Good Intentions Gone Awry: The Representation of Atrocity in Historical Gaming

For a conflict that’s not one of my primary historical interests, I have a surprising amount of materials related to the Second World War, from books to games. In the spring of 2023, I finally got around to playing one of the latter that had been gathering digital dust in my library. I’ve been a huge fan of Paradox Studios’ grand strategy games for years (my favorite, Europa Universalis IV, has of course made an appearance here on Concerning History), and so I had high hopes for their most recent installment covering the middle of the twentieth century, Hearts of Iron IV. I was ultimately underwhelmed by a number of factors that made the game feel lesser than its siblings featuring other eras, but perhaps my biggest disappointment was in how it addressed the rampant atrocities that took place during the war. 

Normally in games like these, I default to playing England/Britain for my first playthrough, but the British Empire’s strategic situation in 1937 persuaded me to perhaps play as another nation that would be easier to learn the ropes through. Having finished Robert Lyman’s wonderful A War of Empires not long beforehand, I opted to play as Imperial Japan, not least because I was curious how the game would represent the experience of managing one of the Axis powers and the crimes against humanity it historically perpetrated. The answer, I was shocked to discover, was that they were completely missing from the game.

As it turns out, my experiences playing Japan were not a singular occurrence. Not only did no other country in Hearts of Iron highlight its own transgressions, from the Third Reich’s Holocaust and other ethnic cleansing to America’s own internment of its Japanese citizens. This was not accidental; as I delved deeper on Reddit and other online forums, I found that Paradox had purposely omitted these events, along with other more general features of modern warfare like the treatment of prisoners, from the game as they felt uncomfortable with a game that would allow players to actively take part in such large and small horrors of war–in a phrase I saw over and over, they did not want to design a “war crimes simulator.” This understandable impulse may also have been influenced by more practical marketing necessities, as both Germany and Austria have strict laws against the glorification of the Nazi regime or any of its policies, which leads to the absence of any actual Party imagery in the game as well (bizarrely, nonfiction books and film are exempt from this law as education and art, respectively, but games are considered purely commercial for some reason). Paradox has even announced that any post on their own forums discussing these topics will be locked and taken down, likely as a precaution against Holocaust denial and other neo-Nazi trash.

The irony, of course, is that all these actions combined have resulted in a game where players can take on the role of the Third Reich–with Adolf Hitler still explicitly head of state–and completely ignore and connection with the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, or any other atrocity, the existence of which have also been systematically scrubbed from the game’s official forums (not to mention that soldiers never surrender and, when surrounded, are apparently slaughtered to the last man). In the attempt to treat these matters sensitively, Paradox has effectively erased them from their version of history (and I categorically reject the notion expressed by some that any such erasure can ever be respectful). What makes this even more strange is that other questionable actions like strategic bombing and nuclear weapons are very much present in Hearts of Iron, not to mention the crimes against humanity included in other games–Europa Universalis alone allows players to take an active role in expelling religious minorities, pursuing policies of indigenous extermination, and “converting” both the dominant religion and culture of provinces, to name but a few possible decisions. It would appear, as many players have speculated, that the studio was more concerned with the optics of including certain more sensitive atrocities in Hearts of Iron than treating atrocity in general with due respect.

The reaction of many to this unfortunate situation has been less than heartening, as well. Over and over, as I read through comment threads, I saw the sentiment that, as a game primarily focused on military affairs and grand strategy, Hearts of Iron really doesn’t need to include the Holocaust–a sentiment likely shared by other game designers, given the absence of atrocity from other games like the tabletop classic Axis & Allies. This is not only ridiculous, but easily as dangerous as allowing neo-Nazis free reign on Internet forums. For a game which requires players to micromanage national economies to the extent of providing for the construction of individual rail lines and manufacture of rolling stock and infantry equipment, clearly such a far-reaching program as the Holocaust should have a major effect on a player’s prioritization of materiel and manpower. In undergrad, I wrote on how the exact same sentiment regarding the place of slavery when interpreting battlefields of the American Civil war can play directly into the hands of the Lost Cause and white supremacists, and the same should be said here of allowing the actions of the German military to be divorced from the crimes of the Nazi Party.

So if this wasn’t the best approach to sensitively designing a Second World War game, what might be better? I certainly sympathize with not wanting players to be able to actively direct and participate in war crimes, and an obvious solution here is to not allow them to select the Third Reich–or any Axis power, for that matter–as a playable nation. This does seem to give the less savory actions of the Allies a pass, however, not to mention taking away that sandbox feeling that Paradox games are so known for. In that case, perhaps restore these atrocities to the game, but take away any player agency or involvement in them. If Hitler is still in power by a certain year (and yes, alternate history paths exist in Hearts of Iron), then unavoidable events are triggered that explain what has happened and affect players’ in-game economies accordingly. Along with this approach, I feel that a fuller, unskippable message acknowledging the historicity of these horrible events, their impact, and efforts to commemorate them would be necessary as well to demonstrate developers’ commitment to representing history accurately, warts and all, while also personally condemning what is being represented.

And yet, I can’t help feeling like these are simply better options, and there really is no best, spotless way of representing atrocities in historical gaming. A third option, of course, and one that in our conversations Heather has espoused, is to simply not make games like this at all. I will say that in researching this post, I’ve come the closest I’ve ever been to endorsing that position, but ultimately I still think that dealing with these subjects head-on and allowing interaction with them is a better, healthier approach, with all its problems, than simply not engaging with history.

While I couldn’t go into heavy detail on all the ways this subject is experienced in Hearts of Iron IV, I highly recommend that anyone intrigued to read more on the topic check out the following articles on the representation of the Third Reich in video games.

“Playing Hitler: The representation of Nazism in Hearts of Iron IV,” Johannes Aschim

“‘The Führer’s Facial Hair and Name can also be Reinstated in the Virtual World:’ Taboos, Authenticity and the Second World War in Digital Games,” Eugen Pfister & Martin Tschiggerl

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