Fernández, Iván Escobar. (2023). “COMTOG Report: ‘My Memory of Us’ — Boosting Historical Memory Through Implicit Visual Metaphors.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 3, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0037
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 that has been divided into two parts: one for Jews and one for non-Jews. The game features hand-drawn art, puzzle-solving, and stealth elements, as well as 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 that tells a story of friendship, love, and survival during a war.
By Iván Escobar Fernández*
Collective memory has been approached by scholars in two main ways. One definition, put forth by Olick (1999), views collective memory as the symbols that are publicly accessible and maintained by society. On the other hand, other researchers have defined collective memory as the collection of individual memories shared among members of a community that contribute to the formation of the community’s collective identity (see Hirst & Manier, 2008 and Wertsch & Roediger, 2008). Indeed, Collective Memory plays a crucial role in contemporary societies, not only in forging individuals’ and nations’ identities (see Sierp, 2014) but also in shaping states’ foreign and security policies (Rosoux, 2019: 194). In any case, despite being defined and addressed differently, what can be seen in the existing literature is that there is a rich pluralism of mnemonic devices individuals and collectivities use to remember the past (Conway, 2010).
The rich diversity of mnemonic devices used by individuals and organizations highlights the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing Collective Historical Memory (see Erll, 2022). According to the literature, it can be approached in two ways: explicitly, through the conscious and official creation of memorials, monuments, sculptures, and festivities, among others, and implicitly, by using visual symbols without directly referencing historical facts and dates (see Erll, 2022; Trodd, 2013; Keifer-Boyd et al., 2007; Schacter, 1987). This latter approach, known as implicit memory, can take different pathways, such as visual history or visual culture, which underscores the significant role that visual artefacts such as paintings, photographs, films, and video games play in shaping our perception of the past (Keifer-Boyd et al., 2007), or national narratives, which exalts some particular events or facts in order to create unconscious feelings and stories among the society (Erll, 2022). Nonetheless, approaching Collective Historical Memory as a visual subject has not been free of criticisms since it has been argued that it can lead to Manichean narratives and banalize the evil, thus distorting memory, decontextualizing suffering, and disassembling it from history (Ibrahim, 2009).
Regarding the relationship between video games and Historical Collective Memory, the formers have become an important tool for exploring and shaping the latter through visual culture and national narratives. As interactive experiences, video games allow players to engage with historical events and characters in ways that are more immersive and personal than other forms of media. Moreover, the visual elements of video games, such as character designs and environments, can play a significant role in how players perceive, recreate, and remember history (see Lee & Probert, 2010; Parks, 2008). Furthermore, it is believed that video games can reflect and reinforce national narratives, perpetuating dominant interpretations of historical events and shaping the Collective Memory of society, playing a key role in preserving, challenging, and/or shaping how we understand and remember the past (Chapman, 2016).
The aim of the report is to analyze video games that tackle historical events from an implicit perspective and explore the potential impact of such games on historical awareness and preservation. Through the examination of a case study, namely “My Memory of Us”, the report will evaluate whether they can effectively raise awareness of historical events and promote the preservation of historical memory. The implicit approach of the games will be considered as a means to engage players and encourage them to learn about historical events in a more interactive and immersive way. Ultimately, the report aims to determine whether video games can be an effective tool for educating players about the history and contributing to historical preservation efforts.
To determine if utilizing visual metaphors in video games can enhance historical collective memory without explicitly referencing specific historical facts and dates, we interviewed four experts on the subject. Jakub Jablonski is the co-owner and co-founder, art director, and creative director of Juggler Games. 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. David Kirschner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Human Services and Cultural Studies at Georgia Gwinnett College. Wojciech Soczewica is the Chief Executive Officer of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.
It is worth reminding that the aim of this branch of the COMTOG Project was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of using video games to approach Collective Historical Memory from an implicit perspective. In sum, after conducting the semi-structured interviews, all four interviewees agreed that video games could be an effective tool in boosting Collective Historical Memory. However, there are some considerations that must be pointed out.
During the interviews, both game developers, Jakub Jablonski and Lukasz Janczuk, unanimously stressed the importance of video games as a learning tool and as a medium for inspiring people and opening up avenues for further discussion. Beyond being a product meant for entertainment, they believe that video games have the power to spark imagination and creativity in players, as well as encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Additionally, they have argued that video games can be used to explore complex themes and issues in a way that is engaging and accessible to a wide audience. In their point of view, video games can make players start asking questions about past and contemporary complex issues, thus opening the floor for further discussions and boosting players’ interest in the topic. In this same line, Dr Kirschner argued that games could be a priceless learning tool not only for younger generations but for all cohorts in society, being able to teach not only historical facts and events but also reasoning through experience.
On the other hand, Wojciech Soczewica showed some concerns regarding the usefulness and applicability of video games in addressing traumatic past events like the Holocaust. Although he stressed the importance of integrating new technologies and strategies in preserving Collective Historical Memory, he mentioned that there are several ethical considerations to be borne in mind when reconstructing such a traumatic past, even digitally. In his opinion, in order for video games to properly address the past and therefore preserve Collective Historical Memory, they should focus on education rather than on entertainment. Without disagreeing with Soczewica’s statement, Dr Kirschner emphasized the necessity of integrating guidance from a teacher or professor when using video games for educational purposes. By doing so, some of the weaknesses involved in implicitly conveying historical facts through video games and visual metaphors can be overcome, thereby enhancing their potential as learning tools. This view was also shared by the creators of the game, Jakub Jablonski and Lukasz Janczuk, who argued that video games can be used for educational purposes but not in isolation. Specifically, both Jablonski and Janczuk emphasized that, while presenting "My Memory of Us" to audiences around the world, they encountered some players from different countries, especially the United States, who could not make a connection between the visual metaphors used in the game and the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of Poland. This underscores the importance of integrating guidance from an expert, as advocated by Dr Kirschner.
Furthermore, all four interviewees agreed that individual perspectives are an important part of Collective Historical Memory and that a nuanced understanding of past events requires an appreciation of the perspectives of all those involved. This idea is particularly evident in the game "My Memory of Us," which integrates real stories from individuals into its fictional narrative. By including these stories, the game’s creators, Jablonski and Janczuk, were able to give 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 the use of video games to address traumatic past 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 as a way of enhancing our collective historical memory.
Last but not least, it is also worth noting that the game developers and Dr Kirschner put emphasis on the capacity of video games to transmit universal emotions and feelings that can travel across time and space. Beyond depicting historical events, video games also have the potential to convey emotions and feelings associated with historical events without explicitly referring to them. By immersing the player in a virtual world and allowing them to experience the narrative firsthand, video games can create a powerful emotional connection that other forms of media may not be as effective at achieving. This is especially relevant in the context of Collective Historical Memory, as it can stimulate empathetic emotions in players that can then be transmitted into the real world, helping us sympathize with past victims and recognize the traumatic nature of historical events as well as preventing future similar atrocities from happening. In this same line, while Dr Kirschner and the game developers emphasized the potential of video games in promoting empathetic connections with the past, Soczewica also recognized the importance of Collective Historical Memory in shaping the future. From a different perspective, Soczewica sees that memory and remembrance serve not only to honour the past but also to pose warnings and morally inspire us to take action in the present. By reflecting on our shared history, we can learn from the mistakes of the past and work to prevent similar atrocities from happening again in the future.
In conclusion, aligned with the existing literature (see Chapman, 2016; Lee & Probert, 2010; Parks, 2008), it has been found that video games have the potential to approach historical collective memory implicitly, and all interviewees agreed on the importance of video games as a tool to boost Collective Historical Memory. However, as some scholars have previously pointed out, some challenges, such as misinterpretations and decontextualization of narratives, may arise (see Ibrahim, 2009). We have found that by integrating theoretical and professional guidance, these challenges can be overcome, enhancing the potential of video games as learning tools. Furthermore, it can be said that integrating individual perspectives is essential to address Historical Memory implicitly, and this was emphasized by the creators of "My Memory of Us," who integrated real stories from individuals in the game’s fictional story. In sum, combining the power of video games with theoretical and professional guidance and individual perspectives can be a successful strategy to promote empathy and understanding towards past events, contributing to preventing future similar atrocities from happening. The main findings of these interviews are summarized below:
- Video games can be an effective tool for boosting collective historical memory, even without explicitly referring to specific historical facts and dates, but some ethical considerations must be taken into account when addressing traumatic past events and the emotions stemming from them.
- Video games can be used as a learning tool for teaching historical facts and events, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
- Integrating guidance from an expert or teacher can enhance the potential of video games as educational tools.
- Video games have the potential to create a powerful emotional connection with players and promote empathetic connections with the past.
Considering the increasing popularity and outreach of video games, their potential should be unveiled to prevent new atrocities from happening, as they can help foster empathetic connections with the past, promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and encourage further discussions on complex themes and issues, all of which can contribute to the prevention of future similar events. Reflecting on our shared history through the use of video games can, therefore, be a valuable tool in educating younger generations and the wider public, shaping Collective Historical Memory, and creating a more empathetic and informed society.
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.
(*) Ivan Escobar Fernandez graduated in International Studies from Carlos III University of Madrid (2020) and a Master’s in Humanitarian Action and Conflict from Uppsala University (2021) and is currently pursuing a Master’s (MSc) in Social Sciences and Human Security from Aarhus University. He simultaneously works as a research assistant at the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) and is a member of the think tank International Youth Think Tank (IYTT). Ivan is the chief editor of the international affairs magazine The Global Vision and has collaborated with different media outlets such as The Defence Horizon Journal. His interests range from geopolitics, international relations, political science, and democratization processes to national and international security. He also collaborates with Versión Original: Revista de cine as a film analyst.
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