Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women and these women play games as well as men do.
By Anita Tusor*
In line with this year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” our first The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) interview not only focused on youth radicalisation and its platforms, contemporary antisemitism, online hate and gaming, and historical memory of the Holocaust; but closely examined educational, roleplaying games with stories about women in WWII designed by an international team of women and non-binary writers led by Moyra Turkington.**
The 21st century has seen an impressive and considerable evolution in the capability and popularity of gaming. With the expansion of its market, quality, and audience, COMTOG aims to uncover analog- and video games’ potential to raise historical consciousness. Nonetheless, the depiction of historical events in certain games has recognizable flaws. A common thread of criticism lies in the representation of war – most notoriously, World War Two – and how most games glorify conflict while neglecting the victims’ perspective, especially first-person shooter games (Glouftsis, 2022). Alternatively, some games avoid the mention or existence of tragedies from historical conflict. In this way, these games appear to contribute to misshaping and misconstruing the collective memory of the period.
However, it must be noted that a growing number of games published in the last decade have broached the topic of war and conflict in a far more nuanced and considerate fashion. These projects tend to stem from smaller game-publishing houses, where the artistic and creative choices undertaken by the game developers are often well-researched, portraying the historical past and conflict in such a way that does not obscure the horrible realities of war while remaining instructive but considerate to the victims’ experience. Turkington and her team’s project, War Birds, provides an anthology of games about women in World War II and a fine example of how to approach Holocaust game designing issues.
Turkington’s latest publication (2021) addresses game-designing techniques to bypass serious issues in Holocaust-related historical role-playing games, such as the potential trivialisation of the Holocaust or players learning to blame the victims. Game design challenges are exemplified through the description of Rosenstrasse, a role-playing game in which players adopt the roles of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans in mixed marriages in Berlin between 1933 and 1943. In our conversation, Turkington mentioned Rosenstrasse as an explicitly transformational game specifically designed to be a deep emotional experience. Testplays and qualitative research study with eighteen subjects proved it to be a highly effective experience (AJS Perspectives, 2019).
Historical Game Studies and Women
Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female (Guardian, 2020), which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women (Yee, 2017) and these women play games as well as men do (Shen et al., 2016).
Furthermore, there is an existing and serious concern about the toxicity of not only how and by whom games are developed but the player cultures as well, not to mention the marginalisation of whole groups of people (namely women, LGBTQA+, people of colour) (Wright, 2022: 177; Heron et al., 2014). Women often feel uncomfortable, maybe harassed or excluded from communal gaming spaces (Fishman, 2022). Gaming girls and women are more likely to hide their gender using voice-changing headsets than their male counterparts (Hetfeld, 2021). Abusive players face few consequences; female players are more prone to withdraw from playing certain games (Fox & Tang, 2016).
The gaming industry’s refusal and slow progress in addressing misogyny and extremism (Compton, 2019) have resulted in a dire report by the leading anti-hate organisation; ADL (2022). The latest survey shows gender was the most frequently cited reason for identity-based abuse. “In broader national movements, it is typically antisemitism that lies at the root of white supremacy movements; in games, it is misogyny” (ADL, 2022: 9). The concept of “geek masculinity and networked misogyny” (EGRN, 2021) shows similarities with populism as it is “being entrenched in heteronormative and patriarchal ideas of gender and sexuality, and is threatened by the presence of those deemed to be ‘others’” (Peckford, 2020: 67). Pöhlmann (2021) coins the term ‘ludic populism’ while investigating video games that undermine their own populist aesthetic and argues that video games can both reinforce and challenge the idea of a unified group of “the people” by using populist imagination, often through implicit or explicit essentialist means.
Live-action role-playing games (LARPs) may also utilise populist imagination, as well as perpetuate and foster misogyny and antifeminist hate speech narratives. Karner (2019) and others (Moriarity, 2019, PuzzleNation, 2018) stress that inclusiveness and acceptance of female players are gradually moving in the right direction. However, it is only possible if change begins at the game development level. Games made by women include creative, political minds who “can help break the tide of prejudicial game design and writing” as well as may enable “roleplaying to become the next stage of feminist storytelling” (Cross, 2012: 84).
(*) 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.
(*) Moyra Turkington is an award-winning Canadian larpwright, game designer and theorist with a background in Cultural Studies and Theatre. She is also the founder of the indie studio Unruly Designs and the leader of the War Birds Collective — an international community designing political games about women fighting on the front lines of history. Turkington is interested in immersive, transformative and political games, particularly in creating a multiplicity of media, design, representation and play.
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.