Today I stumbled upon a shocking discovery on Gameology.org, a website devoted to game studies. The article, “Charnel Houses of Europe: The Limits of Play” (1997) discusses a roleplaying game by White Wolf, Wraith, a game about ghosts, and its expansion set, The Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah, which covers the ghosts of the Holocaust. The paper, given in 2006, explored the nature of the game and its ethical properties, ultimately suggesting that Charnel Houses of Europe was able to communicate some information on the nature of the Holocaust, though was ultimately unable to provide an “authentic experience” relative to it. Sadly, “CHoE: The Limits of Play” is available mainly in video form, with character sheets below. The audio is poor, and some of the speakers are impossible to hear. It also cannot be paused. The second video has a sample play.
First off, Charnel Houses of Europe (CHoE) describes in its introduction the reason why the book was written. Quite simply, it follows the essay “Mi Yagid Lebanim: Who Will Tell the Children” by Janet Berliner, part of the book’s design team. In this essay, she laments the apathy of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors (and the world at large), stating that we should tell the story of the Holocaust in whatever way possible, especially if it is in the language of the children – “We must teach them through the tools with which they are comfortable”. For this reason, the authors of CHoE feel that the game is necessary in order to communicate that narrative such that it does not happen again. This is a valid argument that is supported by the curators of the Genocide Museum in Albuquerque. In this case, the medium of the role-playing game, which is about storytelling, further supports the goal of ‘telling the children’ by recounting the Holocaust through storytelling, of perpetuating the narratives of Holocaust survivors and victims through narrative.
What the authors of “CHoE: The Limits of Play” sought to do was analyze the game to determine its effectiveness and its ethical properties. While the game certainly has a valid and lofty goal, it raises several questions. Is it ethical to play the game? Just who can talk about the Holocaust? (Survivors? People who knew survivors?) What differences are there between talking about the Holocaust versus unspeakable and traumatic events? Then there was also the issue of familiarity with the subject – each player had variable knowledge of the Holocaust and Judaism, and that these ideas must be presented in order to play the game. The game master himself stated that he would have wanted an entire year to study the subject before giving it a play.
As a result, the play group entered the game with the assumption that they some failure would be inevitable; their question was to what degree. Their conclusion was that while CHoE taught them something about the experience of the Holocaust, they did not feel it was authentic to the subject matter – which in itself raises some questions regarding vocabulary used.
Reading several descriptions of the book and locating a copy, I am a little skeptical of its efficacy. For one thing, the book has far too much ‘comic book’ content related to the history of the Wraith universe, most of which I find belittling or are unable to accept. Wraith operates under the assumption that the ghosts of the dead (who did not make it to the afterlife) live in the spirit world, and that the forces of good and evil still battle within this shadow state in which they have constructed an entire culture. Ghosts can influence the world in minor ways, but only indirectly. This universe features powerful undead creatures such as vampires and the like, and here is where the game takes on too much of a Wolfenstein feel. The game also allows players to explore dark settings such as Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as dramatized locations such as the Warsaw Ghetto, raising questions about whether players are capable of exploring these locations – and if they will learn anything by doing so.
Where CHoE does seem to succeed is painting a realistic image of the victims of the Holocaust. CHoE recognizes that the victims were ordinary people – just like you or I – and that they had the same foibles, joys, and sorrows as any other person. Instead of an idealized image of the Holocaust victim as free from sin, it recognizes that some of the six million dead had done terrible things when they were alive – though this fact certainly does not justify their murder. In addition, the game also gives opportunity for addressing the nature of survivor guilt, which is present in many Holocaust survivors.
This game I feel relates directly to Gonzalo Frasca’s article “Ephemeral Games: Is it Barbaric to Design a Game after Auschwitz” in which he questions games’ capacity to respectfully address issues such as the Holocaust due to their replayability and the nature of the win/loss binary. Frasca postulates that an ephemeral game – a game that can only be played once – is the best option (something which seems to fit fairly smoothly with the role-playing game, in which scenarios are used only once). While Frasca does not seem aware of the game in his article (Wraith was not very well-known and was discontinued in 1999, a year before this thesis was published). Of course, Brenda Brathwaite’s Train also addresses the issue of the Holocaust, suggesting there is more than one way to respectfully present the Holocaust in game form. It also appears to have similarities with Carry, a game about the Vietnam War.
Perhaps CHoE also finds connections through The Devil’s Arithmetic, a story in which a young girl living in the modern era is transported back into the consciousness of a young girl who died in the Holocaust. By placing readers with a modern mindset into the world of a child, audiences gain a level of empathy. Similarly, by allowing players to think about the experiences of a Holocaust victim, CHoE might also grant players a similar level of empathy.
CHoE seems to have a decently-sized player base. There have been a handful of reviews of the game, but interesting enough, some of them appear to have never played the game. Ultimately, like Train, I feel playing CHoE requires a particular set of players who feel comfortable working together, and I feel should allow rewriting some of the description of the game universe depending on the players’ views.
In the end, perhaps Berliner’s comments about simply getting the message out are what is most important about this game. Here, the authors seem to feel a proper intent supersedes any ethical concerns that might arise from the game’s play because if even one person learns more about the Holocaust and the game’s message to let it never happen again, then it is beneficial to humanity that the game exists, regardless of how much the player actually learned about the subject. In this regard, “authenticity” is not accuracy of experience but finding truth in the heart.