The limits of play

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Earlier this year I was tutor for a subject which explored the idea of genre, using books, films and plays about war for this purpose. One of the texts we read was Primo Levi's account of his time in Auschwitz, If This Is A Man.1 One of the sections I found most interesting was Levi's lengthy account of the camp's internal, unofficial economy, which used 'prize-coupons' (sometimes given as a reward, exchangeable for Mahorca, a kind of tobacco) as currency, which could be used to buy things like shirts or extra rations of bread. Prisoners (or 'Häftlinge') would try to think up new ways to get coupons which could ultimately help them survive even a little longer. All the trading in prize-coupons going on meant that their value fluctuated 'in strict obedience to the laws of classical economics'.2

For example:

Among the ordinary Häftlinge, there are not many who search for Mahorca to smoke it personally; for the most part it leaves the camp and ends in the hands of the civilian workers of the Buna. The traffic is an instance of a kind of 'kombinacja' [combination] frequently practised: the Häftling, somehow saving a ration of bread, invests it in Mahorca; he cautiously gets in touch with a civilian addict who acquires the Mahorca, paying in cash with a portion of bread greater than that initially invested. The Häftling eats the surplus, and puts back on the market the remaining ration. Speculations of this kind establish a tie between the internal economy of the Lager [camp] and the economic life of the outside world: the accidental failure of the distribution of tobacco among the civilian population of Cracow, overcoming the barrier of barbed wire which segregates us from human society, had an immediate repercussion in camp, provoking a notable rise in the quotation of Mahorca and consequently of the prize-coupon.3

It occurred to me that one way to better understand how this economy dominated the lives of the Häftlinge and shaped their chances of survival would to participate in a simulation of it. Start out with the basic daily ration and the clothes on your back, and see what chances come your way in the course of (say) a week to work, save, beg, borrow or steal your way to a profitable kombinacja. Balance that profit against beatings received and rations foregone. If you end the week a little stronger than you began it or even the same, you win. But if you are weaker you lose, for you are closer to becoming one of the drowned, as Levi puts it: those too weak (whether in flesh or in spirit) to keep fighting for life.

I haven't created such a simulation. But when I suggested the idea to my students, the most common response was revulsion, that this would be an inappropriate thing to do. I was a bit surprised: as an economic system we should be able to simulate it like we would any other, regardless of its horrific context. But then these were first year Arts students, not third year Economics ones, and the idea of simulation may not have been familiar to them. On the other hand they are of a generation which has, knowingly or not, been using simulations all their lives: look at the highly successful The Sims series, for example. Why should they then baulk at simulating life in a concentration camp?

The reason perhaps has to do with two words I've been avoiding up until now: 'play' and 'game'. I did not, in fact, ask my students if we could learn anything by trying to 'simulate life in a concentration camp', I asked them if we could learn anything by playing it as a game. Games are fun; the Holocaust is not something you should enjoy on any level.

It's true that simulations and games are not quite the same thing. Instead they overlap. Simulations are very similar to ludic (structured, rule-bound) games, except they aren't necessarily fun. (Clearly they can be, even the extremely detailed ones: witness the popularity of flight simulators.) And of course games are not necessarily simulations, even the ludic ones (what does noughts and crosses simulate?) So it was probably unwise of me to use the word 'games'.

On the other hand, fun is in the pleasure centres of the beholder's brain. There are all sorts of simulations which I don't enjoy but which others do (the aforementioned flight simulators, for example). Highly abstract and detailed simulations of the Second World War aren't for everyone either, including flightsim fans, but I've enjoyed them in the past. So there's no absolute reason why Auschwitz: The Game could not exist. The question is rather, should it?

If it can teach people something (absolutely, never everything) of what the Häftlinge had to go through, then I would answer yes. Call it a simulation (or a serious game, perhaps), and experimenting instead of playing, if that helps suppress the queasiness. But I think the opportunities gained through 'playing' Auschwitz as a 'game' would be worth the risk of somebody, somewhere enjoying it.

I'll close with a couple of other ideas for serious-but-seriously-offensive games:

  • Eichmann in Berlin. As Transportation Administrator for the Final Solution, it's your job to dispatch Jews to the camps via the railway system. You will have to navigate the Nazi polycratic bureaucracy in order to ensure you get enough rolling stock for your needs over the competing claims of the armed forces, industry and agriculture. Victory is determined by the proportion of European Jewry you manage to exterminate, combined with the amount of war production your camps contribute to the war effort, two goals which conflict with each other.
  • You Are Bomber Harris! You control Bomber Command in the years of its greatest power, 1942-5. Your objective is simple: to destroy as many square miles of German urban area as possible. Nothing else matters. Your opponents are the Luftwaffe and your own commanders, who insist on ordering you to bomb less important oil and transportation targets. You choose the targets and the forces sent to attack them. At the end of the game, you gain points for every German working-class house destroyed; you lose them for every dead Bomber Command airman. A positive balance means victory.

Challenging in more ways than one.

Edited: per Chris Williams' suggestion.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. To me a Holocaust memoir didn't seem to fit into the category of 'war' as well as most of the other chosen texts, but that's neither here nor there now. []
  2. Primo Levi, If This Is A Man/The Truce (London: Abacus, 1987), 86. []
  3. Ibid. The whole of this chapter can be found online. []

17 thoughts on “The limits of play

  1. Chris Williams

    Hmm... I'd make sure that yr Eichmann game point isn't quoted out of context against you some time down the line.

    Anyway - there's this article on the economics of a POW camp here:
    I would imagine (though I can't prove) that POW camps in the far east had the same kind of economics, sharing with the lager (though not to the same extent) the fact that if you played the market badly your chances of dying increased markedly.

    I've tried to get students to role-play "Let's start the First World War" but by personifying them as states rather than as individuals: they didn't think that this was dodgy at all. Which is interesting. Also it was more about acting it out from a number of different points of view, rather than about trying to get them to maximise their interests.

  2. Rich, interesting stuff, Brett - and thanks for the link to Play the Past. These are tough questions! I have a bunch of half-articulated thoughts around this, but the first thing that comes to mind is Brenda Braithwaite's game "Train" - which is almost the "Eichmann in Berlin" game you describe: See here for more.

  3. The twist with "Train", I forgot to mention, is that players don't *know* the game is about transporting prisoners to the death camps until they figure it out during play.

  4. I think this is something that the games world is still maturing through. There are some arguments here about interactivity. Folks like to say, in a game you are the one doing the evil and that changes things. I don't really think that is the primary factor.

    I would suggest that the reason we are uncomfortable with these ideas is the common cultural view is games=fun and so when someone suggests a game where you do terrible things people say, wait you want to make that terrible thing fun!

    If we get past games=fun and get to something like games=engaging then we get to a place where much more troubling subject matter becomes culturally acceptable.

  5. Interesting stuff. The biggest problem with simulation exercises that I see is motivation: students who are genuinely interested in the topic will often do fine, but students who are motivated more by grades (or work-avoidance) can be hard to manage and can compromise the educational value of the entire exercise. Do do these things right seems to take quite an investment of time and focus.

  6. On a similar theme, it reminded me of Stalin's Dilemma. A very basic computer game in which the player runs the USSR c. 1928, with the aim of building up the country's industrial strength enough over the next fifteen years to fight off the Nazis. The implications of what that involves rapidly become clear.

    Designed as a teaching aid, apparently...

  7. You see this uneasiness about the simulation of 'bad' things in games like Hearts of Iron, which I was a (pretty ineffectual) beta tester for. It was made very clear in the early design stages that the game would not remotely touch anything overtly to do with the Holocaust. Which from a public relations perspective I understood entirely - but I always felt that the prohibition lacked a certain logic. The Holocaust was, amongst many other things, an important site of Axis resource production and consumption, and therefore a non-trivial strategic factor in the outcome of the war.

    It was also hardly the only strategic factor to have reprehensible consequences. The German player in HoI was free to invade or not invade the USSR as s/he saw fit - a decision with 20+ million lives resting on it. Why was this OK to contemplate as entertainment when the Holocaust was not?

  8. Liam

    I can think of at least three different commercially available games computer and otherwise which "simulate" catastrophic nuclear war. I've played Defcon myself---it's in appalling taste, as the developers themselves play on in the marketing, and it's genuinely chilling.

    So it was probably unwise of me to use the word 'games'

    Do you think this is an effect of the English phrase? Other languages have different terms ie. French "jeu" and Spanish "juego" which have more of a connotation of an act of risk rather than play or leisure.

  9. Regarding the Brenda Braithwaite game, I don't see how the game is supposed to reveal deep truths about the holocaust. I would have thought the aesthetic design of the game telegraphs the subject to anyone with historical knowledge of the period (smashed windows? barbed wire? People in cattle cars?) This then leaves the player with two choices: either play it to 'win' (like the 'Halo' player in the WSJ article,) or try and subvert it - but the choice says nothing about the player's position on genocide, because the game is too shallow. From what I can gather about the rules, there is neither enough length nor depth to create a player's investment in it commensurate with that of a Reichsbahn employee in the 1940s, and so any 'lessons' taught by the game are meaningless.*

    Certainly I think your suggestion for the Levi simulation would provide far more insight than 'Train.'

    On the Bomber Harris game: Have you seen LBW's Bomber Command? He's on record as saying he wants the game to portray the full impact of the bombing campaign without sanitising it through bloodless victory points; I don't know what the current scoring system is but it's very similar to what you suggested.

    * I don't know whether having players invest more time in the game would create a greater sense of identification with the historical actors (insert caveats here...) I gather that the Wargames Research Group once ran a long (all-day? weekend?) multi-player game in which the task was to organise the resettlement of 'refugees' in the Welsh Valleys after some natural disaster. Only at game's end was it revealed that the problem was a disguised version of holocaust logistics, which apparently caused some controversy among the players; I do wonder what would have happened had the reveal been done half-way through.

  10. Heath

    An interesting contribution to the concept of games in education. I do like the distinction between a game and a simulation. Interestingly, this game was HUGE at the last school I taught at. "Earn points by killing humans" indeed.

    The freight of historical significance carried by the Holocaust also comes in to play here, of course. The Pandemic example above is not a real event, and is not ideologically based.

    In my personal experience, I used a basic simulation in the very first class I taught. I met students at the door and handed each of them a folded slip of paper, some of which were marked with a skull. I started the lesson by telling them that the ones who'd drawn a skull had just died of the plague. A small example, but one that did engage the students.

  11. Post author

    I think this post has garnered the most insightful comments in the shortest space of time of any on this blog! Thank you all.

    Chris (and Jonathan):

    Ah... I see what you mean, thanks!

    I've played in a somewhat similar role-playing exercise as a student -- the subject was the US decision to use the atomic bomb (I was Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew and I nailed the part!) And similarly, nobody seemed to think this was ghoulish. (I think Jonathan is right about the amount of preparation by participants to make such an exercise a success.)


    Oh yes, I remember hearing about Train now. Maybe it inspired me! :) The bait-and-switch is interesting. It emphasises that there's nothing about the mechanics of the game which is troubling (and, well, it's hard to see how there could be), it's what it is supposed to represent. There are already railway management simulations of all types (from model railways to Railway Tycoon to real-world train control trainers) and like Train, Eichmann in Berlin could leverage off one of these.


    Yes, I think the 'fun problem' is key. I did manage to sway some of my students by noting that we already game all sorts of violent and dark acts (eg WWII first person shooters). And we read books and watch films about the Holocaust and in part these can be for entertainment: that is there is the possibility of fun. I don't recall being stopped from bringing popcorn into Schindler's List.


    Thanks, yes, that looks like the sort of thing I'm thinking of!


    That reminds me of Colonization leaving out slavery (see tjowen's post). Your point about the invasion of the USSR being acceptable to include but not the Holocaust is roughly where I started thinking about this: there are things which wargames include as goals and motivations etc but they don't always correspond to historical ones. Hence my Bomber Harris game -- pretty much his only measure of success was the creation of rubble, but very few air warfare games let you look at like this, in my experience. And I can't think of any WWII strategic game which includes the Holocaust. Such things have been excised from war in the version of it presented by wargames.

    Liam and Heath:

    I think it's definitely a lot easier for players to come at megadeath-scale games if they're put into a fantastic or hypothetical context as with both of your examples. (And yes, games about nuclear war can tend to black humour, though there are also serious games like the Warplan: Dropshot series.) Again that's probably why some attempts to game the Holocaust don't tell players that's what they are doing. Which provides a shock and a visceral reaction but I agree with Jakob; I'd prefer to be upfront about it.


    I've been looking forward to Bomber Command but hadn't looked at how it's coming along recently. That map at your link of a German city divided up into target areas such as residential, factories and so on is exactly what I'd like to see!

  12. Mainstream commercial games have gone through a significant evolution to the point that many give the player the choice to play in a moral, or immoral fashion - whether the game be the latest iteration of Civilization, Spore, or a darker game like Bioshock.

    For an upcoming game that does indeed encourage the player to contemplate mass murder, see FATE OF THE WORLD, and the following articles:

  13. Neil Datson

    Interesting post and comments. I've nothing much to add. The only such game I've ever played was 'Stalingrad' - in my undergraduate days. That was in the days when 'game' meant 'board game', and not something that shrieked at you in unearthly tones.

    However, the young man who generally played Hitler to my Stalin did come up with the notion of marketing a board game called 'Genocide.' Its main object was the elimination of minorities by competing European countries, who had to race to get their filthy work done before the entry of the US, or 'hypocrisy' card. Like Eichmann in Berlin, not well suited to the mass market.

    There's a charming bit about the operation of a closed market in that excellent book 'Anyone here been Raped and Speaks English?' in which (as far as I recollect) Behr describes how Monopoly money will do as well as any other tokens in the right circumstances.

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