Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watching the August 30 Victory Day Parade in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo by Mustafa Kirazli.

AKP’s populist framing of Erdogan as the tough, macho, militaristic savior of ‘the people’ against the Western imperialists

To win another term as President in Turkey, incumbent Islamist populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been forced into externalizing and magnifying his populism, portraying not domestic enemies as ‘elites’ that defy the will of the people, but rather shadowy, non-identifiable international forces as the true elite that the Turkish people must struggle against. Thus, with his new nuclear reactor, “people’s car” and drone carrier ship, Erdogan portrays himself as the tough, macho leader the Turkish people require to stand against the international elite oppressing them at every turn. 

By Ihsan YilmazNicholas Morieson & Ana-Maria Bliuc*

Turkey holds its next presidential elections on May 14, 2023, and for the first time in two decades Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long reign as Turkish President appears to be faltering, as opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu mounts a serious challenge to his rule. Turkey’s poor economic performance, largely the result of Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, has contributed to the decline in support for the Turkish leader. Equally, Erdogan’s apparent ill health, which has led him to appear via video link at events he would ordinarily attend in person, has led to growing concerns that he is ailing and no longer capable of running the country. To counter these issues, he and his supporters have sought to build the image of the President as a macho and virile populist who is the only one capable of protecting the Turkish people from their foreign ‘imperialist’ adversaries and leading the country toward a bright future. In contrast, Erdogan’s rival Kilicdaroglu, is portrayed as a physically weak and elderly man, often in domestic environments which can be associated with housework. This image is meant to communicate that Kilicdaroglu is not a worthy candidate as he cannot stand up to the shadowy international ‘elites’ who seek to undermine Turkey’s economy and diminish its power in the world. Part of this campaign involves the creation of memes, a trend encouraged by Erdogan’s online communications staff, who post images of the President on his official Twitter account appearing ‘tough’ and ‘in control’ and dressed in military clothing. 

When the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won power in 2002, he promised his party would govern as ‘Muslim democrats,’ return power to the Turkish people, negotiate an end to the brutal conflict with Kurdish militant groups, and to seek membership of the European Union. More than twenty years later, the AKP has established itself as the authoritarian dominant political force in the nation, marginalizing its rivals and removing them from the military, bureaucracy, and media. 

Yet, despite Erdogan’s overwhelming power, polling consistently shows him trailing – albeit only by a small margin – CHP leader Kilicdaroglu in the battle to become Turkish president. Erdogan’s declining popularity among Turkish voters is chiefly the result of the failure of his economic policy, which saw him demand the Turkish Central Bank lower interest rates, a decision which, unsurprisingly, precipitated a period of high inflation. Inflation pressures have damaged Turkey’s economy by vastly depreciating the value of the Turkish lira, weakening Turkish purchasing power, and forcing Turkish businesses to spend more repaying foreign loans. The political result of Turkey’s growing economic problems is a tremendous loss of support for the AKP and Erdogan in Turkey’s major cities. For example, in June 2019 Erdogan’s candidate in the Istanbul mayoral election was soundly defeated by the opposition CHP candidate. No non-AKP candidate had won a mayoral election in Istanbul for a quarter of a century, this result has demonstrated the growing discontent with Erdogan’s Presidency and in particular with his handling of Turkey’s economy. 

Erdogan and his supporters, however, have not given up on winning another term as President. In the year leading up to the 2023 Presidential election Erdogan unveiled a number of projects intended to diminish the growing public impression of him as a man losing control of the country’s economy. Rather, Erdogan, ever the canny populist, sought to remake his image into that of a powerful, tech savvy, modern leader in total control of his nation’s destiny, yet as someone who always has the interests of his poorest citizens in his mind. 

For example, in 2022 Erdogan unveiled the first electric car produced in Turkey, the TOGG, which he promoted as the “people’s car.” TOGG is heavily promoted by Erdogan, who has used taxpayers’ money to fund its production and in turn used it as a symbol of the modern, technologically powerful Turkey he claims to be building. However, the car is likely to be prohibitively expensive, and it is difficult to imagine how the average Turkish citizen could afford to drive this “people’s car.” This has led some commentators to credibly accuse Erdogan of using the car to win another term in office, and to suggest that the project – so intertwined with Erdogan – will inevitably fail if Erdogan is not re-elected. 

In an even more obvious attempt to portray himself as leader of a great military power and defender of Turkey, Erdogan in April 2023 unveiled what may be the world’s first armed drone carrier ship, the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu. The ship, now moored in front of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, was described by Erdogan as a demonstration of his government’s defiance of “imperialists” and “interest lobbies”, insofar as it was built locally and from mostly Turkish materials. Erdogan also claimed that the opposition CHP “couldn’t have” built the ship, implying they were beholden to foreign imperialists and other anti-Turkish interest groups. In contrast, Erdogan claimed he was interested only in defending the interests of the Turkish people. 

Also in April 2023, Erdogan unveiled Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, built with Russian assistance. While Turkey’s relationship with several other NATO countries has been strained by Erdogan’s decision to maintain close relations with Russia, Erdogan appears to see cooperation with Putin as vital to his nation’s – and his government’s– interests. The nuclear power plant, the culmination of an agreement signed with Russia in 2010, provided Erdogan with another opportunity to portray himself as a strong leader providing for his people, and defending their interests. In this case, the nuclear power plant was described to the public as a way of giving the Turkish people greater autonomy through energy self-sufficiency. Moreover, Erdogan described that power plant as helping create a “Century of Türkiye” for the nation’s youth, who he claimed would benefit most from the construction of the reactor and two others planned. Intriguingly, Erdogan did not personally attend the unveiling of the reactor. Rather, the President was too ill to attend in person, and instead he and Putin appeared via video conference at the opening ceremony, perhaps undermining Erdogan’s attempt at using the power plant to burnish his credentials as a strong leader protecting Turkish interests from foreign adversaries. 

Erdogan’s supporters have naturally sought to help their leader win another term in office. Cognizant that their leader is in danger of losing office, AKP supporters and operatives have been hard at work creating memes intended to portray Erdogan as a tough and powerful leader who hears the voice of the people and acts always in their best interests. When on May 2, 2023 Erdogan’s Twitter feed posted an image of him dressed in air force clothing and wearing aviator sunglasses, as if he were about to fly a fighter plane, his dutiful supporters began constructing memes based on the image. For example, one prominent Erdogan supporter on Twitter with more than 150,000 followers, tweeted out the image with the caption “Tayyip Erdogan is today’s Abdulhamit,” referring to the last Islamist Ottoman sultan (r. 1876-1909) who held real power over the failing Empire. These media strategies are used to show Erdogan as a leader who is representative of all Turkish people but at the same time, he is powerful enough to bring Turkey to its former glory on the global scene. In contrast, another tweet by the same user showed the same image of Erdogan juxtaposed against a photo of Kilicdaroglu sitting in what is presumably his own kitchen, holding up an onion to the camera. The caption reads “kidding aside, who would you vote for?”

Another popular meme contrasted the image of a virile and powerful Erdogan against a ‘weak’ looking Kilicdaroglu sitting at a table in a white singlet, eating a meal on his own. Discussing the image first tweeted by Erdogan’s Twitter feed, journalist Sevilay Yilman remarks upon the curious decision to portray Erdogan as a powerful military leader, when Erdogan himself sought to end the military tutelage that plagued Turkey throughout much of the 20th century. The photo, she argues, reminds voters that Erdogan may have ended secular-nationalist military tutelage, but that he subsequently inaugurated an even more insidious and all-encompassing form of military tutelage. Indeed, the photo seems to be telling voters that Erdogan has now supplanted the military leaders of the past, and that Turkey remains a deeply militarized nation rather than one ruled by civilian leaders. 

Why, then, would Erdogan promote himself using images of this kind? The answer lies in his ever-present desire to promote himself as a populist savior of ‘the people.’ To win power, Erdogan – in an era in which the Turkish economy is crumbling, relies more and more on personalistic rule, and by portraying himself as the chief defender of the Turkish people from their ‘imperialist’ (i.e., American, European, Zionist, international banker) enemies, and from domestic collaborators with imperialists (i.e., the CHP and their allies Kurds and Gulenists).

If in the past Erdogan has sought to make Turkish people feel nostalgic for the glory of the Ottoman Empire, he now attempts to portray himself as leading the Turkish people toward a bright future in which they build and drive their own cars, become energy self-sufficient, and command the waves with their own home built armed drone carrier ships. In doing so, they can effectively thwart the destructive desires of unnamed ‘imperialists’ who hate Turkey and its people. 

It is interesting to consider how, for decades, the literature on populism has predicted that populists, once they formed governments, would fail to win office on successive occasions because, first, populists could never deliver on their promise to ‘save’ the nation and give all power to ‘the people’ and, second, because once in government they would automatically lose their ability to portray themselves as fighting governing ‘elites.’ The AKP has proven the populism theorists wrong by ruling for twenty years as populists. They have done this largely through the construction of a personality cult around Erdogan himself, and his portrayal as a mighty protector of Turkey, who loves his nation and defends it from its ‘elite’ enemies. However, having vanquished domestic elites long ago, Erdogan and the AKP now portray shadowy foreign forces as an international ‘elite’ that despises Turkey and its people, and Erdogan as the only man capable of defending Turkey from imperialists. The CHP, once the ruling party of Turkey, is reduced in these circumstances to a local collaborator with these foreign ‘dark forces’ attempting to destabilize Turkey and prevent the flourishing of its people. 

Erdogan’s self-portrayal as a macho military leader thus at once seeks to strike fear into Turkish citizens, by reminding them that they are in some way at ‘war’ with foreign imperialists, foreign NGOs, the ‘interest rate lobby,’ and internal collaborators with these groups, but also attempts to reassume voters that Erdogan is ready to meet these enemies in combat. In a similar way, as the economy falls apart around him, Erdogan seeks to reassure voters that he is fully in charge, and the nation’s economic woes are the product of foreign forces attempting to undermine Turkey. It is striking, then, that in order to win another term as President, Erdogan has been forced into externalizing and magnifying his populism, portraying not domestic enemies as ‘elites’ that defy the will of the people, but rather shadowy, non-identifiable international forces as the true elite that the Turkish people must struggle against. Thus, with his new nuclear reactor, “people’s car” and drone carrier ship, Erdogan portrays himself as the tough, macho leader the Turkish people require to stand against the international elite oppressing them at every turn. 

The image of Erdogan dressed as a fighter pilot and the Turkish navy’s new flagship and technological tour de force, the TCG Anadolu, perhaps best represent Erdogan’s 2023 presidential campaign strategy of portraying the President as a mighty Sultan protecting his people from foreign threats. Evoking in his supporters’ nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, but also feelings of hope for a similarly glorious future in which the Turkish people – and not foreign imperialists – are the authors of their own destiny, Erdogan uses his new ship as a symbol of his defiance of foreign ‘elites’ and ability to defend his own people. It is a strategy that may well be working. For example, one Erdogan supporter, Necati Tan, is quoting as saying “This warship is our national pride” and that with its unveiling “The president has brought back the glory of the Ottoman Empire.” 

Will the carefully crafted image of himself as a tough, militaristic leader who, through technological innovation and a drive toward economic and energy self-sufficiency, is saving the Turkish people from the largely imagined foreign forces attempting to undermine Turkish power be convincing enough for the Turkish people to give him another mandate? How commonplace these sentiments are remains unknown, but the result of the May 14 elections will tell us much about Erdogan’s success of this strategy and his ability to distract voters from the collapsing economy.


 

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

(*) Ana-Maria Bliuc is a social and political psychologist who joined Psychology at the University of Dundee in 2019. She has a PhD in Psychology from the Australian National University, and prior to her current appointment she held academic positions in Australia at Western Sydney University (2016-2019), Monash University (2012-2016), and the University of Sydney (2006-2012). Her research examines how people’s social identities influence their behavior in a range of contexts including health, environmental (climate change), and socio-political (collective action and social change). More recently, she has focused on research on online communities looking at how collective identities and behaviors are shaped through online interactions. This research has been conducted in online political communities (mostly far right and white supremacist) and online health communities (recovery from addiction). Dr Bliuc’s received funding from the Australian Research Council, and she has published in a wide range of high-quality international journals such as Nature Climate Change, WIREs Climate Change, Computers in Human Behaviors, and Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

WojciechSoczewica

COMTOG Interview with Wojciech Soczewica on games and ‘My Memory of Us’

Wojciech Soczewica is the Chief Executive Officer of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. “My Memory of Us” integrates real stories from individuals into its fictional narrative. By including these stories, the game’s creators, Jablonski and Janczuk, gave players a more personal and emotional connection to the events of the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of Poland. Even Soczewica, who expressed some reservations about using video games to address past traumatic events, acknowledged the importance of personal stories in shaping our Collective Memory. By incorporating individual perspectives into its narrative, “My Memory of Us” highlights the importance of preserving and sharing these stories to enhance our collective historical memory.

Étienne Quintal and Daniel Collen

COMTOG Interview with Étienne Quintal and Daniel Collen on ‘The Light in the Darkness’

Étienne Quintal and Daniel Collen are researchers from the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre responsible for the Online Hate Research and Education Project (OHREP) and Hatepedia project of the Centre. The Light in the Darkness is a narrative-driven, educational game about the Holocaust written by a survivor of the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. It tells the story of a working-class immigrant family of Polish Jews in Vichy, France, during World War II from before the occupation until the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. The game conveys the painful, tragic, real-life stories of Jews in vivid detail. It helps to keep them alive in the hearts and minds of the next generations by teaching their stories in ways that will help others learn and help humanity avoid repeating its worst mistakes.

Alexis M. Lerner

COMTOG Interview with Alexis M. Lerner on ‘The Light in the Darkness’

Dr Alexis M. Lerner is an assistant professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy and a Visiting Scholar at New York University’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, who has surveyed North American youth about the Holocaust and antisemitism. The Light in the Darkness is a narrative-driven, educational game about the Holocaust written by a survivor of the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. It tells the story of a working-class immigrant family of Polish Jews in Vichy, France, during World War II from before the occupation until the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. The game conveys the painful, tragic, real-life stories of Jews in vivid detail. It helps to keep them alive in the hearts and minds of the next generations by teaching their stories in ways that will help others learn and help humanity avoid repeating its worst mistakes.

LucBernard

COMTOG Interview with Luc Bernard on ‘The Light in the Darkness’

As part of the COMTOG project, we conducted interviews about The Light in the Darkness. Luc Bernard is the Co-Founder & Executive Director for Voices of the Forgotten and the director, creative and art director of the game, The Light in the Darkness. Over 15 years, Luc Bernard has developed an original idea to create a video game that would teach the history of the Holocaust to a new generation who cannot listen to the testimonies of a decreasing number of survivors. Knowing the story of his maternal grandmother, who looked after a kinder transport child, he had detailed knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust. He also grew concerned that the impact of the Holocaust was being progressively minimised and education about it increasingly ignored. Therefore the objective of his video game is to get the audience curious to learn about the Holocaust again and to remember those who are forever lost. The Light in the Darkness can be considered an educational and remembrance project targeting mainly teenagers and anyone who wants to play it.

Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV defending his plans during a radio interview in Enschede, The Netherlands on September 5, 2012.  Photo: Robert Hoetink.

How and why do we need preventive justice?

The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved? Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do.

By Maureen van der Kris*

Only a few years ago, during the refugee crisis of the 2010s, it looked a lot like Muslims were the Jews of the twenty-first century. Islamophobia reached new highs due to terrorist attacks from ISIS, which also sparked hate crimes against innocent Muslims fleeing from ISIS (vander Taelen, 2016), as well as inciting hostility and tensions towards Muslims living around the world. Then COVID hit, and hate crimes seemed to be redirected at the East Asian community (Aziz, 2020). In 2023, the new generation is witnessing what their predecessors before them had lived through: blatant antisemitism is retaking the spotlight (Simsek, 2022).

The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved? 

Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do. Measures of preventive justice are imperative to make sure populism cannot gain momentum and take over the political and legal structures across Europe as it did in the 1940s. This essay will explain how preventive justice can help us establish a risk-averse society and what these terms mean.

What is preventive justice and how does it work?

In most cases, preventive justice is simply a concept. It entails calculating the risks of harm, before any harm has occurred and taking measures against the would-be perpetrators (Ashworth et al., 2013). It establishes a system that can make people accountable, and thus prevent potential corruption and any other crime that can violate democratic values. Elements of preventive justice exist within criminal law. Many modern criminal law systems are centered around judging and punishing criminal acts and incorporate some preventive measures. For instance, for certain crimes, a crime attempt would be as illegal as committing a crime. These crimes vary across Europe, but the consensus is if the nature of the crime is severe, even an attempt will be punished more severely compared with other criminal attempts (Kelk & de Jong, 2019). 

The criminalization of an attempt to commit certain crimes can be considered a function of preventive justice. This simplified version explains how preventive justice works in the criminal law system, but how does it help a democratic society? It is argued here that it can help in many ways -but these need to incorporate the political and criminal justice system to produce practical solutions. One of these problems is the supposedly thin line between freedom of speech and discrimination.

Pulling the reins on democracy

The line between freedom of speech and discrimination is not very thin at all. For far-right populists, the line doesn’t exist at all, and they promote that their discriminatory ideas can only be seen as freedom of speech. This freedom of speech, they argue, has to be protected at all costs (Pennacchia, 2020). The hypocrisy of that statement will not be discussed here, but it is relevant to note the way it has led to cases of domestic terrorism. In France, for example, a Kurdish community center in Paris was attacked by an active shooter just before Christmas. It was reported that this incident was resulted in three civilian deaths, and the attacker had formerly been charged with a hate crime in the previous year (NPR, 2022). It seems that he felt safe enough to repeat his actions in the current political climate of France and is an example of the danger and progression of hate speech cloaked as ‘free’ speech. 

These incidents could have largely been prevented by limiting what constitutes as freedom of speech. One may claim that this is the opposite of preserving a democratic society. Still, history has proven time and time again that having no limits on certain democratic principles will result in populists using those exact principles for their benefit and to undemocratic ends, as seen in the case of the rise of Hitler. Due to the lack of limitations on unacceptable speech, Hitler had the freedom to use his hatred for Jewish people as a campaign point (Wilde, 2020). 

Although hate speech and hate crimes were regulated more strictly after WWII (i.e. by Germany banning the Nazi flag), there are still discussions about the line between freedom of speech and discrimination. Technically, the criminalization of specific insults is a good start. However, the burden of defining what counts as a discriminatory remark, an insult, falls on the judges. Judges could be very strict when handling lawsuits, as they have been during the Wilders trial in the Netherlands. The Wilders trial concerned a statement made by Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders during a rally in the 2010s. Wilders asked his supporters if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the country, to which they responded by cheering “less, less, less!” The Moroccan community, in response, sued Wilders for his discriminatory remarks and racist mobilization. The Dutch supreme court responded by charging Wilders with spreading hate. However, the court also stipulated that hate speech had no associated intent to act (Wilders v. Plaintiffs, 2009).

The result of the hearing disillusioned some people in the Moroccan community, as Wilders’ specific statements were not considered when judging the case. Some contended that Wilders’ party should have been abolished after that statement. Ethically, one can request a more severe punishment after such incidences of racism. Legally speaking, it is much more complicated.

Preventive justice in the courtroom

In most Western countries, judges can only punish a suspect according to the material principle of legality. In many EU countries, this has been defined as the Nulla poena sine lege principle, or “no punishment without law.” It means a political party cannot be declared illegal and abolished for maintaining an ideology harmful to a democratic society without legal codes. It also means that a judge cannot declare that a statement constitutes an illegal insult when the verdict is riddled with violations of aspects of the legality principle. One of these aspects is prohibiting an overly extensive interpretation by a judge. For example, if the suspect has discursively targeted a person of color, this can be interpreted as an illegal insult under ideal circumstances, but the suspect cannot be charged with a hate crime. This would be different if the suspect used a racial slur to insult the person of color (de Hullu, 2021).

Laws that prevent hate crimes and the strict interpretation of these laws in accordance with the legality principle can work very well. But there are also cases in which laws have an adverse effect stemming from discriminatory policies, which should be illegal. Take the Dutch surcharge, for example. This so-called libertarian policy is aimed to combat fraud committed by people not legally entitled to childcare allowance. However, the policy culminated in a nationwide scandal. It used a self-learning algorithm to identify fraud and, in the meantime, asked inspectors to have much stricter and limiting judgement on childcare allowance specifically for individuals with a foreign last name. Following the outrage, the Dutch government resigned in 2021. However, from 2018 onwards, people have been suffering due to the racist nature of the Dutch surcharge policy (NOS, 2020).

The law does not exist in a vacuum. Democratic practices and a working legal system depend on society, political accountability, and social support. Here I want to add to my discussion the kinds of social context that can help create a safe space for all and a flourishing civil society. 

Living in a ‘risk-averse society’

According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck, a risk-averse society can be described as a society in which legal systems actively try to prevent the risk of certain crimes being committed (Beck, 2003). So, a risk-averse society supports the ideals of preventive justice. Preventive justice can establish the socio-legal infrastructure of a risk-averse society and vice-versa. Some speculate that preventive justice can establish foundations for a risk-averse society. Yet a risk-averse society might undermine democratic values (Barone, 2022). 

This would only be true if preventive justice is rooted in unrealistic fears and undemocratic practices. Like the two faces of the Janus or a fire that can both cook or burn, the concepts and ideals of preventive justice or risk-averse society can yield either positive or negative results depending on if they are in the hands of well-intentioned or selfish people. The dilemma of what counts as liberty, if it has limits, if so, how to develop policies that protect freedoms without violating principles of democracy remains a big question, which motivates us to do more theoretical and practical discussions about how to establish a safe space to realize the ideals of preventive justice and a risk-averse society. 

Conclusion

In an age where war crimes and injustice make us question the degree to which our civilization has actually evolved, the question is not whether we want to be risk-averse; we do not have a choice. This is strikingly clear when we acknowledge that nuclear power has become a staple of everyday discussions in newspapers, making us believe the doomsday is coming. The choice that falls upon us all is between whether we want to live in a society where the freedom to say whatever we want risks supporting the rise of far-right populism and encouraging hate and even violence. To keep our democracies afloat, we must invest in forming risk-averse spaces and use preventive justice to our advantage. Only then can we fight populism effectively on a more significant level and prevent the atrocities from history being repeated.


 

(*) Maureen van der Kris is studying Law at Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands. She is in the second year of her bachelor’s degree and at the very start of her legal career. Before joining ECPS, she wrote articles for the members’ magazine of Ad Informandum, the student association for criminal law at UU. Her main interests are women’s rights and preventive justice, while her favorite university subjects are international- and criminal law. As she has been personally confronted with various criminal offences during her childhood. Her goal is to become a criminal judge. She aspires to work at the Dutch supreme court or the ICC one day. 


 

References

— (2020).  “Commissie: Ongekend Onrecht in Toeslagenaffaire, Beginselen Rechtsstaat Geschonden.” NOS. December 17, 2020. https://nos.nl/collectie/13855/artikel/2361021-commissie-ongekend-onrecht-in-toeslagenaffaire-beginselen-rechtsstaat-geschonden (accessed on January 29, 2023).

— (2022). “Kurdish People Protested in Paris After Three Were Killed in A ‘Racist’ Shooting.” NPR. December 25, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/12/25/1145467662/kurdish-people-protested-in-paris-after-three-were-killed-in-a-racist-shooting (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Ashworth, Andrew; Lee, Ambrose & Zedner, Lucia. (2013, July). “Preventive Justice Project.” Oxford law. https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/preventive-justice-project#:~:text=’%20In%20its%20many%20guises%20preventive,lest%20they%20should%20do%20harm (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Aziz, Sahar. (2020). “Anti-Asian Racism Must Be Stopped Before It Is Normalised.” Al Jazeera. April 12, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/anti-asian-racism-stopped-normalised/ (accessed January 29, 2023).

Barone, Michael. (2022). “The Democratic Party’s Risk Aversion Is Harming Us All.” American Enterprise InstituteOctober 13, 2022. https://www.aei.org/op-eds/the-democratic-partys-risk-aversion-is-harming-us-all/ (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Beck, Ulrich. (2003). Risikogesellschaft. Suhrkamp Publishers.

Beck, Ulrich. (2003). Risikogesellschaft. 17.” Auflage München.

de Hullu, Jaap. (2021). Materieel Strafrecht. Over Algemene Leerstukken Van Strafrechtelijke Aansprakelijkheid Naar Nederlands Recht. Deventer: Kluwer Publishers.

Kelk, Constantijn & de Jong, Ferry. (2019). Studieboek Materieel Strafrecht. Deventer: Kluwer Publishers.

Pennacchia, Robyn. (2020). “Right-Wingers Hate New ‘Free Speech’ Platform Parler, You Can’t Even Own The Libs There.” Wonkette. July 6, 2020. https://www.wonkette.com/right-wingers-hate-their-new-free-speech-social-media-site-miss-trolling-us-already (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Simsek, Ayhan. (2022). “Germany’s Jewish Community Fears Rise in Antisemitic Attacks in Winter.” Anadolu Agency. November 8, 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/germany-s-jewish-community-fears-rise-in-antisemitic-attacks-in-winter/2732965 (accessed on January 29, 2023).

vander Taelen, Luckas. (2016). De grote verwarring: Hoe moeten we reageren op het islamitisch fundamentalisme? Antwerp: Houtkiet Publishers.

Wilde, Robert. (2020). “Hitler’s Rise to Power: A Timeline.” Thoughtco. August 27, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/hitlers-rise-to-power-timeline-1221353 (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Wilders v. Plaintiffs. [2009] GHAMS K08/0309, K08/0374, K08/0277, K08/0444, K08/0310, K08/0328, K08/0329, K08/0330 & K08/0353https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/#!/details?id=ECLI:NL:GHAMS:2009:BH0496 (accessed on January 29, 2023).

the-light-in-the-darkness-10kcu

COMTOG Report on “The Light in the Darkness”

Tusor, Anita.(2023). “COMTOG Report on ‘The Light in the Darkness’.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 12, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0038

 

Video games can be used to counter extremist ideologies by highlighting the dangers of hate speech and promoting tolerance and understanding. This can be done through educational games and by incorporating messages of inclusivity and diversity into the gameplay and storyline. Holocaust education through video games make people to learn about the events of the Holocaust more interactively and engagingly. It allows players to experience the stories of individuals who lived through the Holocaust, better understand its impact on the world and make connections to present-day political events, and understand what democracy is and why it is crucial to protect it.

By Anita Tusor*

Introduction

Luc Bernard’s The Light in the Darkness is a narrative-driven, educational game about the Holocaust written by a survivor of the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. It tells the story of a working-class immigrant family of Polish Jews in Vichy France during World War II from before the occupation up until the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. The game conveys the painful, tragic, real-life stories of Jews in vivid detail and helps to keep them alive in the hearts and minds of generations to come by teaching their stories in ways that will help others learn and help humanity avoid repeating its worst mistakes. Directed by Bernard, The Light in the Darkness can not only educate future generations but also inspire game developers to create video games about one of the darkest periods in human history.

The player experiences every step the government took to oppress Jews in France from different characters’ points of view and sees how NPCs (side characters) react differently towards the player before and during the occupation. The gameplay is a mix of adventure games without any choices affecting the story. This artistic decision is to simulate the lack of control that Jews experienced during the Holocaust and to remain faithful to the truth. 

Although this free-to-play game is still in early access, and an educational mode will be only available at full launch for use in classrooms, if someone would prefer to watch the story instead of playing it, Luc Bernard has provided a full playthrough on his Youtube channel.

With the recent rise in antisemitism and people forgetting that the Holocaust was not that long ago, the game highlights the importance of collective historical memory of mass tragedies and shows what hate can lead to. Since our Never Again Initiative’s goal is to establish a dialogue between past and present by investing in tools that raise our collective historical consciousness, the present report discusses video games as well as other tools like the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s projects and Dr Alexis Lerner’s Jews by the Number course and her work with Liberation75.

This report aims to demonstrate how video games such as The Light in the Darkness can effectively raise awareness of historical events and promote the preservation of historical memory. The semi-structured interviews conducted for this purpose had the following key themes: (1) youth radicalisation and its platforms, (2) contemporary antisemitism, (3) online hate and gaming, (4) historical memory of the Holocaust; and asked crucial questions as (1) how we can learn from the dynamics of past conflicts which are casting light on threats to democracy today, and (2) what tools do we have to educate the youth about the Holocaust and to counter online hate.

As part of the The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) Project’s goal to bring together different but complementary voices of the field, four individuals were interviewed about the game, The Light in the Darkness and its adjacent subject matters. Luc Bernard is the Co-Founder & Executive Director for Voices of the Forgotten and the director, creative and art director of the game, The Light in the Darkness. Étienne Quintal and Daniel Collen are researchers from the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, who are responsible for the Online Hate Research and Education Project (OHREP) and Hatepedia project of the Centre. Finally, Dr Alexis M. Lerner is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy who has surveyed North American youth about the Holocaust and antisemitism.

Gaming and the Holocaust

Over 15 years, Luc Bernard has developed an original idea to create a video game that would teach the history of the Holocaust to a new generation who cannot listen to the testimonies of a decreasing number of survivors. Knowing the story of his maternal grandmother, who looked after a kindertransport child, he had detailed knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust. He also had a growing concern that the impact of the Holocaust was being progressively minimised and education about it increasingly ignored. Therefore the objective of his video game is to get the audience curious to learn about the Holocaust again and to remember those who are forever lost. The Light in the Darkness can be considered an educational and remembrance project targeting mainly teenagers and anyone who would like to play it. 

WWII games are often criticised for being solely created for entertainment purposes and not being accurate. The representation of war and the way most games glorify conflict while neglecting the victims’ perspective, especially first-person shooter games, is commonly criticised and has been mentioned by all four interviewees. Alternatively, some games avoid the mention or existence of tragedies that came from historical conflict. In this way, these games contribute to misshaping and misconstruing the collective memory of the period. 

Bernard’s game does not shy away from the subject matter and shows the player all the steps leading up to the deportation of French Jews. It starts with the failed Évian Conference, which addressed the problem of the high number of Jewish refugees who wished to flee the Third Reich and ends with the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup, when the ‘unwanted’ refugees of France (foreign Jewish families) were mass arrested and later deported by the French police in a joint operation between German and collaborating French administrators. Not many know today that it was not the Nazis who rounded up the Jews (including 4000 children) in Paris but the French Vichy-government.

Regarding the artistic direction of the game, the director elaborates that animated film is viewed as the best format to tell stories and has a worldwide appeal, as studios like Pixar have proved it. Bernard has decided to go with the French comic book style since France has already published comic books on the Holocaust, confirming that animation/comics are able to transfer serious subjects. “If it were too realistic, it would discourage certain audiences, but animation has a more general allure and can convey emotions very well.” At the same time, the game shows real-life footage, photos and survivor’s testimonies to bring back some of the ‘realisticness’ of the subject, making it all the more powerful.

Accuracy and realism were key for this game. One interesting choice made by Bernard is that the game intentionally does not contain choice-based mechanics to simulate a “lack of control” feeling to emulate the powerless experience during the Holocaust. Instead, the game is more about the story and witnessing these dark times through the eyes of the family to humanise the victims and show the kind and heroic actions of those around them. In the game, you play as multiple characters, and you get to experience hatred and antisemitism (even as a child); you are fully immersed. There are a couple of choices, but the story won’t change “as everything was a bit of luck,” as explained by Bernard.

The music adapts well to the mood of the game and follows its narrative but carefully retains overly emotional tones to make the right impact. At the round-up scene, we can hear a dark-toned version of the French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’ which represents how the government has betrayed its own citizens by deporting them and sending them to their death; a small detail which can make a great impact on the audience.

In the interview, Bernard states, “In a way, every country is responsible for the Holocaust who refused to help and accept refugees, including the United States” (the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.). The European population went along with the Holocaust. “This is left out of history; you don’t see it in movies or games. In the US and France, people think they did well during WWII.” Although the French government has apologised, and French cinema, in general, tackled the subject with respect, the far-right still does not admit the responsibility of Vichy France in the Holocaust (Sayer, 2018; Mcdonell, 2017). This affects Holocaust survivors on a financial level, too, as they cannot claim compensation and live in poor socioeconomic conditions. Furthermore, there is a danger that Holocaust education might change if the far-right comes to power in France.

“When you study the Holocaust, you cannot be anti-refugees.”

The project’s intention has changed over time as rising antisemitism and white supremacy in the US has gained public attention. Educating people about the damage hatred can do becomes one of the focus points. Luc Bernard was determined to show where racism can lead us. 

He warns that (1) Holocaust distortion is more dangerous than denial as it’s more accepted, even amplified through the use of digital tools, and (2) when there are no more survivors left, it’s likely going to be a turning point in the rise of Holocaust denial – something which we are already experiencing. In fact, in the US, Holocaust denial is “constitutionally protected free speech” because of the First Amendment, and there is no law against it or criminalisation of the promotion of Nazi ideology or any form of hate speech (Germain, 2022). Therefore recent years’ statistics showing a growing number of young people having distorted or deficient views of the Holocaust is not surprising (Claims Conference, 2020;Pew Research Center, 2020). To address this problem, Bernard proposes to be at more cultural and social places (Twitter, TikTok) to reach wider audiences as many first encounters the Holocaust because of pop cultures like movies or social platforms like TikTok. 

In addition, most people in the world are not living close to Holocaust museums or archives, so getting them curious about the topic in the first place is the main goal of the game. People living in underprivileged areas from lower socio-economic strata can benefit the most from projects like The Light in the Darkness. In rural or urban classrooms, the game can be easily introduced as it is quite short (1-1.5h of playtime) and/or students can play it on their own as well as it has minimal requirements to run. This is reflected in Dr Lerner’s experience as well. The Assistant Professor believes that video games can address tragic events like the Holocaust; and games with historical settings and ethical considerations strictly taken into account can function as effective educational tools. 

All four of Lerner’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors; learning about the Shoah at home was natural for her, and many Jewish people acquire their knowledge about it through their family members first, as well as later in schools. “However, in Canada and in the majority of US states, genocide education is not yet a curricular requirement. While some teachers introduce Holocaust education through history or literature, many students first encounter the Holocaust and other state-sanctioned and systematic mass murders through non-traditional sources, such as comic books, social media accounts, video games, and television shows,” (Lerner, 2021: 9). Her research with Liberation75, a Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism found that 40 percent of students learnt about the Holocaust outside of the classroom on social media and  11percent of these students reported to have met with the Holocaust through video games. It is important to highlight that the age of responders was, on average, between 11 and 14 because one of the issues is that those video game players, the target demographic, are usually looking for entertainment, violence and aggression, so using video games to teach about tolerance can be complicated. Further questions we must ask are: In these games, are you saving a group of people, and if you do so, what does it imply? Are students seeking these games out on their own or is it part of the curriculum?

Lerner used video games in the classroom in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which was found to be effective for college students who thoroughly enjoyed it. In the world of Holocaust education, new learning modalities are essential and opening for newer, more robust approaches -including video games- around the topic is much needed. 

Both Daniel Collen and Étienne Quintal, researchers of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, had positive views on Luc Bernard’s game: “I am excited for The Light in the Darkness most importantly because it does not just address the setting in a very meaningful way, not just as an atmosphere but as a main theme. And focuses on story over action and knowledge over entertainment, making it a much more accessible game to recommend. A game which is free and runs on school laptops is the best choice since top-end hardware and the latest generation of consoles are not widely available.”

The development of the game, The Light in the Darkness, relied on extensive background research, including consulting survivors and double and triple-checking every detail. Although big Holocaust organisations were careful to support projects like this given the sensitivity of the subject and some museums remained hard to approach, the Shoah Foundation (which helps similar projects) allowed access to its archives along with Yad Vashem, which provided extensive support for the game’s creator. “We had access to things on Yad Vashem’s website, and also on the US Holocaust website, but no official help. However, people at the US Holocaust Museum have given me advice not officially,” Bernard said. 

Just the development of the story took one year. To balance between personal stories and larger history, multiple survivors’ stories were melted into one story. Bernard has chosen to depict a Polish immigrant family who had integrated well into French society by the end of the 1930s, a profile describing the majority of Jewish families who were rounded up in 1942. Despite their integration effort, they were never entirely accepted; they remained the ‘others’ and the first to be deported. This experience of ‘otherness’ connects the history of the Holocaust with contemporary populism, which has achieved electoral success in the last decade in Europe while running on a platform of exclusionary policies. Actors like Orban in Hungary, National Rally in France, and Fratelli d’Italia in Italy utilise divisionary rhetoric, and their intolerant ideologies have been successful in inciting conflict between different cleavages in society while the memory of Europe’s authoritarian history remain fairly distant and passive as we forget the efforts required to keep authoritarianism and fascism at bay.

Stories like The Light in the Darkness are important because, as Bernard reminds us: 

“We never talk about the lives of Jews during WWII; we only talk about their death. We need to humanise them.”

Video games are an excellent platform for this. It has a multi-generational appeal; it can change the world as these games can reach anyone. They are interactive, live on longer and are more timeless and immersive than television. On the other hand, the gaming industry has a huge responsibility as the biggest media industry of our times. Yet subject matters like the Holocaust are being ignored, and “this ignorance is the worst on the field,” according to Luc Bernard, who believes one possible explanation behind this is the fact that in the United States, Jews are not considered traditional minorities, the Holocaust is viewed as a white on white crime and the American audience does not understand racism, particularly European racism the same way as the European one.

Collen and Quintal also see the educational potential of serious games but highlight that movies and books are more commonly understood to be useful for preserving collective historical memory. Video games are less reliable platforms as they require a computer and internet connection which is not available for everyone. Moreover, some video games do not have cutscenes, and sometimes players skip these cinematic scenes, which makes the experience much more specific for the individual than watching a movie and can affect the level of immersion. Nevertheless, as time goes on, video games are likely to be adopted for historical memory projects due to their uncovered potential and broad appeal. All together, serious historical games might be more attractive for students than traditional classroom materials. 

The Neuberger Centre has also studied the depiction of concentration camps in video games, especially in the Wolfenstein: The New Order game. Although WWII games, in general, rarely address the Holocaust, as an anti-fascist game, Wolfenstein at least tried to touch on the subject by including a segment inside a forced labour camp. According to Collen, “depictions of labour camps are not achievable for video games in a way it is really resonating with people emotionally and teaches them historically.” However, indie games (games created by independent developers) are on the rise and with these games comes a new market. As teachers and parents realise that there is a gap in knowledge and awareness about Holocaust education, and many of them have not caught up with new technologies, the need for games boosting society’s collective historical memory is on the rise.

Online Hate, Radicalization and Modern Antisemitism

Gaming has many positive economic, health, social, and psychological benefits that are often overlooked (ADL, 2019;Schrier, 2019). For adults, video games can provide a unique medium familiar and engaging to them and “can be used to deliver [empathy] training at scale” (Kral et al., 2018: 1). While for younger demographics, prosocial and interpersonal video game play was related to greater social satisfaction, peer support, and prosocial behaviour, which led to increased well-being, whereas violent video game play was related to increased school bullying, and lower social satisfaction and prosociality. Secure attachment was related to increased empathic concerns and higher levels of prosocial and interpersonal interactions in video game use (Shosani et al., 2021). Online gaming has also been particularly beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic when people have had to endure prolonged periods of social isolation. Players have reported positive experiences such as forming new friendships, feeling a sense of belonging to various communities, discovering new interests, and gaining insights about themselves (ADL, 2019). Nevertheless, new challenges continue to arise as technology advances, and associated risks must be considered. These include online hate, radicalisation and contemporary antisemitism.

The intersection between gaming and violent extremism has become a growing concern in recent years. As stated in the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report by Europol (2021: 90), there has been a growing trend of using video games, gaming platforms and forums, as well as gamer channels to disseminate right-wing extremist propaganda and to spread their ideologies (Suraj, 2021). One of the most notorious examples is using online gaming platforms to recruit young people into far-right extremist groups. In these instances, individuals are drawn into gaming groups that espouse extremist views and then gradually radicalised through exposure to hate speech, propaganda, and violent imagery. 

Another concern is the use of video games by extremist groups to train their members in combat and tactical skills. Some far-right groups have created custom-built games that simulate real-life combat situations, which are then used to train members in tactics and weapons handling, while certain radical groups created exclusively antisemitic games. Luc Bernard pointed out that some of the white supremacist terrorist attacks in the US and New Zealand are examples of successful radicalisation through the latter tactic, while other commercially successful games themselves have been criticised for promoting extremist views or perpetuating harmful stereotypes. For example, games that allow players to assume the roles of terrorists or play out scenarios involving extremist violence can be seen as normalising these behaviours and beliefs. 

Lastly, gaming adjacent online platforms are also utilised by violent far-right extremists and white nationalist movements. This is why Luc Bernard has refused to release his game on Steam, where white supremacists could openly express their ideology, call for violence and deny the Holocaust for a long time with little repercussions (see in detail Vaux et el.,2021). Daniel Collen explained, “Steam has a problem (see in detail ADL, 2020), and it is a quite difficult problem to address as in gaming history Steam – up until recently – was ‘too big to fail.’ Gamers might have a bit more influence to protect themselves from hate speech over newer platforms like Epic. But we will see how it develops over the next 5-10 years because, sadly, improvements are happening slowly, especially on large platforms.”

In addition, gaming adjacent places (like Steam, Twitch or Discord) are not only used by hate movements but “a lot of their propaganda, a lot of their memes are even discussing or referencing games.” Therefore we see that video games are important to these groups and play a significant function in how these movements operate. Gaming and memes are considered mediums of ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ compared to traditional propaganda, and they offer a low threshold to interact with extremist ideas (Fielitz & Ahmed, 2021). Quintal and Collen have studied internet memes in detail and created a Guide to Online Hate, which helps to identify the symbols, terms, characters, and themes that often appear in the expression of hatred, online and off.

Hateful memes are found on all major social media platforms. Quintal talked about the Hatepedia project and its importance in detail: “Memes are considered the form of modern political pamphlets. People might not understand its political aspect and function, just find it funny.” They have conducted on and offline research since there are a lot of cross-references between both. The Neuberger Centre also organised public workshops to promote critical thought and teach people about digital literacy, the features of social media, and how memes can promote online hate. “We also point out how to differentiate between what we see and what it truly means. Hateful memes use a veil of humour to hide their intention and meaning,” stressed Quintal.

Regarding misinformation and hateful propaganda, one side is dedicated to protecting the truth; the other does not. We need to be able to learn about the tactics of hate movements. Recognise how they use humour to cover up their wrongful and harmful messages. Humour can have a political function, and the other side has a vested interest in you not being aware of their intentions in order to convince you of ‘their truth.’

The gaming community is vulnerable. It’s a ‘home’ for far-right radicals; they effectively mobilised for a long time, relying on online communities more than offline ones. Collen explained the evolution of this persuasive strategy in detail: “Since the beginning of developing video games, these games were mainly promoted for young men. So when the modern men’s movement formed its identity along with different hate activists, video games were a natural choice to rally around. Young male gamers were given the narrative that women players were taking away the identity which was theirs, and it worked. For example, Pac-Man was designed to increase the market size for video games by appealing to women in particular, drawing them into the game rooms that had in some ways seemed forbidding to female players or to opposite sex couples. Misogyny was at the root of a lot of things they believed in, and it acted as a catalyst for other types of hate.”

Regarding harassment, what we see on gaming platforms, there is a bullying aspect behind it to keep those spaces exclusive to men. Hate groups tend to attack subcultural spaces to grow their ranks. “That is true for a number of different communities we have studied,” reveals Quintal. Gaming spaces tend to be majority male, but the issue goes beyond identity; hate movements and hate-promoting individuals are not only focusing on gaming places but adjacent, surrounding places as well. 

They understand the rituals of gamers. For instance, gamers like to listen to music or stream videos while they are playing and many of the very popular -if not the most popular- hate speakers are using streaming platforms or are making music videos to get into the ears of players who are vulnerable as they are focusing on entertainment more than critical thought. As the Online Hate Research & Education Project manager, Quintal, explains: “People will be listening to this information not realising the political nature of the speeches, just internalising it in a way that completely disarms you to the message and its intent.”

Fighting Hate Effectively

In response to these concerns, some gaming companies have taken steps to combat extremism on their platforms. Theseinclude measures such as banning users who engage in hate speech or promoting positive values such as diversity and inclusivity within their games. Nonetheless, the intersection between extremism and gaming remains a complex issue that requires continued attention and vigilance.

Both Collen and Quintal emphasised the importance of culturally appropriate solutions since hate groups know how to reach out to the youth; they understand their “social bubbles and language.” At the same time, there exists a disconnection in language and culture between teachers, parents and children which helps far-right hate groups to reach younger gamers. This generates a cultural need to create educational video games that are attractive to younger generations. 

Overlap between gaming communities and hate movements is targeting the former’s demographic. They are increasingly successful at reaching younger and younger audiences. Quintal talked with teachers who brought up the issue during workshops. But “we have hard evidence/data in the Canadian context as well; young people are disproportionately represented in hate crime statistics. This is very concerning. We need to reach young people in real life and in virtual places they inhabit. And instead of listening to racist hate speeches on Twitch or DLive, we should make sure that players are listening to something more healthy, appropriate, enriching, and fun. Games should also be not only enjoyable to play but accurate and informational,” stresses the researcher of the Centre. 

Among the solutions, both Dr Lerner and the Neuberger Centre’s researchers agreed that there are new lesson plans and simply listening to the feedback of teachers and students. The Canadian Holocaust Centre’s first Evergreen presentation addressed the relationship between TikTok and the Holocaust and how content creators discuss and educate about the Holocaust – whether they are accurate or aim to misinform. This included hate propaganda and videos made for youth which tried to normalise holocaust denial as part of a radicalisation process and misinformation which was made for other reasons. TikTok was chosen because of requests from teachers and parents received by the Centre. They had fears and anxieties about how their students and children navigate on the platform. Moreover, teachers were also asking about video games and platforms like Roblox, which allows users to create their own games, making gaming and social media the two most burning concerns for online hate, radicalisation and modern antisemitism.

Quintal also mentioned that “Fighting hate in the context of video games is not necessarily a classroom task, but, when it comes to gaming culture and anti-racism in general, I think these are things we should not just react to. We should not only teach children how to fight hate, fascism and racism, but we should teach about fighting hate as a thing we should all be doing. What hate movements did quite well, unfortunately, is to treat games like Roblox and Minecraft, which are not necessarily racist or hateful, as their playground where they ‘can live their fascist fantasies’ and create alternative societies where holocaust denial is accepted.” The researcher stresses that the opposite should be done as well. “We should encourage children to be anti-fascist in the classroom but outside of it as well in the online space. The values thought should be displayed outside of the classroom.” This gamification in the classroom, however, is challenging as a lot of the games are not appropriate for educational purposes. “We have to be anti-hate even when hate is not in front of us because that is how we build a society which is better for everyone in the long run.”

Dr Lerner talked about the relationship between holocaust education and intolerance. Due to her work with Liberation75, she helped to develop a survey to monitor holocaust education and examine what students knew ahead of a two-day virtual conference called Education Days, organised by Liberation75, based on their secondary school curricula and after this training. Her other course, Jews by the Numbers, enabled students from all fields to utilise data science in Jewish Studies. Students learned to build datasets from archival material from the USC Visual History Archive and form their own arguments based on data. “Historical archives were traditionally used to help people make sense of what happened to the Jews. Today it is not necessarily the archives we rely on as there was a major turning point: now we think more in numbers, using data science.” Dr Lerner paid special attention to the ethics of doing research. “Jews were reduced to numbers, dressed off their humanity. We must avoid making this mistake.” This problem at the crossroads of data science, statistics and Jewish studies was also addressed in her paper, which helps develop statistics courses for students in non-quantitative fields (Lerner & Gelman, 2022).

The emergence of antisemitism stems from the continuous reinforcement of prejudiced beliefs, unfounded speculations, and inaccurate knowledge regarding both conventional and contemporary forms of hostility. It is of utmost importance to distinguish between the diverse expressions of antisemitism and adapt the strategy to address each one appropriately (Bjola & Manor, 2020). In the media, there are lots of catchy headlines; Lerner mentions Unz’s (2012) allegations that Jews are overrepresented at Ivy League universities in The American Conservative, but when we look into the numbers behind these headlines examining its legitimacy using data science and accurate statistics, the titles turn out to be a harmful clickbaits which are designed to provoke an emotional response from the reader, such as fear, outrage, anxiety or prejudice, often at the expense of accuracy or truthfulness.

People react to emotional experiences, and this is why until now, survivor’s testimonies have been effective. But as survivors are passing away and no longer alive, it is a major question of how we continue to build that emotional connection and reaction to the subject. One of the resolutions is what the Shoah Foundation did through their iWitness program, “which is kind of a version of a video game” since you can interact with it and ask questions. Dr Lerner suggested that this program could be developed into a video game integrating the Holocaust. Another idea is to discuss the topic in depth: it cannot be just a one-off classroom discussion. “We need to see the connection between the Holocaust and the rally-around-the-flag effect and decaying democracy, heightened polarisation and how regimes like the Third Reich come about. It has to be integrated into the curriculum and used as a teaching tool to educate about other subjects, e.g. what it means to be a democracy.”

Conclusion

With the expansion of its market, quality, and audience, COMTOG aims to uncover video games’ potential to raise historical consciousness. The discussions in the interviews of the present report have demonstrated how serious educational games such as The Light in the Darkness can be relevant in the context of Collective Historical Memory, promote it and stimulate empathetic emotions and interest in players. Moreover, the report connected issues such as online youth radicalisation, contemporary antisemitism, online hate groups, memes and gaming to the historical memory of the Holocaust, showcasing how relevant the Shoah is for the upcoming generations.

Holocaust education through video games allows people to learn about the events of the Holocaust more interactively and engagingly. It allows players to experience the stories of individuals who lived through the Holocaust, better understand its impact on the world and make connections to present-day political events, and understand what democracy is and why it is crucial to protect it. Arguments about why using video games as an educational tool for the Holocaust can be controversial were addressed during the interviews, as mainstream games may trivialise the events that took place. However, when designed and executed properly, like The Light in the Darkness, these games can be an effective way to educate people about the Holocaust and its impact on society. 

Video games can be used to counter extremist ideologies by highlighting the dangers of hate speech and promoting tolerance and understanding. This can be done through educational games and by incorporating messages of inclusivity and diversity into the gameplay and storyline. Overall, video games can be a powerful tool in the fight against antisemitism when designed with an educative purpose, well-researched, and ethics are considered. Video games can help create a more empathic, progressive and compassionate society by promoting education, representation, inclusivity, and community engagement.


ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.


 

(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.


 

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Bjola, Corneliu & Manor, Ilan. ( 92020. “Combating Online Hate Speech and Anti-Semitism.” DigDiploROx Working Paper No 4. https://www.qeh.ox.ac.uk/sites/www.odid.ox.ac.uk/files/DigDiploROxWP4.pdf

Fielitz, Maik & Ahmed, Reem. (2021). “It’s not funny anymore. Far-right extremists’ use of humour.” Radicalisation Awareness Network. https://utveier.no/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2021/10/ran_ad-hoc_pap_fre_humor_20210215_en.pdf(accessed on April 7, 2023).

Germain, Ellen. (2022). “Why Confronting Holocaust Distortion and Denial Matters.” U.S. Department of State. January 31, 2022. https://www.state.gov/why-confronting-holocaust-distortion-and-denial-matters/ (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Kral, Tammi R.A.; Stodola, Diane E.; Birn, Rasmus M. et al. (2008). “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial.” NPJ Science Learn 3 (13): 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-018-0029-6

Lerner, Alexis M. (2021). “2021 Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism.” Liberation 75. https://www.liberation75.org/2021survey (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Lerner, Alexis M. & Galeman, Andrew (2022). “Build Your Own Statistics Course for Students in a Non-Quantitative Field.” Journal of Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/unpublished/lerner-gelman-build.pdf (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Mcdonell, Hugh. (2017). “The ‘grey zone’ of Vichy France: Understanding Marine Le Pen’s latest comments on the Second World War.” LSE blog. April 12, 2017. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/04/12/the-grey-zone-of-vichy-france-understanding-marine-le-pens-latest-comments-on-the-second-world-war/ (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Mulhall, Joe. (eds.) (2021). “Antisemitism in the Digital Age: Online antisemitic hate, Holocaust denial, Conspiracy ideologies and Terrorism in Europe.” Amadeu Antonio Foundationhttps://www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/antisemitism-in-the-digital-age.pdf

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LukaszJanczuk

COMTOG Interview with Lukasz Janczuk on ‘My Memory of Us’

Interviewed by Iván Escobar Fernández

Lukasz Janczuk is the co-founder and lead designer at Juggler Games and a former Design Manager at CI Games. Janczuk was ‘My Memory of Us’ lead designer. My Memory of Us is a narrative-driven puzzle-adventure video game developed by Juggler Games. The game is set in a fictional version of Poland during World War II and tells the story of a young boy and girl who must navigate through a city divided into two parts: one for Jews and one for non-Jews. The game features hand-drawn art, puzzle-solving, stealth elements, and a unique memory-manipulation mechanic that allows players to change the past to solve puzzles and progress through the story. The game received positive reviews for its story and art. Overall, My Memory of Us is a touching and emotional game about friendship, love, and survival during a war.

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AngusMol

COMTOG Interview with Dr Angus Mol on ‘Bury Me My Love’

Interviewed by Martin Galland

Dr Angus Mol is a Games Studies scholar from Leiden University. ‘Bury Me My Love‘ is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and centre relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love’, is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015. Both the journalist who wrote the article on Dana’s story and Dana herself working as part of the game’s editorial team (Le Monde, 2015). Developed by The Pixel Hunt in 2015, Bury Me My Love is a branching text-based narrative based around the story of people on the move during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Its main characters are Nour and Majd, a young couple from Homs, Syria. The player takes on the role of Majd, having stayed behind in Syria to take care of his mother and grandfather, while his partner, Nour, goes on to attempt the journey to Germany in order to receive refugee status there. Much of the game is based on three core mechanics which impact the outcomes of choices made throughout Nour’s journey: Time; the itinerary; and finally, Nour’s own variables of morale, budget, her relationship with Majd, and what she has or does not have on her person in key moments. With this expansive and branching narrative, there are 50 different locations to go through and nineteen possible endings for Nour’s journey, with widely divergent outcomes.

See the Report

TigsLouisPuttick

COMTOG Interview with Tigs Louis Puttick on ‘Bury Me My Love’

Tigs Louis-Puttick, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator for Samos Volunteers, a non-profit organisation supporting refugees and asylum-seekers on Samos. ‘Bury Me My Love‘ is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and centre relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love’, is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015. Both the journalist who wrote the article on Dana’s story and Dana herself working as part of the game’s editorial team (Le Monde, 2015). Developed by The Pixel Hunt in 2015, Bury Me My Love is a branching text-based narrative based around the story of people on the move during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Its main characters are Nour and Majd, a young couple from Homs, Syria. The player takes on the role of Majd, having stayed behind in Syria to take care of his mother and grandfather, while his partner, Nour, goes on to attempt the journey to Germany in order to receive refugee status there. Much of the game is based on three core mechanics which impact the outcomes of choices made throughout Nour’s journey: Time; the itinerary; and finally, Nour’s own variables of morale, budget, her relationship with Majd, and what she has or does not have on her person in key moments. With this expansive and branching narrative, there are 50 different locations to go through and nineteen possible endings for Nour’s journey, with widely divergent outcomes.

See the Report