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Resisting National Socialism in a computer game: “Through the Darkest of Times”

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Through the Darkest of Times
Through the Darkest of Times – Ein historisches Strategiespiel über den Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus während des Dritten Reichs in Berlin Paintbucket Games

Serious history or exploitative entertainment? Opinions are divided among historians and educators on this provocatively formulated question. It cannot be answered categorically. A commonly cited negative example for the genre of history-based games is Wolfenstein, a first-person shooter (FPS), the current version of which is essentially about players assuming the role of a US soldier in order to kill Germans and monsters. The ultimate goal is to eliminate a Nazi general. Older versions of the game were flagged in Germany because of the alleged glorification of war. Popular criticism is usually provoked by the NS symbols it shows. In my view, the problem with the game is that it does not provide a historical story structure. The story is therefore interchangeable and the historical account absent. It is no coincidence that Wolfenstein’s design is reminiscent of another classic of the same genre, the dystopian science fiction game Doom.

Released in 2020, the game Through the Darkest of Times takes a completely different path. It was developed by the Berlin-based company Paintbucket Games as an independent game; it is offered across various operating systems via the Steam platform. The rounds-based strategy game is built around a fictional resistance group organising against the National Socialist regime. Players take on the role of the main character in the group. The action begins with the National Socialists’ assumption of power and ends with the military defeat of Nazi Germany. The story is divided into four chapters, set respectively in 1933, in 1936 against the backdrop of the Olympic Games, in 1941 at the beginning of the German attack on the Soviet Union, and from the end of 1944 until the military defeat. The action takes place largely in Berlin. A map of the city serves as the starting point for the various events, allowing the player to navigate them.

Ingolf Seidel an editor and project manager of the educational portal Lernen aus der Geschichte at the Agentur für Bildung – Geschichte, Politik und Medien e.V., and also works as a freelancer in historical and political education. Translated by Kate Davison and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The main player can take on different characters at the start of the game. The spectrum of characters ranges from anarchists, social democrats, communists, and moderate liberals to Christian liberals, Catholic conservatives, and monarchists. In addition, these characters belong to different professional groups. The resistance group can have a similarly heterogeneous composition, and the combination of characters within the group influences the course of the game—for example, a communist protagonist will be arrested at short notice after the Reichstag fire—however, the overall course of the story itself cannot be changed by the players. In this way, the core historical narrative is preserved. The resistance group tries to organize larger and smaller actions against the Nazi state, to collect money, to paint slogans on walls, to distribute leaflets, to hide Jews and other persecuted people, and to carry out espionage, but also to carry out attacks and, in the final phase, to disarm Volkssturm units. Some of these are based on real historical examples such as the Schulze-Boysen/Harnack Group, to this day still better known under their Gestapo name Rote Kapelle (Red Chapel). The largely failed arson attack on 18 May 1942 organized by the Jewish-Communist Herbert Baum Group against the anti-communist exhibition “The Soviet Paradise” in Berlin’s Lustgarten also serves as a reference for one of the game’s tasks.

In each round, players click their way through text-based scene descriptions, making different kinds of decisions. The scenes vary and complement each other in terms of their functions; they form the core content of the game. At these points, the players receive in-depth factual information about National Socialism and its crimes. The second chapter, for example, addresses the so-called “gypsy camp” in Berlin and the Nazis’ pseudo-medical measurements of Sinti and Roma people. Although not explicitly named, Robert Ritter—the then head of the Rassenhygienischen Forschungsstelle (Racial Hygiene Research Centre), who was notorious for his studies of “gypsies”—and his assistant Eva Justin appear in one of the scenes. Another topic addressed in this chapter is the function of the 1936 Olympics as an ideological event with which the Nazi regime—successfully—sought international recognition. The scenes may also have a strategic significance for the resistance cell; for example, it must be decided whether a member should pilfer and stash medication for the group. Another feature involves political decisions, such as whether the group should provide intelligence to the Soviet Union, the British or the US Allies, and if so how. Many of the possible options have an essentially moral character, such as when the security of the cell has to be weighed against helping others. Such dilemmas are one of the game’s unique strengths. They offer occasions for self-reflection, which undermines the potential for unquestioned heroization of acts of resistance. In addition, dealing with the different forms of resistance shows players that resistance was actually possible, even under the conditions of the Nazi state.

Another special feature of Through the Darkest of Times is the expressionist graphic artwork, which makes an obvious nod to Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel Maus. The style of the game counteracts what is often considered “overpowering” in (historical) political education. Unlike games that strive for the highest possible visual authenticity, in order to draw the players as intensely as possible into the plot, here the graphic style permits distance from the characters and the story. In addition, stereotyping is avoided, especially when depicting relatives of minority groups persecuted by the Nazis.

(Kopie 13)

Paintbucket Games

In October 2019 I had the opportunity to play through the first chapter of Through the Darkest of Times and sound out its possibilities in two workshops for the Frankfurt-based Studienkreis Deutscher Widerstand 1933–1945 (Study Group on the German Resistance), one with university students training to be history teachers and one with students in their final two years of high school. A laptop was made available for each participant in the seminar room, so that they could play individually. Both workshop groups were able to get into the game very quickly. One difference was particularly noticeable in their communication behaviour during the game phase. While the trainee teachers largely acted on their own throughout the workshop, after a while the high school students began to engage in mutual communication, at first mainly with their immediate neighbours, but gradually also within the broader group. The exchange tended to revolve around tactical questions, but content-related issues were also addressed. In the subsequent discussion of the game, there was agreement in both groups that it is not a substitute for classic forms of learning, but it could be an interesting entry point and a supplement to school lessons. One youngster said of his own accord that he “clicked through” to win as quickly as possible. Even so, he was still unable to avoid the historical content and unlike other games it was impossible to skip over it. This statement suggests that the narrative complexity of Through the Darkest of Times comes very close to that of the analogue text book. Theoretically, the text passages of the scenes can be read quickly, indeed they can be skimmed over. However, the content of the passages forms the basis for advancing and deciding on one of the options offered. A page from a traditional book that has been merely glimpsed or turned too quickly leaves comparable gaps in knowledge. In addition, making a decision in one of the dilemmas set up by the game is imperative for continuing to play. The players must therefore continue to make moral decisions for the game to continue.

An interesting aspect of the game lies in the fact that it is clearly based on a pedagogical attitude focused on history teaching and learning. However, neither historians nor educators were directly involved in the game’s development. Experts were nevertheless consulted for advice, said Jörg Friedrich from Paintbucket Games in a preliminary discussion. The positive effect of this is that Through the Darkest of Times sticks to its genre. It realistically tells history without insisting on “authenticity”—a concept that in any case must be viewed critically in the context of history—and enables a change of perspective through the different game characters. At the same time, it enables players to grasp the constructed nature of every historical narrative.