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.
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.