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A New Video Game Raises a Thorny Question: Can the Medium Address the Holocaust?

‘Call of Duty: WWII’ attempts the Ken Burns approach, but shies away from any real emotion

Liel Leibovitz
November 10, 2017

The Call of Duty franchise is to video games what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to film, a fertile source of sequels that make big bucks irrespective of quality. In 2016, the series hit $15 billion in sales, and that was before the eagerly anticipated latest installment, Call of Duty: WWII.

Released last week, the game, a first-person shooter set in Europe’s killing fields, goes to great lengths to give players the feeling that they’re experiencing a slightly quicker-paced interactive version of a Ken Burns documentary. From D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge, a small band of brothers, American soldiers all, bond as they shoot Nazis by the dozens, making for a game that prides itself as much on its character development and attention to detail as it does its smooth mechanics and great graphics.

Which leaves us, alas, with the question of the Holocaust.

As a serious-minded game, Call of Duty: WWII cannot afford to skip the question of Nazi atrocities. Previous games, although not too many, have tackled the same subject, usually making the horror more palatable by adding fantastical elements to the plot. Cruelty, as titles like 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order proved, is easier to stomach when perpetrated by Nazi robots that remind you with every overwrought metallic movement that you’re only playing a silly game. The new Call of Duty is made of sturdier stuff, and as it heads to its conclusion, it enters a concentration camp, determined to keep the same somber and realistic tone it has sustained from the start.

It spoils little of the plot to reveal that what happens next is a let-down.

“Take out your camera,” one character tells another, “the world’s got to know.” As the game’s protagonists walk through the abandoned barracks, accompanied by some mournful violin music that would have felt at home in the score from Schindler’s List, the tone remains just as stilted. “They were beaten, starved, and worked to the bone,” one soldier tells us in voice-over, and it soon becomes clear that the subjects of his lament aren’t Jews or other civilians but fellow American soldiers. We see two of them, tied to wooden posts and shot. It’s the only evidence of Nazi barbarism the game can muster, and its victims are not women and children but men in uniform.

You cannot, of course, expect a video game to grapple with the immensity of the Holocaust, and the decision to steer clear of the Nazis’ worst crimes is probably a wise one. But it’s hard not to lament how the game wastes an opportunity to use the medium’s unique strengths and give players a visceral taste of a world whose moral foundations have been uprooted.

Recent titles far humbler than Call of Duty have done just that. In Papers, Please, for example, players are forced to decide whether or not to admit asylum-seekers into a fictional country, risking punishment if they defy the government’s strict rules. Video games being what they are, a player’s first instinct, naturally, is to excel, which, gruesomely, means turning away those desperate for shelter. It’s only when the player musters the courage to play against the game that his or her sense of moral urgency awakens.

A little indie game, of course, can take liberties a mammoth blockbuster can never risk. But one of the chief pleasures of interactive entertainment is that it unbinds us from film’s linear narrative and frees us up to ask “What if?” A good game moves us because it inspires us to consider our choices and contemplate not only the decisions we’ve made but the ones we haven’t. That’s why Papers, Please is so emotionally jarring, and why games can teach us moral lessons in ways that, if tried on film or on the page, would seem stilted and dull.

What if Call of Duty had allowed us, instead of shooting mindlessly at every German soldier we see, to capture a few of the concentration camp’s guards and then decide whether they deserved fair treatment as prisoners of war or brisk and violent retribution for their hideous crimes? And what if the game took just a bit more of a risk and infused its narrative with, say, interviews with witnesses and survivors? Another stellar indie game, recently released, does just that: Called Attentat 1942, it looks at the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia by weaving together archival footage, testimonies from civilians who lived under German occupation, interactive comics, and other innovative forms that make gameplay not only entertaining but edifying.

In video games, then, like in cinema, the future seems bittersweet, with a glut of big and loud titles that numb the eye, the mind, and the soul interspersed with a few daring exceptions that help us ponder the question great art has always addressed, which is: What does it mean to be human?


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.