Resistance made by the people who took Apples to Apples and added slurs to it. It's far more likely than they made the game because the title sounds funny than because they had any desire to represent the ascension of one of the worst murderers in history. Unfair of me to say, but c'mon, it's not that deep.
Turning factions into good and bad animals was also pretty damn dumb. I don't think Secret Hitler tries to "make fun" of its topic, but it's not a responsible portrayal.
I do think there's this weird disconnect in that people don't expect games to be less fun if you put Nazis in them. Look, if you put Nazis in your game, you are going to make me think about concentration camps, humane experimentationa nd other not very fun attrocities. Because that's what Nazis are. And thinking about that stuff is not fun. It's the opposite of fun. So you better have a good reason to make me think about that other than the title sounding funny.
I also think Nazis are the most overplayed theme in media. The Lion King has Nazis. So does the Lorax movie, Star Wars and a billion other things. It's trite and I'm tired of it. Sucks for all serious, well-made games on the subject but I'll literally avoid games that cover it because I'm just tired.
Jewish Chronicle: How did you come up with the idea for Secret Hitler?
Max Temkin: We came up with the idea for Secret Hitler as we were watching the Republican primaries last year. We were playing a lot of hidden identity games like Don Eskridge’s Avalon, and thinking about how the mechanics of those games mirrored how authoritarians take power in a democracy through deceit and manipulation.
JC: Did you struggle at all with the concept of using Hitler as the subject of the game?
MT: We discovered very early on in playtesting that the game simulated the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany. The liberals have a majority, but they are often powerless to foil fascists with bad intentions, and often hand fascists too much power because it seems like a good idea at the time.
We struggled for months with the name, and eventually tried to call the game “Kill Hitler,” since one of the goals of the game is to assassinate Hitler and prevent World War II. But the name “Secret Hitler” stuck with our playtesting group, and people found it more memorable. Sometimes you just have to recognize what’s working and go with it.
On the one hand, the name “Secret Hitler” adds a little bit of levity to the title, which I think bothers people. On the other hand, it gets to one of the core ideas in the game, which is that when you’re in the moment, it’s very difficult to recognize fascists and do anything about them.
JC: Are you Jewish? If so, did that play any factor in you creating a game about Hitler? Do you have any family members who are Holocaust survivors?
MT: I am Jewish, and I do have family that were survivors. Like most Jews of my generation, I grew up steeped in Jewish history and Holocaust education. I was taught to always be suspicious of authoritarians, to always look out for marginalized groups, and to ask myself Rabbi Hillel’s questions: “If not me, who? And if not now, when?”
The rise of authoritarian fascism in America terrifies me, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see a figure like Donald Trump taking power as the generation that experienced World War II and the Holocaust are passing from living memory. Secret Hitler isn’t the answer to Trump, but I do think that this is a time when art needs to be fearless about remembering and teaching history.
Maybe not every topic is suitable for a fun night with friends.
jeb wrote: Maybe I should make a game called Secret Max Temkin, where players try to sort out which of them has to have their managerial responsibilities removed and eventually is fired in disgrace after a credible accusation of sexual assault and bullying the writer's room keep coming to light. Wouldn't that be hilarious? Think of all the fun we could have.
Maybe not every topic is suitable for a fun night with friends.
I mean, they made CAH, I gotta think there is some lack of self-reflection when they are brainstorming up the next batch of 100 awful cards.
I think you could actually make a pretty funny game about sexual harassment but only if you could somehow work in Cthulhu, pirates, worker placement, and medieval farming
I think the fact that we say that we "play" games trips us up a bit. "Play" is associated with light hearted fun, so it makes some people uncomfortable to consider "playing" about a serious topic. However, many people engage in leisure activities of a serious, challenging, difficult or educational nature. I think these later sorts of people would probably approach a game about Hitler in a serious and contentious manner, provided that the game presented the subject matter in a responsible way.
I've played this with several groups, and occasionally someone remarks that the title/subject matter makes them uncomfortable. And from a pure "game" perspective, I probably would have preferred a different theme (such as the Star Wars retheme I've seen). But the game never seemed to be exploiting Nazism or the Holocaust to me.
Other games I've seen on Kickstarter, such as "I Would Kill Hitler" seem to be trying to use the name to generate interest, vs. making a statement. I skipped right by that one.
I've never played Secret Hitler, so I can't comment on that, but it's great to hear if that game does a good job teaching people something about how Hitler came to power and how easily it could happen again.
I definitely have no problem with the holocaust being an inappropriate topic for a game, film or book. It just needs to be treated with respect and sensitivity. Making fun of the holocaust, for example, isn't the right approach, even though I love Jojo Rabbit which does use humour - but it doesn't make fun of the holocaust.
Shellhead wrote: Oliver, do you consider the Holocaust to be an inappropriate topic for a movie? What about a book?