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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Can a Game Get Young Players Interested in Holocaust History?

The terms “video game” and “Holocaust” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, and yet Luc Bernard has been working on precisely such a thing. Concerned with the surge of anti-Jewish hate incidents in the US and worldwide, and motivated by a desire to bring Holocaust education to a new generation, Bernard picked up a project that he had set aside nearly 10 years ago. “It was completely different then, and thank God I didn’t finish it,” he confides. The key difference between now and then? The addition of 83-year-old Joan Salter, a researcher, appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to Holocaust education, and child survivor of the Holocaust, as the game’s writer.

Meanwhile, Bernard has had an extensive career in gaming, having worked on 2009’s Mecho Wars and the Pocket God series, directed Kitten Squad (PETA's first video game for consoles), and creating Paraiso Island, a hurricane relief game for Puerto Rico. There’s a personal side to his efforts, too. Bernard’s grandmother looked after Kindertransport children, Jewish refugee children who escaped from Nazi Germany to Great Britain in the late 1930s. Bernard, however, only learned of his family’s hidden Jewish roots as a teen.

Called The Light in the Darkness and set in Bernard’s birthplace of France, the game illustrates how a seemingly normal society can quickly turn against Jews. The characters in the game, a Polish-Jewish family in France, are fictional, but the events are based on things that actually happened, many of them to Salter’s family. “No matter how good a writer I could get, they could never have the same emotion and feeling about the Holocaust compared to someone who actually experienced it—even if she was just a child, she and her family experienced it. That’s why I think it’s become something special.”

The game follows the family’s experience in the lead-up to the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris in July 1942, when a mass arrest of foreign Jewish families (including over 4,000 children) by French police took place at the behest of German authorities. They were held in horrific conditions before being taken to internment camps, and eventually to camps like Auschwitz where they were murdered.


For both Salter and Bernard, accuracy and realism were key, on everything from dates and locations to uniforms. When Bernard sent Salter pictures of some of the work he’d previously done, she picked up right away on the fact that he had Nazis rounding up the children. “And I said no, it wasn’t the Nazis. It was the French police,” Salter says. An important distinction, since the Vichy government rounded up the Jews even before the Nazis wanted them to. The conversation evolved from there.

“She’s the biggest critic,” says Bernard. “She’ll notice every detail. Long story short, the game is not getting released unless Joan” approves it.

Salter realized right away that Bernard would latch on to the fact that she was a survivor of the Vel d’Hiv. “But, of course, I was a young child,” she says, “whereas to me it’s much more important that I’ve spent 40 years researching it and recording testimonies.”

Bernard hopes that by playing the game and experiencing the story, the user will become attached to the characters and be more keen to learn about the Holocaust and discrimination against Jews. “You’re trying to create empathy, so it has to be historically correct without banging it over people’s head,” says Salter. “You’re showing how complicated it is. As with any drama, you have to empathize with the characters, and then you slowly see their lives falling apart through no fault of their own.”

Meanwhile, Bernard saw a video game industry where the only conversation games had with their players about World War II was from the perspective of American soldiers gunning down Nazis, ignoring the horrors of the Holocaust entirely. “This may be controversial, but I believe that pop culture has turned Nazis into cartoon villains, like the zombie Nazis in Call of Duty and Wolfenstein (which I love). You’re diminishing the true evil of what Nazis are and what they did … and you’re profiting off of Jewish trauma,” Salter adds: “You have to walk a very careful line between sanitizing the Holocaust and really hitting home the absolute inhumanity.”

Some games, such as Call of Duty: Vanguard and Battlefield 5, often sanitize history entirely by removing all traces of Nazi Germany, despite being set during WWII.

Bernard recalls watching Schindler’s List at school as a child and the impact it had on him and fellow students. That film opened the doors for Holocaust representation in films beyond just historical documentaries. “Why [the film] resonated for so many people is because you got attached to these characters.”

It’s the same thing when you tell people that 6 million Jews died versus telling the story of an individual—or a family. In the US, only a few states are even required to have Holocaust education, he says. “A lot of people tend to think it’s kind of ancient history.”

That’s why, Bernard and Salter say, it’s so important to find innovative ways to educate a whole new generation—the internet and gaming generation. “I mean, more people play games than listen to music or watch movies combined.” In fact, this is not only the next evolution for Holocaust education, but it also shows that the industry can tackle serious subjects, he insists.

The problem is, many boards of large Holocaust organizations are filled with people who don’t necessarily have a grasp of video games, says Bernard. “They think it’s Super Mario in a concentration camp. They imagine the worst.” A lot of these organizations are even reluctant to actively jump on to social media, so it’s no surprise that the term video game automatically scares them. “Most of the older people don’t realize that video games are more like interactive films now. We’ve kind of transcended and become something very different, so that’s kind of where there’s a disconnect.”

It may not come as a surprise, but Salter is not necessarily of the generation that’s into video games either. Her grandson first introduced her to Super Mario when he was 3 years old. “Well, he’s 18 now,” she says. “The concept of a game per se, I really didn’t understand, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve written a script for an animated film.”

Unlike a conventional video game, The Light in the Darkness offers players no choices. “Because Jews had no choice during the Holocaust,” explains Bernard. Instead, each scene has some embedded interactivity within it—almost like an interactive film where a player completes certain tasks rather than making choices. For example, at one point, the game demands that the player registers with the police as a Jew. “There Holocaust is not something you can game-ify,” says Bernard; there’s no such thing as “winning” the Holocaust.

But, he says, people making games about the Holocaust is inevitable. “So we must do it now and do it the right way so that we can cast a template for other developers to be able to tell their stories.”

Melissa Mott, deputy director at Echoes & Reflections at the Anti-Defamation League, runs a program that focuses on middle school and high school Holocaust education. Upon learning of the game, her first reaction was skeptical and apprehensive, but after digging deeper she appreciated the research and care that went into it, and its emphasis on experiencing the Holocaust through a first-person interactive lens. “There’s definitely an opportunity in something like this game to reach a wide audience,” says Mott. “In the world of Holocaust education, new learning modalities are really important and we’re seeing more of a push towards [using social media platforms], so there’s definitely room and space for new energy around things like games.” It’s really a question of collective memory, she says, “As the Holocaust grows more distant in our history, as survivors are passing away, I think there’s need for newer, more robust approaches to education around the topic that can reach a non-Jewish audience.”

Bernard hopes to release the game for the PlayStation 4, 5, and Xbox consoles by Holocaust Memorial Day, on January 27, 2022, and will make the game available to download for free. Further, Bernard is working on a pilot program that is going to be implemented by schools in the UK next year to see if students are keener to learn about the Holocaust after finishing the game. “It does have an educational aspect, but I think the biggest thing is just seeing curious people downloading it and playing it and wanting to know more about what happened,” he says.

Bernard isn’t necessarily aiming the game at Jews. “Let’s be honest, all the Jews know about the Holocaust, you know what I mean? It’s for everyone else.”

There’s no silver bullet, though, says Salter: “Hopefully this will draw in people who would not have even understood what the Holocaust was.”

“It’s a tough project, but it’s going to be worth it,” says Bernard. “If it fails, I would have tried, and that’s all that matters. I would have opened up the doors for other people to tell stories about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Regardless, hopefully, some kind of positive impact will come of it.” The most powerful thing that humans have is stories, he says: “Stories have shaped and changed the world.”

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