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Attentat 1942 and a New Era of Games in Germany

The historical adventure title is the first to feature Nazi symbolism in Germany after a ban was lifted last month

Published on September 24, 2018

On August 8, Germany’s video game classification board, the USK, announced that they would be lifting their blanket ban on Nazi imagery in video games. This follows a decision by the Attorney General in May to not pursue prosecution in a case concerning a browser game that depicted Swastikas along with a further statement that video games should be given the same legal protections as other types of art. By coincidence, the team behind the historical adventure game, Attentat 1942, was just about to finish their German translation of their game. Initially released in late 2017, they submitted Attentat — chock full of Nazi imagery from the archival photos and film that they use — not fully understanding the complexities of Germany’s censorship laws themselves. A month later, it became the first PC game with Nazi imagery to be released in Germany post-ban.

Attentat 1942’s developers at Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences weren’t purposefully trying to snag the first spot in line after the news was announced, but after playing the game, I think there’s something gorgeously fitting about the fact that this small, thoughtful title will lead to a new era in the country.

Developed initially as only one of three games about contemporary Czechoslovak history, Attentat’s story places you in the Czech Republic in 2001. As your grandfather lays ill in a hospital bed, you embark on a mission to learn more about his life under Nazi occupation, his arrest by Gestapo agents, and time spent in a concentration camp. Starting with your grandmother, the majority of the gameplay takes place within interviews with live action actors playing the roles of different relations of your grandfather from wartime. Requiring a glimmer of the strategy you might need in a game like L.A. Noire, you’re often forced to show a bit of restraint or subtlety during the interviews.

One interview puts you in a room with a former neighbor of your grandfather named Josef Málek who wrote for a newspaper during the war. From your grandmother, you know that he wrote articles sympathetic to the Third Reich and may have been the one who sold out your grandfather to the Nazis. After some hesitation at his door, he invites you into his apartment. Speaking to you in his living room, his tone switches between impassioned explanation and awkward apologia, telling you about the systemic way that propaganda articles were written at the time and the way that his writing was protecting the Czech people from further harm.

Throughout the conversation, you have the option to ask Málek, “did you collaborate with the Gestapo?” The question casts a shadow over the conversation and if you pick it, he will clam up and grow hostile. Your role is that of an after-the-fact historian — using interpersonal skills to extract the answers that may provide a coherent truth — just as much as it is a member of a family, urgently trying to connect the dots and learn the stories of your elders before they’re gone.

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When the team started working on the project in 2011, Lead Designer Vít Šisler said it felt like they were making a game about history. “Now, it seems more and more relevant every day.”

On September 12, 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech to parliament decrying anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments that are coming to a ground-swell in the country, taking their tangible forms in an attack against a Jewish restaurant last week and a right-wing march against immigrants on Monday that built in numbers to about 450 people. Protesters carried around signs with faces of individuals allegedly killed by immigrants, a propaganda strategy used against Jews in the years leading up to the Shoah and that should sound familiar to those living in the U.S. in the modern day.

Of the horrifying details concerning the popular support for fascism growing in Germany — like gangs of neo-nazis assaulting non-white people, they see on the street — some articles have zoomed in on the fact that police have identified six individuals from the protests giving stiff-armed, Nazi salutes.

These recent displays of Nazi symbols by malicious racists signal a pretty obvious need for German authorities to be able to take action against such individuals, but the legal delineation between these examples of bad-faith hate-speech and simple depictions of Nazism in video games has been complicated and tense for a long time. That was because although the German constitution makes concessions for “art and scholarship, research, and teaching” when it comes to depictions of Nazi imagery — the German government will consult with and offer assistance to artists and directors who create media about World War II — video games have precedentially been viewed as less than art. As digital artist Hannah Mueller points out in her 2015 thesis on German video game censorship, “what the German government refuses to do is include Nazi imagery in anything that could be considered a ‘toy’ directed at children — marketed on television, online, or in store in any entertainment context seen by all ages.”

And while Attentat 1942 doesn’t try to explicitly engage in an argument that video games should be seen as a valid artistic form, it does use its text to reinforce art’s valuable role at pivotal moments in history.

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At one point in the game, you receive your grandfather’s journal from the war. In the first entry, dated January 13, 1938, he writes about seeing the film adaptation of the 1937 play The White Disease. The play and film were veiled critiques of the Nazis, Hitler, and the eventual invasion of a small nation resembling Czechoslovakia that would occur a year after it was originally published. The play and film would go on to be seen by fascist officials as “dangerous.”

“How precisely the story expressed not just my thoughts and feelings, but the crazy times we live in right now!” Your grandfather writes in the journal entry. “And the mood in the movie theater! It felt as if the audience shared one mind, and we all understood exactly what the film was trying to tell us — even if no one said it out loud.”

The inclusion of his enthusiasm and invigoration after seeing the movie — preempting entries that describe his dangerous subversion of the state by forging papers for a Jewish friend of his — nods to the fact that art isn’t merely a by-product of the politics and conditions that people are subjected to. There can be a more complicated and less linear relationship where art inspires people to intervene in the course of history and change the politics of their life. Like the still nascent form of cinema did in 1938, video games should also be allowed to be created with the hope that the ideas it contains may prove invigorating to a necessary revolutionary.

“Personally, for me, one of the messages of the game is that it is our everyday decisions and behavior that create history,” Vít Šisler said. “Democracy shouldn’t be taken for granted and the time may come when you have to fight for it.”

While the project was originally conceived of as being about history, the team of academics behind Attentat 1942 are now ushering in a new era of gaming in Germany — an era that can be explicit and pointed in reflection over tragedy as well as resistance.

To celebrate the release of the game in Germany, Attentat 1942 is on sale for $5.49 on Attentat1942.com and Steam.

This article was edited as of 1:33 PDT on 9/24/2018 to correct inaccuracies.

Categories: Features

D.W. Wallach

D.W. writes about video games and how to cherish our moments with technology. D.W. is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Twitter: @gaiaonline420