About Jewish Stereotypes And Video Games...

About Jewish Stereotypes And Video Games...

There aren't a lot of Jews in video games. This is something I've always found interesting — considering the disproportionate number of Jews in the world of film and television — but not particularly unusual. Jews make up less than 0.2 per cent of the world's population, so it only makes sense that we'd be in less than 0.2 per cent of the world's video games.

Still, as a self-identified "pretty big Jew" who, like many Jews, both mocks and cherishes his culture, I've found a lot of resonance in games like The Shivah, the point-and-click adventure about a struggling rabbi. Less so with B. J. Blazkowicz, although there's always something special about mowing down Nazis. And I've always wanted to see more games explore issues in Judaism: there's a veritable smorgasbord of topics worth discussing, from intermarriage to assimilation to the difficulties of maintaining a Jewish identity in a very non-Jewish culture.

So when I saw game designer Dean Evans — the creative director of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon — poke fun at Jewish stereotypes in an article on Polygon today, I took notice. Don't get me wrong — I like jokes about Jews. I make them often. South Park is my favourite TV show. Yet...

To excerpt from Polygon:

Evans' second big pitch, which he acknowledges was "incredibly offensive," was for an adventure game called So Jew Wanna Be a Thief? by a fake company named "Jewbisoft." Players would be put into the role of a misunderstood Hasidic Jewish man who snuck around stealing things.

"People think he's a thief and they say, 'Oh he's just stealing shit, Jews, all about his money,' but that's not it at all," Evans explained. "He's got a serious problem, he's got kleptomania."

For context: Evans pitched this game during Ubisoft's "Design Academy," a retreat for game developers held by the publisher behind games like Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. He's talking about the experience now.

Polygon continues:

Despite the game's questionable name and content, its stealth mechanics were serious. The game's inventory system would have been similar to that of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, with all items laid out on a grid, but with a strategic element to their organisation. Players would have to be careful what items them put next to each other so they made no noise when they ran. For example, placing two bottles next to each other would cause a clinking sound that would alert security guards when running.

"I tried really hard to get that game made and of course ... that's never going to happen," Evans says. It's not surprising that a major international company wouldn't want to publish a game that uses anti-Semitic stereotypes as a punchline — but Evans is all about challenging what people find acceptable.

This is... well, I won't pretend I'm offended. I've certainly made more offensive Jewish jokes — it was something of a rite of passage at my (Jewish) high school — and the "Jews sure do like money!" stereotype is so trite and boring that it'd take a lot more than that to get me angry. (And, really, who doesn't like money?) I wish the core joke was funnier, because the idea of a group of people misunderstanding and ostracizing Jews is a little too close to what's actually happened more than a few times, but it's not inherently offensive. Stale humour isn't a crime.

What bothers me far more than the joke itself is the fact that this is one of the very few times I've seen anyone talk about Judaism as a subject worth exploring in a video game. And the result was... this. Instead of imagining, say, a stealth heist game about a protagonist who happens to be Jewish, and maybe struggles reconciling his career with the rules of his religion, Evans chose to go with the easy joke — the stereotype of a bearded guy with a black-rimmed hat and payos who likes money but don't worry it's not because he's a Jew; he's just a kleptomaniac!

It's an easy joke because it lacks subtlety. There's no wit. Google "jew humour" and you'll find more creative exercises in stereotyping — and maybe a good starting point for some video game ideas.

Even if Evans wanted to be funny, he could have done so much better. So much better. The upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth has five classes: Fighter, Mage, Thief, Cleric, and Jew — and what makes that joke work isn't just the absurdity of having "Jew" as an RPG character class, but the idea that these classes are made up by Eric Cartman, a character so brilliant and pathetic and disgusting, we can't help but laugh at his schemes and ideas. When Cartman makes jokes about Jews, we laugh at how extreme and foul they are. We laugh at how bigoted he is. We laugh at the fact that so little of what he's saying has any basis in reality, and his nasty comments are grounded by one of the show's other main characters, Kyle, a normal Jewish boy with his own character traits and flaws.

In the case of "So Jew Wanna Be a Thief?", we have a stereotypical character — the Hasidic Jew, who represents a mere fraction of the Jewish population — who himself is the victim of a stereotype. There isn't much depth there. (I reached out to Evans this morning for comment, but he didn't get back to me.) We can't even stack it up against other video games, and indeed, this would be easier to ignore if the video game industry didn't already feel so parochial, but games tend to lack racial diversity. Game developers and publishers don't spend a lot of time speaking publicly about minority representations. There are very few Jewish protagonists in video games.

And, yes, we've seen Judaism as both religion and culture explored in historical games like Civilisation IV and Crusader Kings II, but those games aren't about people; they're about playing god. Jewish culture is filled with fascinating subjects to explore (and even mock) on a personal level, but that just doesn't happen very often.

So here we have a rare situation: a high-profile game designer speaking publicly about Judaism in video games. Yet... instead of digging into the culture of Zionism or bagels or assimilation or persecution or Jewish summer camp — which, by the way, would make the perfect setting for a stealth game — Evans went with the most played stereotype out there. There could be game ideas about so many interesting topics in Judaism, but this one is about a Hasidic thief. Even Cartman would find that boring.


Comments

    The game’s inventory system would have been similar to that of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, with all items laid out on a grid, but with a strategic element to their organisation.

    Argh! I want that game to be made just for that very reason! I'm really annoyed that developers have been skipping out on this system over the years. Was annoyed that Diablo 3s inventory was just a number of items you can hold.

    Anyways, who says we don't have Jewish characters? Does ones belief and sexuality only exist when they tell you?

      Yeah, someone else needs to take that idea and run with it now that it's out there. Perhaps even have an inventory designed as a bag as well, with pockets that hold different grid sizes and so on that are better for some items and not for others. Maybe take a cue from the mobile game Bag It! and have heavy items crush weaker ones if they are placed on top and so on. It would certainly make things more interesting.

    Great article!

    Yeah, this is offensive. Not exactly Rhodes Scholar stuff to decide to make a stealing game about a chassidic Jew.

    Velvet Assassin did it well. I'm pretty sure the female protagonist was a Jewish woman, and it was a decent stealth game.

    There are barely any Jews in video games. Apart from the 1.5 million 13 year olds on COD calling eachother Jews, as a put down. As a Jew, it's threatening and disheartening. Further, I had to look at a thousand swastika emblems in Black Ops 2. I complained to Xbox and got a refund on the DLC I had bought. Sad state of affairs.

      Sorry? You bought a game that featured Nazis fairly prominently and then complained about having to see Swastikas?

      Not that I condone the whole Nazis-as-enemies thing, not least because it's pretty tired by now, but there does come a point where you have to take a little responsibility for what you do or don't experience. I'm uncomfortable with supernatural themes so I stay away from horror movies.

        i think the poster is speaking of the user made identifier emblems in the multi player lobbies. there are bazillions of dicks and swastikas.
        edit: spelling.

        Last edited 30/01/14 2:28 pm

          Yeah, at least I hope that's what @pinbotz is talking about, and not something in-game due to the nazi zombies side-game or whatever. Because yeah, there's a pretty big difference between the two.

          I sure rolled my eyes when World of Warships removed the rising sun flag from Japanese fleets due to some shit-stirrers pretending to be hypersensitive hand-wringers, claiming they didn't want to see reminders of their horrific past in an appropriate historic context. In reality: that's really just a weak excuse to make another dig at political point-scoring in the on-going racial tensions that - sure, sprung from that - but not actual traumatic memories themselves... with the plausible exception of any 90yr old Korean video game enthusiasts. Which is, y'know... natural and human nature, considering that the entirety of human history is one long drama of Us vs Them written by the victor atop a mountain of skulls. It's a tad naive to think that it's only taken two generations of artificial, nuclear-apocalypse-fearing civility to suddenly override millenia of conditioning to be 'above that' primal instinct.

          So yeah. Presenting shit as it was, in a historical context? That's not stuff to be offended about, unless you identify with the 'bad guys'.

          But there's a difference between portraying (or just riffing on) historical events, and intentionally branding yourself with the symbolism of those horrors as some kind of endorsement, usually in a juvenile attempt to shock for attention. Or, occasionally - disturbingly - as actual (idiotic) beliefs in the virtue of eugenics for racial supremacy. That? Yeah, that's OK to be offended by. They INTEND to offend you, they'd be disappointed if you weren't.

          (Which brings up an interesting psychological side-effect of games and movies... I actually bumped into a card-carrying, hand-on-heart 'neo nazi', proud t-shirt and arm-band and everything, walking down the stairs in a building I was living in at the time. Some primal, subconscious instinct was twinging and telling me that it was actually my gaming/movie-conditioned duty to inflict harm upon this person. After all, Hollywood has been telling me since childhood that it's perfectly OK to kill Nazis.)

        Yeah I was talking about the user made emblems in multiplayer. Obviously the Nazi content in the actual game doesn't worry me at all. You misunderstood, badger.

          Oh, I see. Sorry about that.

          I think I also got the games mixed up. I haven't actually played BO2, but it looks like it may be less Nazi-rich than BO1.

    It's kind of funny Australian culture takes so much from American culture, to the point I probably know more about jews and Judaism from American TV and media than other cultures who are far more ingrained in our local society. I don't even think I've ever actually met a jewish person, while I'm surrounded by Muslims, Chinese, Koreans and Indians every day and know far less about their culture.

      Yeah, for such a small percentage of the population it's amazing how much we know about Jews from watching American TV shows and movies. You'd swear that they run all the major studios or something.

    Game developers and publishers don’t spend a lot of time speaking publicly about minority representations. There are very few Jewish protagonists in video games.

    Genuine question, how many Prodestant protagonists are there in video games, or Hindu or Islamic or Bahá'í protagonists in video games?

      Bingo! Most games stay away from religion or realism in general.

      Well, there is Assassin's Creed. The whole game was about an Islamic man killing the Christian invaders. I was always surprised that didn't raise a stink in the US.

        I think they said he wasnt religious and was born to a muslim father and christian mother.
        So they sat on the fence, probably because of what you said above.

          They also put a huge disclaimer at the start of every AC game saying 'we're a team made up of all faiths and colours, so don't try to say this is racism okay thx'.

        Altaiir's faith was to the Assassins Order, who while existing in the middle east, did not make use of islamic religion.

        And this is the crusades we are talking about, not many Christians are going to support what they did there. And if they do you wouldn't put much worth in their complaints because they would be zealots or the uneducated.

          I was under the impression that the Assassins were an Islamic group (Wikipedia seems to agree, but that's pretty much the full extent of my research). Altair seemed to become disillusioned later on, but he was at least initially dedicated to the group and its beliefs.

    What about the rest of the worlds religions explored in games? I think it's a bit narrow minded to say it's only the Jewish faith that is underepresented in games, when it's all faiths. This is a good thing, religion has no place in video games unless it's a historic retelling. I for one would stay as far away from a religious game as possible.

    The main reason there are more Jews in TV and movies is that there is a strong Jewish presence in the manufacture of those things. Less so in video games.
    For a games publisher their is no benefit in the risk / reward ratio for adding a jewish character. As you say the population base is low so catering to such a minority isn't a huge money maker. The minority is also well know for being very vocal about their faith and there is a high chance of the game being brand as anti-semitic if people though it was critical of Isreal or cross one of the other lines that upset people.
    This is likely to reduce sales as people don't want to be associated with an anti-semitic game, reviews are more likely to give it a lower score.

    There is no benefit for a developer to add a Jewish character to their game

      That and if they did, they'd be sued for it left, right, and centre. If anything untoward happened to the character as well, you'd probably see a lot of backlash about it being "anti-semitic".

    At least there will be representation in the South Park game, one of the playable classes was Jew if I recall?

    The only Silent Hill game that I remember having any kind of need for inventory management was Silent Hill 4.

    That is the strangest top-down picture of a toilet I've ever seen...

    Can someone provide a list, or even name a few games where the protagonist/protagonists were religious? Not just Jewish, but religious in any sense? I don't know any games that go into depth with religion except maybe in a historical context. This is a well written article and I understand that the author is talking about what he knows, Judaism, but it ignores the fact that in general religion is not an issue dealt with in video games.

      Religion (Yevonism) featured fairly heavily in Final Fantasy X. Kratos from the God of War series could probably be argued to be religious, given the context. There's been at least one DS9 game that deals with Sisko's religious role as the Emissary. The Witch Doctor in Diablo 3 could be considered religious, as could the protagonist from Painkiller.

        So basically... no. :)

          Final Fantasy X is an unambiguous yes, the others depend on whether you're casting the net for 'religion at all' or 'religion that affects the story'.

            Well, I think the context of the discussion - especially as the question was posed - implies REAL religions. Not made-up fantasy ones. (sic)

            The point being, no-one will touch them with a ten foot pole and if they want to get anywhere close to philosophical 'meaning of life' exploration will use a fantasy in-game religion to do it rather than risk pissing off adherents to real-life denominations.

      If you're looking at religion in general, one of the Gamespot guys did an interesting look at religion in video games. Mentioned specifically was El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron which had roots in Judaical text.

      Checkout 'EFMS - Religion in Video Games', should be first search result.

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