The Name of the (Video) Game: anti-Semitic Stereotypes

Jews make frequent appearances in the free-wheeling world of contemporary video games, but almost always represent age-old negative images such as gangsters, victims and devious villains.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Although eliciting little comment, it is not surprising to discover that Jews pop up in a variety of popular video games, often perpetuating long-held stereotypes. Video games come in many guises, most typically as entertainment or education. What they all seem to have in common, however, is some sort of “quest” in which the player attempts to reach a final stage or ending by carrying out various tasks, which can include shooting and killing, solving clues, collecting items and so on.

In these quests, Jewish characters appear primarily in supporting roles, but in a manner that can be perceived as an unmediated – and generally overlooked – hotbed of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

One of those stereotypes deals with Jews, criminality and gangsterism and can be seen in such popular mainstream games as The Godfather II and the Grand Theft Auto series. The video-game adaptation of The Godfather: Part II presents Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, while the Grand Theft Auto series features neurotic Jewish mob lawyer and “comic schlemiel” Ken Rosenberg, who is modeledon David Kleinfeld, the character played by Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way.

In Grand Theft Auto: IV, stoop-shouldered Haredim wander Liberty City’s streets dressed in their long black kapotes. A subplot requires players to gun down double-crossing Haredidiamond dealer Isaac Roth who, together with other ultra-Orthodox Jews, runs the Jewish Crime Syndicate, a criminal organization.

Unfortunately, games that promote the hatred and killing of Jews are also in evidence. Left Behind: Eternal Forces, the game based on the Left Behind book series, promotes an exclusionary Christian theology propounding that Jews and other “nonbelievers” must convert or die during the End of Days. Even worse, in games such as Ethnic Cleansing, SA Man (modeled on Pac-Man) and KZ Manager, Jews appear in Holocaust-themed games as Nazi victims that players must kill in their quest to rack up points.

Appealing to a specific non-mainstream niche, this type of game is confined to the racist, right-wing fringe and functions as no more than an extension of the existing racist propaganda they already distribute.

A more positive representation is The Shivah. Unlike the other games mentioned here, Jews are the central characters in this rabbinical “adventure of mourning and mystery.” It stars Russell Stone, the rabbi of a poor synagogue in the Lower East Side of New York City, who inherits a large sum of money from a former member of his congregation who was murdered three days earlier. Stone’s decision to investigate the circumstances of the man’s death takes him on a journey across Manhattan to uncover the truth and reveal a deep conspiracy.

An unusual game in several respects, The Shivah is based on an old-fashioned 1980s-style 2D format known as “point and click” and lacks what some might call the sophisticated graphics of contemporary games. Furthermore, while players might “drive” and “direct” Rabbi Stone, they do not “occupy” him. It is not the players’ hand-eye coordination that propels the character; rather, it is their range of choices based on knowledge and intelligence. It is very much a cerebral game which, in turn, can be related to its Jewishness, and the widely held stereotype of Jews excelling in intellectual rather than physical pursuits.

Rabbi Stone is not an empty vessel; he has a past, he’s made mistakes and his choices are based on who he is. He also has his religion-based prejudices, having refused to officiate a wedding because the groom was marrying a non-Jew.

The game features a Yiddish dictionary (the dialogue is liberally peppered with Yiddishisms) and “rabbinical conversation methods.” There are various possible outcomes or “endings” written into the game but which are dependent on the player’s choices (this last feature brings to mind the old quip about two Jews, three opinions). Moreover, unlike other video games, in The Shivah, words replace weapons. Answering a question with another question is frequently used to propel the narrative forward.

“Questioning is the rabbi’s power,” says New Yorker Dave Gilbert, the game’s designer who decided to create it after spending a year teaching English in Korea where he met no other Jews.

The game got good reviews from gamers and received considerable attention in the press and many blogs, including in Israel, mainly because of its subject matter. Gilbert recalls that he “once got an email from an Israeli soldier, who told me he and his buddies were really enjoying the game. It made my day, to hear that.”

The reaction from non-Jews has been just as positive. They like the fact that the game doesn’t try to preach to them or convert them. As Gilbert put it, Rabbi Stone “is Jewish, it’s the world he lives in, and they accept that. I’m glad because I was worried that the non-Jews wouldn’t get it.”

So does this all matter? And what is the broader cultural significance of these games? Arguably, the game format allows for the production of an unlimited and un-limitable range of representations, in contrast to other media where notions of photorealism or greater censorship might apply. Potentially, the only limiting factors lie within the terms of the game itself.

This lack of limitations is boosted by the lack of censorship that governs other media. Typically, it is the responsibility of the game distributor or developer to decide whether a game requires a classification or not, but in the U.S. games fall under the umbrella of the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech. Games that are modified by gamers in ways that the developers didn’t intend slip under the radar.

Yet, given this context, it is especially interesting to note that in a genre that allows for an almost infinite variety of possibilities, and in which the boundaries of censorship and classification are neither fixed nor rigid, age-old stereotyped images of Jews – as criminals, as Haredim, as victims (in particular, Holocaust victims), as smart (that is, uncommonly intelligent, clever and devious) and so on – are still perpetuated.

Video games tend to stand outside of broader media tendencies. For one, they seem to exploit stereotypes in a more apparent manner than other forms of media. The often racist images in mainstream video games would be condemned if they appeared in other media. Despite their strong popular appeal and economic impact, the content of games is often neglected because online games are considered to be less relevant in cultural discourse and thus less subject to media criticism.

Do video games merely reinforce and intensify received cultural stereotypes, or do they also contain the potential to challenge and undermine them? While the nexus between video games and gamers is complex (perhaps more so than other media), games can be used to convey persuasive ideological messages since they’re about taking on an identity, inhabiting a character and making choices. But until research is finally done on the impact of games on gamers, we won’t know the answer to that important question.

Unlike film, television, literature and many other forms of popular culture, video games have not yet been identified as a ripe area for exploitation of Jewish themes, although there are Jews working in the industry. Perhaps this will change and the nature or number of games featuring Jewish characters will expand, bringing a more diverse spectrum of Jews to the video-game screen.

A screenshot from The Shivah.Credit: Dave Gilbert



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