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I very much enjoyed Jimmy Maher’s thoroughly researched and thoughtful Digital Antiquarian article about the “Clean Wehrmacht” mythology that allowed for the publication of games like Panzer General, which invite players to imagine themselves in command of a Nazi German battle group—without a shred of deeper reflection about the ethical questions this raises.
The article addresses a specific question that has lurked in the back of my mind since last May, when Peterb of tea leaves, a fellow admirer of popular war games, asked it in a lets-play video about the 1979 computer game Dreadnoughts. “Can we say how weird it is,” he said, “that so many of these war games put you in the position of the Germans generally, but the Nazis specifically?”
I agree with both him and Maher that anyone can enjoy playing any of these games as intended without morally imperiling themselves. I believe that we humans generally seem hardwired to enjoy the drama and tension that comes from stories of glorious battle, and games’ ability to make these stories interactive—at a safe remove!—has an irresistible pull. It’s an attraction worth exploring, especially if we can do so mindfully of historical context.
I type this article using hands decorated with one of two wedding bands designed by Jade Moran, its exterior tiled in engraved hexagons. Lines and symbols variously applied suggest rivers, bridges, forests and buildings on a command post’s map. All this refers to how my wife and I played a lot of Richard Borg’s Memoir ‘44 when we first dated, intimately exploring one another’s head-spaces through these tactical tête-à-têtes. It never once seemed strange to either of us that one or the other would pretend to command an army Actual Literal Nazis, No, Not Even “Proud Boys Are Literal Nazis” Literal Nazis, Literal-Literal Nazis.
And Memoir ‘44, in the style of Panzer General and other popular games, encouraged this mental dodge: not a single swastika appears anywhere in the game’s artwork. Where the Allied player uses tokens decorated with French Resistance banners, U.S. Rangers patches, and other real-world emblems, the German player’s tokens have… icons of German helmets. The twisted symbol those helmets fig-leaf seems so flinchingly obvious, in retrospect.
It reminds me of how the concept of slavery remains a thematic bugbear in historically themed board games, whether used generally in deep-historical settings, or specifically about the chattel-trade and forced labor of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Memoir ‘44’s direct predecessor, the U.S. Civil War-themed Battle Cry, also dealt with this question by just declining to even mention one side’s desire to commit profound atrocities that lay behind the immediate tactical situation on the tabletop.
This sort of “negative-space slavery” exists most infamously in Puerto Rico—a beautiful game design, rich and rewarding to play, and extremely literally a simulation of owning plantations in colonial-era San Juan, with all that implies. Just as the WWII games hide away all Nazi-specific words or symbols, Puerto Rico tries to dodge the s-word by calling the tokens representing enslaved people “colonists”. They arrive packed into “colonist ships”, and then you set them to work for indefinite terms in your sugar-cane fields.
I have a friend who enjoys Puerto Rico but will play it only on the condition that everyone at the table agree to a re-theming: the game shall take place aboard a futuristic orbital colony, and the “colonists” are non-sentient robots who regularly arrive via interplanetary transport, ready for hard labor without moral queasiness. I like this approach, transplanting a beautiful game design out of an ethically murky history and into an optimistic future.
There exists another way, requiring less creativity, and one we can—and probably should—retroactively apply to all extant games whose themes bind them to uglier realities of the past. Acknowledge it and own it. This goes for the publishers and the players both.
Let those producing these games not shy from the worst elements of the history they portray: you don’t need to fill the Memoir ‘44 box with swastika-tokens, necessarily, but I would solemnly welcome a printed acknowledgment of the German’s army’s true aims, much as Maher suggests. The scenario descriptions in the rulebook could not just outline how a certain battle played out in history, but also imply the fates that villages in contested countryside would likely face at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, should the German army—under the command of one of the players!—succeed in repelling the Allies.
Let that profundity sit with the players, and let each one square for themselves the untidy reality of history with the delicious tactical feast that it has made possible. It seems healthier, to me, than the traditionally aggressive papering-over of the historical evils whose real-world practice inspired these legitimately fascinating tabletop scenarios.
A Puerto Rico player isn’t an enslaver, nor a Memoir ‘44 player a Nazi. But each, by definition practices an act of delicately limited sympathy for the sake of a good game, and both should acknowledge the line, so that they can tread it with all due care.
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