“There are very few Jewish protagonists in video games.”
December 19, 2019 10:34 AM   Subscribe

About Jewish Stereotypes And Video Games... [Kotaku] “I've found a lot of resonance in games like The Shivah, the point-and-click adventure about a struggling rabbi. Less so with B. J. Blazkowicz, although there's always something special about mowing down Nazis. And I've always wanted to see more games explore issues in Judaism: there's a veritable smorgasbord of topics worth discussing, from intermarriage to fundamentalism to the difficulties of maintaining a Jewish identity in a very non-Jewish culture. So when I saw game designer Dean Evans—the creative director of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon—poke fun at Jewish stereotypes in an article on Polygon today, I took notice. [...] Instead of imagining, say, a stealth heist game about a protagonist who happens to be Jewish, and maybe struggles reconciling his career with the rules of his religion, Evans chose to go with the easy joke—the stereotype of a bearded guy with a black-rimmed hat and payos who likes money...”

• B.J. Blazkowicz and the need for more diverse Jewish characters [Rock Paper Shotgun]
“While the developers should be commended for providing perhaps the only positive Jewish role model in gaming, their decision to dissolve the “ambiguity” of his Jewishness through racial laws was a cop out to definitions we should outgrow. Would we still consider Blazkowicz Jewish had his mother converted from Catholicism? What if she were a gentile and his father a Jew? Would Set Roth’s opinion sway us? Or Hitler’s? Who does the Wolfenstein franchise define as canonically Jewish? Before the developers answered the Blackowicz question with Halakhic law, the main challenge to B.J.’s heritage was his perfect white body. Blonde Hitler Youth hair, blue eyes, square jaw, subtle Texas drawl (ace acting Bloom), and hulking physique aren’t just incompatible with Jewish stereotypes, they’re antithetically Aryan. Combine that with an all-American (read: not-Jewish) heartland upbringing and Blazko seems every bit the Nazi superman ideal deconstructed to ironically bash the Reich. The term “Aryan Jew” is problematic, we reflexively reject it, and so we reflexively reject the blonde-haired Blazkowicz as a Jew. But the cat’s out of the bag, and our definitions need to change.”
• A New Video Game Raises a Thorny Question: Can the Medium Address the Holocaust? [Tablet Magazine]
“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. [...] 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.”
• As white nationalism grows, how are Jewish game developers responding? [Gamasutra]
“I round the corner and bump into a game developer I've interviewed a few times for Gamasutra. We exchange surprised greetings, some trite comments about the work around us, and sensing something familiar in the way she looks at the exhibit, I ask “what brings you here?” “Recent events,” she replies. We both chuckle a bit, but those ‘recent' events became all too real at GDC as the nearby Anti-Defamation League headquarters was targeted with bomb threats, part of a wave of harassing phone calls that hit other Jewish Community Centers throughout the country during the week. As I wandered the GDC floor going from talk to talk, I wondered how other game developers felt, showcasing all this technology and game design as the world rumbled around us. I wondered how my fellow Jewish attendees felt, since the headlines for the last few weeks had been about tombstones being knocked down in our graveyards, Neo-Nazis converging on Washington D.C, and of course the aforementioned bomb threats. So I asked. Like me, some of them were nervous, frustrated, a bit angry, especially at how anti-Semitism has lingered in the game development community, but also hopeful and open to embracing new roles as advocates and artists.”
• The 16-Year-Old Modder Who Decided 'Crusader Kings II' Wasn't Jewish Enough [Vice Gaming]
“It's no great shock that someone has crafted an extensive Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings II, but those aren't the mods that started catching my eye, as I looked around the game's still-robust community of creators. Jewish Kings, which intends "to make Jewish characters more interesting and historically accurate,"comes from 16-year-old Canadian high school student Jonathan, who goes by the name Gefilte Fish online. (Jonathan asked for his last name to be kept out of his story.) His interest in ancient and Medieval history is what drew him to Crusader Kings II, an experiment in exploring his Jewish identity and applying lessons from some programming courses he's taken. The online discussions surrounding the mod are fascinating, with other amateur Jewish experts weighing in with thoughts on his use of language, terms, and other elements of Jewish history. If Crusader Kings II already attracts a specific type of person, Jonathan's mod is even more specific. It also draws trolls dishing out anti-Semitic comments, one of topics I covered when I chatted with Jonathan about the work put into his Jewish Kings mod.
• How Red Dead Redemption 2 Successfully Uses an Antisemitic Trope to Deconstruct Arthur Morgan [US Gamer]
“The game's protagonist, Arthur Morgan, can rob trains, break into houses, hold up stage coaches, and loot the bodies of innocent people who died in unfortunate accidents. But one of the most uncomfortable methods of making cash is collecting on the money Herr Strauss loans to destitute farmers and townsfolk. [...] At a glance, Herr Strauss, his unapologetic distribution of high-interest loans, and Arthur's disgust and mistrust of the man can be interpreted as thoughtless, antisemitic writing by Rockstar Games—a lazy attempt to build a character by stapling some stereotypes to a wireframe and then saying, "Hey, this guy is a member of a persecuted minority, and his people's troubled past causes him to think in shades of grey! It's deep!" Admittedly, when I first saw Strauss and learned he's a moneylender, I said "Uh oh" out loud. And when Strauss instructed me to beat a farmer half to death to collect on a $30 loan, I was very uncomfortable. But as I continue to work through Red Dead Redemption 2 and interact more with Strauss (no, I'm not finished, so I suppose anything I write is subject to change), it becomes clearer Rockstar means to use the thin Austrian man as a means of exploring Arthur's own prejudices, his inner struggles, and the racist, antisemitic attitudes that generally prevailed at the tail end of the 19th century (and persist into today). Thankfully, Rockstar largely succeeds.”
• Spider-Man PS4 dev reveals cool Easter egg no-one noticed: Jewish characters in Spider-Man video game don't work on Shabbat [Eurogamer]
“Spider-Man has plenty of Easter eggs. Some revolve around other Marvel characters, such as Daredevil and Iron Fist. Others are nods to characters from the comics you wouldn't immediately think of. You'd think, given the tremendous popularity of Insomniac's fun-filled PlayStation 4 exclusive, that no stone was left unturned over half-a-year after the game came out. Not so. Elan Ruskin, senior engine programmer at Insomniac, took to Twitter to reveal one Easter egg players hadn't picked up on. In the game, the Orthodox Jewish NPCs don't appear on Saturdays (Orthodox Jews observe Shabbat, Judaism's day of rest, on Saturdays). This relates to real-life Saturday, Ruskin confirmed. Spider-Man checks the clock on your PS4. It's another lovely little detail in a game packed full of lovely little details.”
posted by Fizz (16 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Programming the Jewish day of rest for characters in Spider-Man, that's just so pure and lovely. It makes me smile. It's a small touch, but it's an attention to detail that shows why that game is as loved as it is.
posted by Fizz at 10:39 AM on December 19, 2019 [18 favorites]

For a game set in NYC that kind of rules, yes.
posted by atoxyl at 11:04 AM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

spiderman accidentally webslinging on the eruv wires
posted by poffin boffin at 11:41 AM on December 19, 2019 [22 favorites]

The unparalleled Far Cry 2 let you pick from a cosmopolitan cast of hired killers from around the world, including the renegade Israeli Paul Ferenc, unrepentant jobnik and former smuggler. As with all of the FC2 characters, playing as him only changes the identities of the other mercenaries you meet and your own appearance, but it's a nice inclusion.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:12 PM on December 19, 2019

Mod note: A couple comments removed. Neither "well but what about this Jewish character" nor speculating about the possibility of imperceptibly Jewish characters is engaging with the idea of media representation in a useful way. Talking about the nuances of what deliberate visible Jewish representation there has been, and hasn't been, in video games is a good plan; dismissing the whole thing or what-abouting individual characters or other groups' representation isn't and I'd rather folks skip that and all the old rabbit holes it's likely to take the conversation down instead of being about the actual post content.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:06 PM on December 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Jacob Geller has an excellent video essay on Judaism and Whiteness in Wolfenstein. (CW: child abuse)
posted by frimble at 1:47 PM on December 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

On the one hand, awkwardly cramming Judaica into games for the sake of doing so, is a little...y'know the complaint againt Christian Rock, that it makes both things worse?

On the other hand, Now accepting pre-orders for
Assassin's Creed : Masada.
Call of Duty : the Yom Kippur War
sequel to L.A. Noir (or GTA, or Mafia 3) but instead of a 50's cop, it's the 30s and you're in the Purple Gang or Murder, Inc.
Indiana Jones and the Golem of Prague (or Tomb Raider)
and that's just brainstorming while typing.

What would you like to see / play?
posted by bartleby at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have no interest in being visible as a female gamer, and even less interest in being visible as a Jewish gamer. Infinite props to these developers and modders who are braver than I.

In general I’m realizing I’ve been happier with no representation than the possibility of shitty representation. It kind of hadn’t even occurred to me that it’s possible to have accurately portrayed Jews in historical and/or realistic genres. I just assumed it’d be tokenized and suck.

The game that has most struck a chord with me as a Jew is, interestingly, Dragon Age: Inquisition. It was my first foray into the series, so my first playthrough was as a pretty standard-issue liberal ChristiAndrastian human. The second time through, I had a better handle on the lore, so I decided to play as a Dalish elf who unapologetically practices a minority religion. It was incredible how quickly characters I’d loved the first time through dismissed me, antagonized me, tried to convert me. “Cassandra Disapproves.” I’m not even sure the writers totally knew what was up when they wrote this, because of later elf content that basically confirms “religious Dalish elves are incorrect, misguided, and also basically brought their oppression on themselves.”

Of course DAI is ultimately just a game about elves, so I can’t take the spoilery revelations about the truth of the minority religion personally. I dunno. Someday I’ll write a think piece about this. Maybe actually really Jewish content written by Jews would be better. Ver veys.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 5:12 PM on December 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

(but that Spider-Man Easter egg is wholesome af)
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 5:14 PM on December 19, 2019

I have often wondered if the spate of WW2 shooters has softened the image of Nazis in many minds. It's sort of taken for granted that the audience comes to a game with a knowledge of the atrocities they committed and why they are evil, but by presenting them so frequently and making the axis simply one of two evenly-matched teams in multiplayer games they've been reduced to just that, a team, albeit historically the losing one.

Video games may be able to tackle the subject respectfully and thoughtfully, but if it happens, I don't think we'll see that game on store shelves and it won't be Call of Duty or any other military action game in all likelihood. I wouldn't want any subject to be considered off limits for the medium, but I would hope any designer thinking of tackling it considers very carefully whether they should.

Brenda Romero's Train is a board game that addresses complicity in the holocaust. I haven't played it myself, but it seems like it generates some strong reactions from players, and certainly makes me think about how game mechanics could be used to present disturbing subjects.
posted by subocoyne at 5:48 PM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Couple comments deleted. Please don’t just drop a one-liner mention of a Jewish character from a non-videogame, or a character that embodies negative stereotypes, because it comes across as if you’re intending them as counter examples to dispute the point that there could be better representation of Jewish characters in video games. If you’re trying to make some other point, it needs more explanation for people to understand what you have in mind.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:43 PM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

That Spidey easter egg (funny term to use here!) is fantastic. Of course, observant Jews don't disappear into their homes on Shabbat in real life, but the nuance of "This Jewish character is actually heading to shul, not work" is probably way too subtle for a video game (especially since a dev had to call attention to it!), so I think this is a pretty clever way of representing the concept of shomer Shabbos.

One small quibble with the Kotaku author: The guy mentioned in Polygon didn't "poke fun" at stereotypes. To me, that phrase means he tried to deflate or skewer stereotypes. Rather, he embraced them. The Kotaku author totally gets this and gives the guy the business for it. I just mention it because the phrase was unclear to me at first.

Anyhow, really good thread! I don't play video games beyond dumb little timewasters on my phone, but this was very interesting. Thanks for posting!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:53 PM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Frimble, I cannot believe I just watched that entire video (about a game I've never even played!) but my god, it was amazing. I was not expecting it to be both so educational and emotional. The final line packed an extraordinary punch. I'm a little verklempt. Wow. Thank you for sharing that.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:30 PM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Maybe actually really Jewish content written by Jews would be better.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit since I made my post yesterday. And it does come down to this. We need Jewish content written by Jews telling authentic stories that are true to those individuals. That doesn't necessiarly mean that we need to mark Jewish characters in a certain way on screen (that is just asking for all kinds of problems and stereotypes).

We need more diversity on the programming, development, writing level. We need those voices to be in the room when a game is being created and discussed. I think that's the path forward, and we need that for ALL kinds of voices and people who are not normally let into the room.
posted by Fizz at 5:40 AM on December 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Maybe appearing in a videogame counts as using an electrical device.
posted by RobotHero at 6:22 AM on December 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

What's the current view on headcanon / claiming? I realize this comes from being raised in an environment of assimilated Jews, with plenty of secularism and passing privelege. But way back when I first learned that Shatner and Nimoy were both members of the tribe, or that Harrison Ford's mother's side is all Jews from Minsk, that made me realize a) hey, in a way, Kirk and Spock and Han Solo = Jews in Space! and b) it's not necessary for a character to be heavily (and inevitably problematically) coded, in order for me to read them as Jewish.

Switching to Marvel properties for a second, because they're probably better known, is Jessica Jones Jewish?
Or Bruce Banner / Hulk. Chosen People or no? ("Can we not have the kitniyot argument again? Don't make me get Sephardic; you wouldn't like me when I get Sephardic").

I mean, there's nothing explicitly saying these characters aren't NOT Jews, so...
I can walk around with the idea in my head that -for me anyway- Jessica and Bruce count as Jewish representation in superhero stuff, and cheer for them, go hey they're like me, I can project myself into that world through them, all those media experiences.
But without having to endure or be insulted by someone's idea of 'making them Jew-y-er'. In a world of assimilated Jews, who can do or be anything, anywhere, I don't need a Rebecca of York 'look, we put a really Jew-y person in for you!' character. Ugh.
But am I wrong in thinking I can just claim someone that hasn't been defined otherwise? If someone wants to tell me that Steve Rogers was not in attendance at Bucky Barnes' bar mitzvah, they're going to have to prove it to me.

And back to games. Is Nathan Drake of Uncharted series Jewish? Who's to say not?
In TLOU 2, will Joel be relieved that Ellie has found another nice Jewish girl to settle down with after the zombie apocalypse?
posted by bartleby at 1:46 PM on December 20, 2019

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