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May 10, 2022

Seriously? Hitler?

O Updated
(Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

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.

One of the most popular themes seems to be Nazi Germany and in particular Hitler. I don't want to name names, but I'm sure you can think of at least one game that has Hitler in the title. When you use World War II, Nazi Germany or specifically Hitler as the backdrop for your game and then proceed to make that game all about fun and laughter, then you're clearly missing the point. Your game is making a joke of the atrocities that happened, the millions of people that were killed, the tens of thousands who fled their homes to try and get to safety in another country, that often didn't welcome them with open arms, and then thousands of people who stayed behind and hid and lived every day in fear of being discovered and sent to a concentration camp.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with games trying to entertain us. After all, we call it "playing" games. Games are supposed to be fun - even though I don't think that's necessarily true. Games can also be educational or thought-provoking, but that's a different discussion. Yet, trying to entertain people by making fun of atrocities and suffering is just wrong. There are many other topics that are much better suited for that - and that's the part I don't understand.

These games, that make fun of the horrible events that took place in Nazi Germany, are often really well put together, with clever mechanisms that create a memorable experience. It would be pretty easy to replace the setting with something else and end up with a game that can be genuinely entertaining. So there must be a reason why Hitler is chosen.

I do sometimes wonder whether Germany and the German people are often seen as funny, or something to be made fun of, at least in some English-speaking countries. Germans often struggle to pronounce the "th" sound correctly, often replacing it with "z", which sounds funny. Hitler was also often caricatured in World War II propaganda in an effort to discredit him. So you end up with a sort of clown image of a mad German who tried to take over the world - and maybe that then leads to the idea that you can make a fun game out of it.

I struggle to see the logic in that, but maybe that's one explanation.

It is, of course, also possible that Hitler is chosen as a topic, because it's controversial and will attract a lot of attention. It could be a basic marketing ploy to get a lot of people talking about it, which will probably sell lots of copies of the game - and I have the feeling, that often works successfully. These games clearly got me writing about them, so there is obviously some truth in that theory.

At the end of the day though, I don't know the actual motivations of the people behind these games. It could simply be naivety or a lack of understanding. All I can say for certain is that I completely disagree with these attempts of trivializing the horrible events, the persecution, torture and murder of millions of people, the aim to exterminate a whole people and the attempts to "cleanse" the German population. I don't understand why these games didn't choose another setting or topic, which would have been easy enough.

Before I finish this article, I would like to clarify a few things.

I am not against games that deal with wars in general or World War II specifically. I'm no expert, but I truly believe many war games are respectful of the events they try to emulate. At the very least, many don't try and poke fun at the real historic setting they inhabit, even if many war games gloss over the amount of death and destruction that took place.

I'm also not against games that deal with difficult subject matters. I think it is possible to create games that deal with these subjects in a sensitive and respectful manner. I even think that games can teach us something about these events. In fact, there are a number of games available already that try to do this and I am planning to look at many of these more closely to understand why they work well or why maybe some don't handle the subject matter properly.

Also, I don't think that humour should not be used when it comes to tackling serious topics. I think there is a difference between making fun of something and using humour. For example, I think the film "Jojo Rabbit" uses humour really well. Humour is set against the terrible events that happened during World War II, and specifically the events that affected the protagonist directly, which creates this huge contrast that makes the terrible things seem a lot more terrible than they would have been viewed otherwise.

I appreciate that games with a backdrop of suffering, pain or even death will not be for everyone, but I do think that the games that deal with these settings in an appropriate manner do have a place in hour hobby. After all, our hobby is maturing and more and more games respect culture and ethnicity and don't blindly appropriate them and more and more games try to be more representative and inclusive. So there is also room for games to try to tackle serious topics respectfully and sensitively - not just war, but a wide range of things that are often taboo in our lives.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323044 11 May 2021 12:12
I have played Secret Hitler a couple of times, and it's an interesting look at how Hitler came to power, though filtered through game mechanics. I haven't tried Black Orchestra yet, but it got a favorable review here a while back.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #323046 11 May 2021 13:07
You're clearly critiquing the choice of setting for Secret Hitler, and I think your dancing around that kicks the legs out from under your arguments.

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.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323047 11 May 2021 13:49
Both times I played Secret Hitler, the proceedings were pretty serious and not a matter of joking. IIRC the first time was fall of 2017 and the second time was summer of 2018, so comments about Trump were inevitable.
mads b.'s Avatar
mads b. replied the topic: #323051 11 May 2021 15:14
Black Orchestra is great, and while it's a lot of fun to play in no way does it make fun of either Nazi Germany or the Holocaust. The premise is that you are Nazis trying to assasinate Hitler, and based on the small biographies on the back of the player cards it's pretty obvious that you are only good guys in relation to Hitler and his closest officers. And in fact, one of the ways you can become motivated to assassinate Hitler is by visiting death camps marked on the map.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323053 11 May 2021 15:49
Oliver, do you consider the Holocaust to be an inappropriate topic for a movie? What about a book? While people often watch movies or books for entertainment, it's possible for a given medium to explore a historical topic for more of an educational purpose. Maybe the sticking point is the word "game," which maybe implies a certain degree of levity or disrespect. But both eurogames and wargames often address historical unpleasantness such as wars or exploitation of cheap/slave labor, and the players are often engaged in silent number-crunching. Maybe people tend to think of war as some brave, structured activity, but it often serves as a blanket term that can also encompass rape, pillage, arson, and attempted genocide. Maybe it is better to gloss over the unpleasant aspects or maybe it would be better if people didn't whitewash history.

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.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323054 11 May 2021 17:13
I don't think games are required to appeal or respect every possible player. A certain theme, topic, or mechanic can certainly leave a bad taste or be outright offensive. So long as the project clearly heralds its intent so I can avoid it I don't really see an issue. I can imagine an Underground Railroad game with an "opposing player" that has to capture the escaping slaves being a massive flop (Freedom wisely is a co-op game with all players on the correct side of history). Folks will impress themselves on their game role and opt out if they don't like it.

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.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #323055 11 May 2021 17:30
To me the core issue with Secret Hitler is just that it doesn't reflect the actual topic at all. There's nothing Werewolf-like about Hitler's rise to power. I also don't believe it has any applicability to Trump or American politics as a whole, which is much closer to the actual target.

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.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #323056 11 May 2021 17:36
The Chronicle touched base with Max Temkin, one of the creators of the game. Temkin, a designer from Chicago, is also the co-creator of the popular, but politically incorrect, game Cards Against Humanity. Incidentally, he sat on the National Finance Committee of Hillary for America and was part of the so-called Nuisance Committee that bankrolled a 90-foot anti-Trump billboard near O’Hare International Airport, and others in Dearborn, Mich., and Orlando, Fla., last fall.

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.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #323058 11 May 2021 18:49
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.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323059 11 May 2021 19:40

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 :P
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #323097 13 May 2021 11:20
I haven't played any of these Hitler games, but I do think it is possible for games to deal with serious topics in a responsible manner, including Hitler.

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.
gversace's Avatar
gversace replied the topic: #323121 14 May 2021 11:03
If Secret Hitler is intended to be one of the targets of this article, I don't think I agree. Reasonable people can disagree on whether it was effective or not, but the use of "Hitler" in the game was, to me, a clear and serious artistic choice, not some gag.

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.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #323770 07 Jun 2021 10:00
Hello Sagrilarus. Actually, I wasn't talking about Secret Hitler. There is another game that clearly makes fun of the holocaust and therefore clearly doesn't try and respect the terrible events of World War II.

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.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #323771 07 Jun 2021 10:04

Shellhead wrote: Oliver, do you consider the Holocaust to be an inappropriate topic for a movie? What about a book?

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.