The writer James Meek argues that video games, unlike film, prompt an active response in the viewer. That you must play a video game would seem to make a response all but unavoidable. Film, he argues, “doesn’t ask you to make choices, push buttons”. Film accommodates a passive viewer. Representations of the Holocaust in film continue to divide opinion over whether such representation is appropriate, or useful as a means of comprehending the crimes of the Nazis. Popular films such as Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas have also come under fire for a lack of historical accuracy. Following Meek, this can lead to a blurring of the facts and a consequential falsification of the historical record for the passive viewer. The further one strays from the historical record, from exploring the relevance of the Holocaust in contemporary societies, the nearer one draws to representations of the Holocaust for mere entertainment. Whilst fictionalized films may retain some educational value it is debatable whether the same is true of computer games.
Sonderkommando Revolt, originally due for release in January 2011, but now on hold following the furore that it generated, uses the Holocaust as a backdrop. ‘Based loosely’ on the Auschwitz Sonderkommando uprising on October 7th 1944 the game casts players in the role of a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners who the Nazis forced to operate the crematoriums in various death camps. The player collects a series of weapons, the barrel of which is the only visible part of the players’ character in the game – while rampaging through Auschwitz blasting Nazis and guard dogs. Mr. Genis, the game’s designer, was quoted in the Daily Mirror as saying it is “plain blast-the-Nazis fun”.
Computer games about the events of the Second World War are abundant. Most are variants on Genis’ ‘Nazi blasting’ – the hugely popular Call of Duty series was, until recently, solely focused on World War Two. For a computer game to be more than just ‘entertainment’ the player must, in Meek’s terms, become a part of the story as he or she makes decisions and pushes buttons. But with Sonderkommando Revolt the lack of historical accuracy calls into question the purpose and value of such a game. Mr. Genis has argued that his game is “made very realistic”. As the game has not yet been finished, one can only speculate on the possible conclusion. Will the player, as in most computer games be able to “win” against the SS? The Auschwitz uprising ended in the death of 451 sonderkommando. No one escaped; no one survived. There would seem to be little to learn from a game in which the historical record can simply be falsified in the name of entertainment.
Why is this fundamentally different to Call of Duty? I would argue that Genis is merely using the Holocaust as a setting for his game, as a setting for a violent action game. Genis argues that games have no purpose other than to entertain and that the game is “moody, challenging and detailed”. Whether by challenging he means thought provoking or difficult in terms of one’s ability to complete it, is unclear.
What is missing here is any serious engagement on the part of the creator, and by extension the player, on what exactly it is they are ‘playing’ and what the Holocaust means to successive generations. Genis’ game “doesn't have any agenda, hidden or visible - on any historic, political or religious issue - beyond what some people might decide to attach to it.” However given that Genis’ next two creations are Warsaw Uprising and Mission: Treblinka, both of which saw rebellions by Jewish prisoners, Sonderkommando Revolt would appear to be just the first in a line of games with the Jewish Holocaust prisoner as avenger, a kind of Schwarzenegger character in a fantasy setting that is anything but. The game mythologises the Holocaust, turning it into a parody of a Hollywood action movie rather than a serious attempt at engaging with a complex matter that has great relevance to this day.
Alan Polak is a member of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz team. He holds an MA is in Literatures of Modernity from Royal Holloway, University of London. His dissertation was on "Banality and Evil: Fictional Representations of the Nazi Perpetrators of the Holocaust".” He is currently researching the idea of space in concentration camps and the perversion/inversion of Liebensraum into a form of 'dying space'