[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
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.
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- 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.
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man/The Truce (London: Abacus, 1987), 86.
- Ibid. The whole of this chapter can be found online.