B.J. Blazkowicz and the need for more diverse Jewish characters

Header image The most diverse Jew in gaming

For a series built around the deconstruction of Aryan bodies, it’s taken a long time for players to take the hint that Wolfenstein’s ubermensch William Blazkowicz is Jewish.

That hesitation betrays our definitions of Jewish identity as old-fashioned, and also reflects that the few prominent Jewish characters in games play into and reinforce stereotypes. While Blazkowicz is the most high profile character to break the mold, what does it say about games that the most diverse representation of a Jew we’ve seen is simply whiter than most?

To me, and every other Jewish gamer I knew, there was always more belief than not that Blazkowicz was one of us. Canonically it always made sense for a commando to hide his Jewish heritage from the Nazis — passing for a gentile, or in gaming terms “optional stealth,” has always been a Jew’s first line of defense.

Since Blazkowicz’s very Jewish sounding name and fervent antifascism weren’t enough to make it clear, MachineGames further loaded him up with Jewish signifiers in 2012’s reboot, The New Order, first and foremost by casting Jewish actor Brian Bloom as the voice of Blazkowicz. (Bloom’s first screen role was as a young Yiddish hood in Sergio Leone’s 1984 Jewish-American crime epic Once Upon a Time in America).

Fulfilling other Jewish-American stereotypes, Blazkowicz acknowledges he can read but not understand Hebrew and falls for a shikse. If that weren’t enough, Blazkowicz is sent to a concentration camp where he is declared the biblical judge Samson — literally an emergency military leader of the Jews — by the Yiddish wizard of Lodz. It was enough for some, but still not everyone.

Blazko and Der Fuhrer

This evidence was seemingly considered circumstantial, and didn’t offer the genetic proof that informs Western definitions of race. B.J. just looks too white to be of the “Jewish race.” European-descendant Jews, that is to say primarily the Ashkenazim, achieved whiteness in America in the 1960s alongside the Irish, Mediterraneans and Slavs. Jewish whiteness is typically only challenged by fascists, or when guilt-ridden Jews awkwardly try to shed it to relate to oppressed racial minorities. Compared to people of color, popular culture tells us Jews are white — but they certainly can’t be Aryan, the whitest of whites.

This fealty to the Nazi racial codes of the Nuremberg Laws is one of the two ultraconservative interpretations of Jewish identity that have wormed their way into the mainstream as our go-to definitions. The other is courtesy of Halakhic law, which states one must have a Jewish mother to be a Jew oneself, in a gross attempt to preserve a blue blood purity not dissimilar to white supremacist desires.

MachineGames denied us deeper discussions of this definition, however. When they decided to quash the rumors once and for all by explicitly stating Blazko is canonically Jewish – whatever that means – they did so by revealing his mother is Jewish in The New Colossus’ prologue, deferring to the definition most likely to sway non-believers. And it worked.

While the developers should be commended for providing perhaps the only positive Jewish role model in gaming, their decision to dissolve the “ambiguity” of his Jewishness through racial laws was a cop out to definitions we should outgrow. Would we still consider Blazkowicz Jewish had his mother converted from Catholicism? What if she were a gentile and his father a Jew? Would Set Roth’s opinion sway us? Or Hitler’s? Who does the Wolfenstein franchise define as canonically Jewish?

Zofia Blazkowicz

Before the developers answered the Blackowicz question with Halakhic law, the main challenge to B.J.’s heritage was his perfect white body. Blonde Hitler Youth hair, blue eyes, square jaw, subtle Texas drawl (ace acting Bloom), and hulking physique aren’t just incompatible with Jewish stereotypes, they’re antithetically Aryan. Combine that with an all-American (read: not-Jewish) heartland upbringing and Blazko seems every bit the Nazi superman ideal deconstructed to ironically bash the Reich. The term “Aryan Jew” is problematic, we reflexively reject it, and so we reflexively reject the blonde-haired Blazkowicz as a Jew. But the cat’s out of the bag, and our definitions need to change.

The subversive inversion of the white dudebro ubermensch power fantasy in Wolfenstein works because of Blazkowicz’s Jewishness, not in absence of it. He embodies something our racist definitions refuse as an enigma, both ubermensch and untermensch, though firmly in the camp of the drowned and the saved.

How did we get stuck with these racist definitions? All stereotypes are based in some historical curio then twisted into abomination, but they don’t propagate if challenged with more diverse representation.

Blazko the Aryan

Videogame casts are more diverse than ever, but characters themselves are often stereotypical or superficial. This is as true of Jewish characters as any other. Interesting stories are being told, but they’re all in the same stereotypical vein. We’ve seen nuanced examples of the Ashkenazi-American experience, but that’s about it.

The only game that really hangs its hat on obvious Jewish themes is indie adventure game developer Wadjet Eye Games’ 2006 breakout premier, The Shivah. By Jewish developer Dave Gilbert’s admission, the game, like its creator, isn’t particularly religious, despite starring a rabbi called Russell Stone. It is however very much about Jewish identity, with the drama unfolding as a result of the protagonist kicking out a member of his congregation, Jack Lauder, for asking him to officiate his marriage to a non-Jewish woman.

“Nothing is worse than when Jews turn their backs on one another,” Stone tells Lauder, demonstrating his Halakhic definition of Judaism. He views Lauder as a race traitor for marrying an Indian goy, who he believes is genetically incapable of raising a Jewish household.

The rabbinical protagonist himself doesn’t fit the stereotype well. To the unordained, Russell Stone doesn’t sound like a rabbi’s name, and his voice doesn’t sound right either, especially in comparison to his nemesis, the rich and powerful Rabbi Amos Zelig. (As if to underline the insignificance of names, Stone is voiced by Abe Goldfarb and Zelig by Joe Rodriguez).

Stone sees rejecting interfaith marriage as a preservation of the Jewish people, despite this lack of “concessions” as Rabbi Zelig puts it, driving the Lauders from his congregation and to their doom in Zelig’s welcoming arms.

20180515170003_1

When one rabbi and then another betray him years apart, Lauder challenges them both with the same indictment: “You call yourself a Jew?” Lauder’s Jewish identity isn’t based on Talmudic dogma or mother’s blood, but the moral underpinnings the religion aspires to. That’s a far nobler definition than the racial science of popular culture.

A month after The Shivah’s premier, a game trailer debuted showing a man in an underwater city trying to kill a little girl with a wrench before taking a drill to the gut. Nothing in Bioshock’s marketing would suggest the 2007 game would feature the most ambitious Jewish cast in gaming history. And on release, no one seemed to notice nearly every main character in the game was Jewish, perhaps enraptured instead by the game’s unique setting and commentary on player agency.

It wasn’t until 2015 that Bioshock’s top-billed developer and writer Ken Levine articulated to games journalist and fellow Jew, Michael Futter, what exactly makes the Jews of Rapture so plausible.

Levine is from one of America’s great historic Jewish neighborhoods, Flushing, Queens, and his Jewish characters reflect a lived experience. I don’t know if you could describe a game as grimly fantastical as Bioshock as being in the social realist tradition, but all of Levine’s characters are believable products of their environments.

Judaism doesn’t define any of these characters, but it does inform the experiences that molded them into the people they are. And that’s not just a good way to write Jewish characters, that’s a good way to write any character.

Sander Cohen

Andrew Ryan’s Rapture and its foundational “Great Chain” Objectivist ideology aren’t merely reactions of an American individualist against what he saw as the “parasites” of FDR’s New Deal, but the internalizations of a terrified bourgeois shtetl Jew of the Pale who survived Tsarist and Soviet pogroms. It is no accident the early life of Ryan mimics that of his anagrammatical and philosophical inspiration, Ayn Rand.

Bioshock’s other Jews are similarly products of Jewish identity, and even rejections of it. The gruesome Little Sister experiments of Ryan’s foil and fellow Belarusian Jew, Brigid Tenenbaum, are narratively justified by her time as the wunderkinder of Auschwitz’s Dr. Mengele, and Levine suggests avant garde plastic surgeon Dr. Steinman’s aesthetic ideals would be spurned by surface Jews’ reverence for the body as a temple.

“Tenenbaum’s a Jew. Tenenbaum’s a highly functioning autistic. Those are instrumental in getting her to that place, but a different autistic Jew wouldn’t have ended up there, because there is something about her and what she wants – her absolute adoration of science – to the point where she fails to see every other thing,” Levine told Sutter.

As comparatively grounded as Bioshock’s Jews are, they’re still of the archetypal white variety, and comfortably fit within the diasporic stereotypes constituting most people’s definitions of Jews: Eastern European refugees, Holocaust survivors, businessmen, doctors, New Yorkers. There’s not a half-breed Texan ubermensch among them.

Rapture's_Best_and_Brightest_-_1952_Poster

As much as all the characters discussed here have contributed to nuanced portrayals of Jewish identity in games, at the end of the day they’re all still white American Jews. Judaism is a vast ethnoreligious tapestry, but so far the only notable challenge to the stereotype is a Jew that’s even whiter than most stereotypes.

There’s no adventure game following a Mizrahi mother trying to track down her supposedly deceased son she believes kidnapped by Ashkenazi extremists in the early years of the State of Israel. No stealthy building sim of Kaifeng Jews illegally reconstructing their traditions under the eye of the Chinese Communist Party. There’s fertile ground to explore in the experiences of Crypto-Jews, Ethiopian Jews, gay Jews, atheist Jews, anti-Zionist Jews or even fascist Jews.

As Levine told Sutter, “throw 10 Jews in a bucket and you’ll find 10 different people.”

101 Comments

  1. Spuzzell says:

    TBH there aren’t many examples of lead characters openly being members of any religion.

    Its perfectly possible we’ve all played as lots of Jewish protagonists.

    • latedave says:

      I would agree, unless you count the census on Jedi of course… I’m really struggling for a mainstream game that bought it up, Assassins Creed I guess?

    • podbaydoors says:

      Fair point. Doomguy, for example, is a Scientologist. They’re also a genderfluid pansexual. It just doesn’t come up much.

    • Blastaz says:

      Yeah, when was there last an Anglican video game hero? I feel seriously unrepresented!

      • SirCoin says:

        What about Lara Croft of Tomb Raider, or the agent in Perfect Dark (Joanna Dark?)? At the very least Watson in all the Sherlock Holmes games is a confirmed Anglican.

  2. Grizzly says:

    And on release, no one seemed to notice nearly every main character in the game was Jewish, perhaps enraptured instead by the game’s unique setting and commentary on player agency.

    Guilty as charged. So thanks :) – looks like I have some reading to do.

    • Bing_oh says:

      But isn’t that exactly what is being asked for?

      I mean, the author is complaining about the lack of diversity in the portrayal of a specific group of people. If the portrayal is so good that you see the characters as individuals and not just as a stereotypical member of a group, isn’t that exactly the POINT of diversity…to see people as individuals instead of seeing them as black, white oriental, Hispanic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, gay, straight, etc, etc, ad nauseam?

      Quite frankly, I wonder if there’s much purpose to defining a characters’ background in most games. BJ’s Jewish heritage makes sense, because he’s fighting the antithesis of Jews…Nazis. But, would it make a difference if Doom Guy was Muslim? If 47 was gay? If Geralt was black? Probably not. If it makes a different in motivation or story, that’s great. Otherwise, leave it alone.

      • Carcer says:

        By and large though the important thing is representation. You are talking about avoiding stereotyping, which is good; stereotypes are usually harmful. That shouldn’t be at the expense of avoiding representation; it’s important that people get good role models who have traits they share, and generally that through media we get exposed to people who are not like us, so we can understand them better and learn to see them as individual people and shed the stereotypes. You can only really challenge stereotypes by showing people who explicitly do not conform to them.

        • Blad the impaler says:

          He is not talking about stereotypes. Respectfully, I have to disagree. I think you have this backwards.

          Representation of a particular race or creed is not a good thing in narrative thing when it is preferred in favour of good narrative. It may be present within the boundaries of narrative, but should never be placed ahead of it. We should also be free to consume and create narrative with representation of any particular set of humans. But it is absolutely less important – rather, it is of less worth – than good narrative itself. And we should not be told to seek it.

          That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek it – because that is how we learn and become more tolerant of others. But a writer, artist or any other creative individual should not have to ensure – or feel like they need to ensure – adequate representation of a particular culture in their work because it ticks a box on a checklist. That leads to stereotyping.

          I would argue this attitude diminishes our ability to grow artistically and culturally and often obfuscates the actual important aspects such representation is intended to portray.

          • Carcer says:

            I never said a particular work MUST include representation of X and Y. I’m saying that, in media as a whole, it’s important for there to be representation for everyone, not that at the individual level every artwork has a responsibility for that, but also it is fine if someone specifically wants to make a work to increase the diversity of representation in media. That doesn’t automatically make it bad; plenty of good stories have been written by people who were actually trying to communicate some other idea and simply chose fiction as their medium.

            I’m also saying that “race/sexuality/gender isn’t important for this character’s motivations, so therefore they should be a straight white man” is a pretty lazy way to write.

          • Blad the impaler says:

            I agree there, then. I just never think it should take precedence. Artistic expression is one of those rare things where the capitalist model works without imploding – if you consider good ideas to be currency and the notion of fairness to everyone to be arbitrary. Representation in this metaphor could be considered a diversification of investments, but not the currency itself.

            Aside, I also think that video games can’t truly be compared apples to apples with most other forms of art since they tell stories in a fundamentally different way. The best expression of this, I think is Rimworld. Those that try to follow traditional storytelling methods will almost always fall a bit short, since they’re constrained by the medium’s technological limitations.

            Boy, I thought too much about that. Have a wonderful day.

      • MiniMatt says:

        If it makes a different in motivation or story, that’s great. Otherwise, leave it alone

        I kinda disagree. A person’s religion, or humanistic agosticism, their sexuality, their skin colour impacts their motivations and their story. If you’re to write good characters you can’t just “not see” their religion/race/gender/sexuality, you’d miss vital parts of them.

        As Carcer notes, leave the stereotypes out for sure, but if we leave out the attributes that inform those stereotypes then we begin to lose some essential parts of characters.

        • ribby says:

          Why would your skin colour effect your motivations?

          • MiniMatt says:

            Because it affects your life experience. And your motivations are a product of your life experience.

            It shouldn’t affect your life experience, but to pretend it doesn’t won’t help one write realistic characters.

          • MiniMatt says:

            To put it another way – is James Bond black? Or gay? Or a woman?

            It’s absolutely time to write James Bond as black, or gay, or a woman, but write the character as that. To plonk anyone other than a straight white bloke into the existing films, writing unchanged, wouldn’t make for a race/gender/sexuality blind script – it’d make for an oddly clunky script.

          • DEspresso says:

            I kinda disagree, don’t write new stories for existing characters to be whatever, create new franchises with new characters. Start fresh otherwise the amount of Reactance created will far outweigh the desired effect.

            Like killing the Ghostbusters Franchise.

          • Carcer says:

            James Bond is a special case, because his actor has already changed many times over the course of the films, there’s really no proper established continuity or canon, and it’s already a popular metatheory that Bond has actually been lots of different spies, and the name is simply a hat worn by MI6’s top agent in the setting. Letting Bond be black, or gay, isn’t really a reboot or reimagining at this point.

          • LegitChamp says:

            It’s settle, Idris Elba should be the next Bond.

          • mac4 says:

            I could actually see that totally working.

        • Nolenthar says:

          You’re absolutely right, but as a game developer, you’re also antagonizing your potential population. Unfortunately, bigots are legion (and somehow seem to have a golden age recently) and by building character strongly (for instance making your main protagonist a ), you are at risk of having a part of the population upset about it and refusing to play the character because ).
          So you end up with diluted characters who don’t have a big believable identity or who are “empty shells” where the player can project himself and his beliefs inside it.

          Bethesda / Machine Games took quite a lot of flak for the shadow of the colossus. A lot more than they would have 15 years ago doing the same game. Few developers are ready to do the same, unfortunately.

      • klops says:

        I agree 100%. But still the main point of the article was this: “Judaism is a vast ethnoreligious tapestry, but so far the only notable challenge to the stereotype is a Jew that’s even whiter than most stereotypes.” That is a very good point and I agree with that as well.

        Then again, Judaism is a religion that covers around 0.2% of the world’s population. There are more Sikhs than Jewish people. How wide a picture should the media cover of a very minor group? How are the 15 million (there’s around the same amount of Jewish people) Senegalians, most likely very diverse group of people, depicted in games? How is Orthodox Christianity (~250 million) with its wide range of different followers depicted in games? And yeah, of course the role and impact of Judaism in Western culture is much, much bigger than the role of Sikhism, for example.

        I don’t know or don’t have a big opinion on this, but I surely would enjoy a wider coverage on “everything”. The article put me thinking. And rambling. Great article, thanks!

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          alison says:

          This comment makes a great point, although it’s a bit tangential to the article. I suspect the reason why a certain type of Jewishness appears to be overrepresented in American pop culture is because some of the most influential figures in early musical theater and (subsequently) film and television came from that background. It’s the same reason why people internationally tend to see Americans in general as overrepresented in global pop culture, when they only make up ~4% of us.

          In any case i agree that it would be great to see a more diverse lineup of characters and storylines in games. Although sometimes i enjoy playing games about “me” (or an idealized version of “me”), another big drawcard of the medium – and any artistic medium in general – is to explore the motivations of people with different backgrounds. Obviously at the end of the day we all have the same core needs, but as another commenter pointed out, ethnicity can be an important part of what shapes people, so showing that can really add depth to a character. In that sense, i’m happy to see any instances of openly Jewish characters in gaming, since i think gaming still lags other media in this regard.

      • Grizzly says:

        I disagree – in this particular case, Ken Levine wrote these characters with a particular backstory which is in part formed by them being Jewish (and as such, their experiences with anti-Semitism) which puts them in a light I hadn’t considered before.

        And I like that sorta thing, so I went ahead and read the interviews.

      • April March says:

        But, would it make a difference if (…) 47 was gay?

        I dunno, I always felt 47 was asexual and that was an important part of his character – though not in a healthy or representative way, since it’s meant to underscore his lack of empathy and humanity. Is it just me?

        • Heimdall2061 says:

          No, agreed. While 47’s attitudes and quirks have shifted slightly over the course of the series, one thing that’s been relatively consistent is that he’s demonstrated either a lack of interest in sex, or mild disgust or revulsion with sexual advances. Also, while he isn’t obviously very religious, it seems like it’s not much of a stretch to say that if he had a religion, it would be Roman Catholicism, as that religion and people related to it have had an important impact on his life.

        • Grizzly says:

          I’m not particularly sure if it underscores his lack of empathy, but is simply one of the results of him being created specifically for assassination.

      • SanguineAngel says:

        I don’t disagree with the sentiment here but I do disagree with the interpretation.

        I think the key to diverse representation is to treat everyone as an individual. But cultural heriatge is a part of individual identity, though this varies from person to person and when creating fictional characters there’s probably an art to creating characters across a broad spectrum of both heritage and personal significance. One man might highly value his family’s national heritage, whilst another might think little of it but proudly represent himself as a part of a different sub-culture.

        I also think that broader equality is not about not seeing nationality, religion, gender or sexuality but is about recognising individuals, treating people fairly and celebrating those things as part of who we are and where we come from. And sometimes, that does mean recognising cultural context when we deal with others and acting accordingly, respectfully. And sometimes that does mean recognising the limits of our own ignorance and of other people’s.

        • Bing_oh says:

          I think what you’re taking about is character motivation. Yes, what motivates a character in a character-driven story is very important…and that motivation absolutely CAN come from race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, and about a billion other things. If the story focuses on those motivations and those motivations are based upon the character’s background, then I’m all for exploring that diversity.

          However, there are plenty of times that those backgrounds are included arbitrarily and simply for the sake of catering to a specific demographic. Even when it comes to Bioshock (a game that I’ve played through multiple times and enjoyed the story immensely), I never picked up on anything in the writing that indicated that there was an inherent Jewish background to the characters. Maybe Levine wrote them with their “Jewish-ness” in mind, but I for one don’t think it made it into the final product. And, quite frankly, I’m not sure it really made a difference. Personally, I think the world that was created and the characters’ motivations were very well done, even without exploring their religious backgrounds…it may very well have proven extraneous to the narrative.

  3. fuggles says:

    People really couldn’t fathom it from his name?! Geez. If you can’t suss that, I can only assume you are still giggling at him being called BJ.

    • Mr. Unpleasant says:

      Blazkowicz isn’t a Jewish name. Imho it’s not even a Polish name.

    • Carcer says:

      Personally, all I got from “Blazkowicz” is “sounds Polish, or at least from the Eastern side of Europe”. I’ve not had the cultural exposure to Judaism to be able to recognise anything besides a quite limited selection of very blatant signs. I don’t think that’s a problem – it doesn’t seem like a particularly important skill to have. If someone’s ancestry or religion is relevant for whatever reason, I assume they’ll tell me.

    • Inkano says:

      Can someone actually explain this to me? He got his name from his non-jewish father and it is pretty much as Slavic-sounding as you can get.

      • klops says:

        If I met a person of my nationality with a -wicz ending in last name, I would assume her/him to be Jewish. I’d be very, very likely to assume right. It’s completely different from the more common last names here, and there is a notable minority of Jewish people with names like that. There isn’t any other notable minority in our country who have names like that.

        If I met a *-wicz in a part of world that had lots of *-wiczs, I wouldn’t assume anything.

        • Inkano says:

          Yea it’s kinda common thing in Ukraine (and with it in many other post-soviet countries), stereotype is kinda different with having more jewish roots, like Rabinowicz being derived from “Rabi”, with “-icz” slapped onto it. Kinda assumed that practise came from some other slavic (or maybe even germanic) culture where those kind of names are common.

          Oh yea, there’s also a thing with patronymic names having kinda similar “-ich” to them.

          • mac4 says:

            W’pedia suggests the “-icz” affix, and variants, stands for “son of” in Polish, and in a number of other languages, indeed Slavic at a quick glance: link to en.wikipedia.org .

            The Jewish connection here I can’t be sure of, save for “ben,” son of, being fairly common usage in Hebrew I believe. (Cf., the related Arabic “bin” or “ibn,” or indeed “ben.”)

            As for Blazkowicz, I’ve always taken it to mean something like blast-em-up-owicz, so presumably of an alluded American-Eastern European origin, indeed (if anything. Can’t say I ever waxed very philosophical or linguistically intrigued over Wolfenstein-the-original,* which is what I’m most acquainted with ;) It does bear the distinction of being the one FPS my better half actually enjoyed, and beat in no time!) Any Jewish component had completely escaped me. (Mind, English, or perhaps more specifically, Americanese, isn’t my first language.)

            Thanks for the article, these questions are always worth asking.

            * Er, wait, that would be Wolfenstein 3D of course, actually the third.

    • fuggles says:

      I will expand. The author is using a lot of modern perspective based on the new games. Remember that subtle naming (surname from father, mother was a converted whatever) was not a thing.
      Duke nukem
      Blaze stone
      Major striker
      Commander keen

      Unless the world sees it different the witz type ending has always suggested Judaism. I assumed it was narrative irony and this was when it was released, so I was roughly 10.

  4. Dewal says:

    “…at the end of the day they’re all still white American Jews.”
    And so are the developers?

    It was an interesting read but the answer to the last paragraphs seems evident to me.
    It’s the same answer to “Why is the hero always american, even when it happens in foreign countries ?”. An author often write for himself and for the people “close” to him, instinctively. And it would be wrong to ask him to write for others and could lead to others dilemmas (cultural appropriation & all).

    Americans make movies about americans, french about french and chinese about chinese (I’ve never see someone complain that Kung-fu movies have too few black people in it) and that’s normal.
    There’s exceptions of course and that’s great but we can’t ask it to be the rule.

    In my eyes, what’s most important is that nobody is kept from creating stuff and the demographics will do the rest. As more and more people of different races (and gender) gain access to the production of movies, games (& all), we see more and more diversity in them. And maybe, one day, we’ll see someone that really, really want to write about a gay fascist ethopian jew and we’ll both cheer about it !

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      Graham Smith says:

      The New Order and The New Colossus were made by MachineGames. From Wikipedia: “MachineGames Sweden AB is a Swedish video game developer based in Uppsala, Sweden. It was founded in 2009 by Jens Matthies, Jerk Gustafsson, Fredrik Ljungdahl, Jim Kjellin, Kjell Emanuelsson, Michael Wynne and Magnus Högdahl…”.

      • Dewal says:

        Wolfenstein is Swedish and the hero is white, blond and blue eyes.

        The other exemple, Bioshock is mostly american and the jews are “typical american jews” as described in the article.

        So that doesn’t really disprove me.

        Moreover, the majority of games overall are published by the USA, so it’s relevant that the majority of jews we see in games are “american jews” too.

  5. tidus89 says:

    OMG he said jew! That’s strictly forbidden in my Country (Germany). They had to completely change all the characters in the game, so that there is no hint to jewish culture or history. The government don’t like jews that beat off Nazis to be the heroes in their video games.

    • N'Al says:

      What the fuck are you talking about?

      • Carcer says:

        The German version of Wolfenstein: TNO was heavily altered, in both the legally required way (no swastikas/nazi iconography) and in not-legally-required ways. I understand it is rewritten so it does not actually have any explicit references to Jews. It’s dumb, but publishers tend to get so terrified of the German media authorities finding exception with their work that they go way overboard in the other direction. (German law doesn’t hold that videogames can be “art”, so they cannot benefit from the laws that are meant to protect freedom of artistic expression.)

        • N'Al says:

          I get that, and the government legislation is dumb, no doubt. Nowhere near as dumb as claiming the game had to be changed to remove all traces of Jewish culture or history, though.

          • DEspresso says:

            Well done in staying critical and not believing everything you read on the internet =) Faith in humanity a bit restored.

            For those curious here is a webpage showing the actual differences between GER/Intl. Versions: link to schnittberichte.com

        • Carcer says:

          Blep. I said TNO and I meant TNC. By the sounds of it TNC suffered a lot more from self-applied censorship than TNO did.

          • tidus89 says:

            That’s right. In the New Colossus BJ isn’t allowed to be a jew. They completely changed his and other chacater’s backstories. He is not called a “Judensau” (jewish pig) but a “Verräter” (traitor). What a great translation! Untermenschen (subhumans) are now Sklaven (slaves). A Säuberung (purge) is now an Evakuierung (evacuation).
            The scientist guy can’t have a yiddish accent. BJ’s mother isn’t allowed to have died in a german extermination camp for jews, because she isn’t a jew and because there were no extermination camps. It’s just great.

    • Grizzly says:

      link to youtu.be
      The changes don’t appear to be as extensive as you say here.

    • Psychomorph says:

      Germany has publicly so much paranoid fear of antisemitism, that even stating that someones is a Jew, or even so much as pronouncing the mere term “jewish” invokes a feeling among the broad population, that you’re going somewhere you shouldn’t.

      Jews are so protected in this country that it is almost forbidden to name their name. Complete self-censoring.

      It’s that typical German characteristic of totally overshooting. So much overshooting that it literally backfires. Germans…

      Makes me chuckle all the time.

    • WJonathan says:

      “The government don’t like jews that beat off Nazis…”

      But…did you mean…ummm…

  6. MiniMatt says:

    Commissioning this sort of article, the sort that makes me think, the sort I’d never considered before, is exactly why I come to RPS and occasionally (mis)click on your ads.

    Incidentally, UK peeps may be able to dig out on iPlayer a Radio 4 programme on the experience of Beta Israelis which was on a couple of days ago – can’t recall its name but guessing it shouldn’t be too hard a find with some googling.

  7. suibhne says:

    This is a great piece, especially in the context of a gaming industry (or cultural field – let’s be generous) where any conversation about “representation” tends to motivate vitriol and defensiveness.

  8. Voidy says:

    For a series built around the deconstruction of Aryan bodies, it’s taken a long time for players to take the hint that Wolfenstein’s ubermensch William Blazkowicz is Jewish.

    citation needed

    No, seriously. BJ is the face of one of the most iconic franchises in the history of gaming that has been going on for almost 40 years, and you think the players still have trouble figuring it out? The Wikipedia article (created in 2008) explicitly states that he is of Polish and Jewish origin, ffs. I’m not even mentioning his faux-Polish name and perfectly Aryan looks. These alone would have been a dead giveaway.

    Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to surmise that Andrew Ryan’s prototype is Ayn Rand, a Jew of Russian origin. Sander Cohen? Brigid Tenenbaum? Never would have figured it out without your help.

    All that aside, thank you for bringing up The Shivah. It sounds like it deserves more attention and I should probably get around to playing it.

    • Inkano says:

      Don’t tell me, you think it were created in 2008 exactly the same as it looks now and were never edited. Wikipedia article as it was in 2008 only says he’s “son of Polish immigrants”.
      His name being “faux-polish” is just cuz his creators were americans, since even in new canon he got it from his polish father.

      • Voidy says:

        Inkano,

        I stand corrected: Blazkowicz’s Jewish roots, although implicitly suggested, didn’t become canon until the reboot. Got a bit confused by Wikipedia’s version comparison system.

        As far as I remember, I always thought BJ was a Jew (even though I’m not Jewish myself). I considered his faux-Polish name to be a slight tip-off, because throughout European history Jews have often been forced to change their given and/or family names to better blend in with the (often antisemitic) native population.

        Additionally, a person of Jewish or Slavic origin being mistaken for a pure-blooded Aryan is a relatively common trope in the WWII spy fiction.

        • Inkano says:

          Excuse me, if i was too aggressive there, with internet i kinda got used to assume the worst.

          And this wasn’t just in spy fiction, there was some funny real life examples of that even in german propaganda.

    • LTK says:

      Don’t you think you might be the exception? I don’t know much about Jews and Judaism, and I doubt most people who play Bioshock and Wolfenstein do. I knew about the parallels between Andrew Ryan and Ayn Rand – it’s pretty much impossible not to have heard about this, given all the coverage Bioshock has gotten over the years – but I didn’t know she was Jewish. I never gave any thought to the other characters’ names either. I have no background in ethnology, so I probably never would have found out if not for this article, so I think it’s really valuable. It’s exactly what I want to see on RPS.

  9. Scrofa says:

    Joke’s on you, I can’t even buy any of the newer Wolfensteins here in Israel.

  10. DatonKallandor says:

    People have known BJ was jewish for a decade though? Like that was the whole point? BJ was always everything the Nazis wanted physically, yet the very thing they hated most. The irony was always a key part of the character.

    Are there people who also didn’t get the irony of the Nazis winning WW2 by stealing jewish technology in New Order?

    • Inkano says:

      Also, that’s what most of us want to be physically and if there’s any irony to that, we’re sure yet to find it.

      Same thing about technology.

      • Inkano says:

        Actually, if there’s one thing I really liked about story, it’s the parallels between Nazis and people who fought them and heavy layer of irony on pretty much everything. Kinda heavy handed, but BJ going into denial every time this gets brought up is also kinda funny.

  11. Discalceate says:

    I look forward to the game you are making about the Mizrahi mother, I’m not sure how a “stealth building sim” works (plenty of real world examples to base a “stealth drive the tank over the undesirable village sim”, odd it’s not been made) but if your adventure game is good, I might even look into that.

  12. Hoot says:

    No offence to the writer but unless the game is historical in nature, like Crusader Kings 2, where you cannot escape the trappings of some religion or other due to the time the game is set in, I’m of the opinion that games are not the best place to either explore, advocate for or present champions of any particular faith. I play games to be entertained, not to have someone elses ideas about faith and identity preached at me.

    Besides, unless you have an extremely specific case like in Wolfenstein, the religion of the character is usually irrelevant. Would it matter if Shepard from Mass Effect was a Buddhist? Would it mean give some further insight into the character of the Master Chief if he wore a rosary under his armour? No, it wouldn’t.

    • Premium User Badge

      subdog says:

      A huge portion of the greatest cultural and artistic works in all of human history are depictions of faith and religion. But yeah, let’s ensure muh vidya games never get to that point!

    • April March says:

      If you think exploring one’s religion equals preaching one’s religion at you, I daresay the problem’s on your side.

      I also suggest you play The Shivah, mentioned on the article. I suggest that to everyone, though – it’s a pretty neat game.

      • Hoot says:

        Played it and completed it years ago, it’s a murder mystery that just so happens to involve Jewish characters and be based on the Jewish tradition of the shivah call. It’s a good game and it’s not preachy. As a side note, if you haven’t already then I suggest the Blackwell series, same creator, awesome adventure games.

        What I’m saying is if you approach writing with the “well, we NEED a diverse cast and there has to be a non-stereotypical Jew in there because this guy says so!” then what you’re gonna get is a poorly written character.

    • Premium User Badge

      It's not me it's you says:

      “Would it matter if Shepard from Mass Effect was a Buddhist?”

      Dude. I’m an atheist with a dim view of organised religion but this is… one hell of a take. That’d substantially influence the character and be a pretty defining feature of Shepard’s approach to conflict resolution.

      I mean I understand (and disagree) with your fundamental point but that’s one hell of a weird example to use to illustrate it.

  13. fuggles says:

    I wonder how much of BJ’s appearance was forged by necessity of a very limited colour palette?

    Never really twigged the bioshock Jewish thing. Framed by atlas shrugged and the narrative outcome of that game it’s not flattering.

    The shivah is great, everyone should try that.

    I’m all for trying games that explore different aspects of cultures. A fantasy FPS is unlikely the best place for that however. Regardless of the intended focus of the article more variety in game topics generally is great. however considering the examples, then the actual format of the game will probably need to be cheap or free to make any connection with an audience. Should a developer offer a suite for schools then no bad thing. That or mods I guess.

    • Ashk'El says:

      ‘No Gods, no Kings, only Men’

      It never occurred to me to think about what religion any of the inhabitants of Rapture followed or belonged to. I suppose subconsciously I’d picked up on the clues to their ethno-cultural background, but it really never entered into the moral judgements I made about their actions and how to deal with them.

      Interesting. Not sure if I missed the point entirely, or hit it dead on the nose.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Yeah, the Bioshock example is weird to me because those games are, fundamentally, about groups of people who utterly reject the ordinary definitions of society in favour of creating an entirely novel one of their own. So it really doesn’t seem to matter what ethnicity or religion they were.

        And Bioshock Infinite specifically addressed various racial/cultural issues via that weird museum – can’t recall if Judaism was touched on there.

  14. sergio says:

    I guess the developers of Wolfenstain thought having a black jew killing nazis in the hundrends would be too cruel to the nazis’ self esteem.

  15. SaintAn says:

    How about we don’t have any religious characters unless it’s a game set in times where primitive beliefs like those are acceptable, or a fantasy/sci fi game? And just this week Jews committed a terrible hate/war crimes against unarmed Palestinian protesters killing 58 and injuring 2,700, and that’s not the first or last time they’ve committed hate/war crimes, so I especially don’t want to play as those monsters.

    Excluding Shinto, which is actually an interesting non-violent religion that has spawned games like Pokemon, Ghost Watch, and is a part of many others. (The Buddhism part is very evil though, at least in Tibet before China liberated the country)

    • MiniMatt says:

      Israel != Judaism

      • Traipse says:

        Exactly; what’s going on in the Middle East right now is terrible and deeply messed up, but implying that all Jews are bad because of the repressive policies of the government of Israel is like saying that all Chinese people are terrible because their current government is a repressive autocracy. Culture and politics are related, but you shouldn’t confuse one for the other.

        Anyhow, this article is specifically about culture and representation, so let’s try to keep political flamewars out of it as much as possible.

        • jonahcutter says:

          A huge part, perhaps the defining part, of that dynamic is that criticizing the government of Israel brings upon the critic immediate accusations of anti-semitism.

          If you criticize Israel’s actions, such as in Gaza currently, you will be accused of hating Jews. This is the default and first response you will get here in the U.S.

          This dynamic is hardly unique to Israel and Jews. Criticize some aspects of capitalism and be accused of being a Soviet-era communist. Criticize some aspects of feminism and be accused of misogyny. Criticize some aspects of Black politics and be accusted of racism.

          That weaponizing of accusations of bigotry is itself fundamentally destructive to being able to have peaceful conversations about ideologies and behaviors. And it is driven by members of those communities solely to keep any legit criticism from even being discussed. It is the more insidious and destructive behavior as it betrays, from within, the need for understanding and truth that is necessary to reach legit justice.

          So yes, separate criticism of the government of Israel from “Jews”. But until those Jews themselves (or capitalists or feminists or Black activists) stop weaponizing accusations of bigotry those muddy waters will never be clear. And that muddying is purposeful.

    • Subject 706 says:

      “The Buddhism part is very evil though, at least in Tibet before China liberated the country”

      You claimed to not like repression, right?

    • unraveler says:

      “Unarmed” my ass, 50 out of the 58 where Hamas terrorists!

  16. Ham Solo says:

    I’m just fine without video games spouting religious blurp everywhere, thank you very much.

  17. darkath says:

    You’re analyzing this under a racist prism, that is defining people by their skin color and putting them in arbitrary categories according to that criteria, to better discriminate (positively or otherwise)

    What’s worse you’re trying to establish a scale of “whiteness” as if a character being somehow “more white” (how do that work?) than another was relevant ?

    • Ham Solo says:

      Absolutely agree, imo this opinion piece has racist undertones.
      He tries to stop seeing people as just people and puts them into drawers.

  18. Cederic says:

    Sorry to upset the author, but some of us just don’t give a shit what religion or race the protagonist is. I didn’t know and don’t care whether this guy is Jewish.

    I don’t think we need more diverse Jewish characters. I think that people looking for games to reflect their own identify need to get over their insecurity.

  19. Zorgulon says:

    @Cederic Do you not think the gaming world would be more interesting if it told a variety of different stories, with radically different-looking protagonists with varying experiences to tell?

    • Cederic says:

      I do, which is why I want interesting stories told from a range of viewpoints.

      I am however equally happy playing as a nazi killing Jewish character as I am a playing a Nazi hellbent on exterminating everybody in Russia. Or I could play a Russian looking to feed and secure 450,000 people in Leningrad, or skip theatre entirely and pretend I’m Chinese and building roads in Africa. None of these people are me.

      If I want to play at being me I’ll go out of the house. That’s an addictive game with excellent graphics but sadly lacking a cheat mode.

  20. Premium User Badge

    Lo says:

    Super interesting and important, and also a v good read!

  21. Jungle Rhino says:

    So are we going to see a companion article on the depiction of Muslim characters in video games? That one would be a doozy!!

    • aziztcf says:

      Remember all those terrorists you shot in the Calls of Warfacery?

    • Cederic says:

      A game set in North Africa around the 10th or 11th century could be excellent.

      Lots of cultural advances, some serious civic development and scope for some warfare too. Differentiate your city with the size, scope and perfection of your Islamic garden, make sure you have enough (and richly enough appointed) mosques, build 30 foot high gates.

      Hmm. Islamic gate designer. Sounds like an itch.io candidate.

  22. Eightball says:

    G-d knows Jews don’t get much representation in media.

  23. Raoul Duke says:

    Not sure how I feel about this article. As a white male from a western country, could we use far fewer white males from western countries as game characters? Absolutely.

    Does that mean that any particular group should be a priority as an alternative, or that we need characters defined not by their individual characteristics but because of their membership of a given race, ethnicity, religion, culture? Absolutely not, unless something about that is actually relevant to the game.

    The Bioshock example strikes me as being the way things should be on the whole. Oh, so those characters were jewish? Cool. Kinda like how Faridah Malik in Deus Ex was presumably of Middle Eastern descent and that was just a thing, not a big socio political point that needed to be made.

  24. cpt_freakout says:

    Great article, thanks for this piece of analysis, it was a very interesting read.

    Just to indirectly respond to Raoul Duke above, I think that gaming is now wide enough to allow an exploration of such relatively particular topics without detracting from anything else – as long as, yes, the characters are well-written and not one-dimensionally defined by their religion or any singular aspect of their being. It’s potentially too didactic an approach, but it’s cool to learn about different identities and perspectives other than the standard. I think that’s one of the lesser aspects of BJ: he’s so white you could just pass over that he’s Jewish, and the potential problem with that (which is touched upon by the article) is the same problem behind “not seeing race”, which is to say, behind conceiving that the perspective of an Other is really in the end just the same as the default (white) if you strip it from identity.

  25. Kasjer says:

    It is also hinted that B.J. is of a Polish origin. Blazkowicz is more of a Polish name, one than even non-Jews can have, than Hasidic one. It would fit narrative though, as Poland had large Jewish communities before the war. Before the reboot, the “canon” was that B.J. is a son of Polish immigrants. As for his faith, it was never confirmed, but it would be safe to assume he is an Roman Catholic, as this is a faith of majority of Polish people.

    Thing is, all of this has never mattered to me. I’m Polish and I’ve never even though to myself “oh, so he is Polish, cool”. Never wondered about religion either, even during my youth years when I still was believer. To put it simply, I’ve never thought it is important to have Polish video games characters. Right now I’m atheist, working with people of many heritages, religions and citizenships. I couldn’t care less what skin colour or faith someone is. Imo settling for a certain heritage for B.J. is insignificant, as this does very little for the story of these games – what’s important is what main character is representing through the games. He is distilled longing to get even, the dream about lethal protector from horrors of Nazi ideology, the demigod of justice for those who were slaughtered. This character is defined by his fight, his actions, how he holds his ground against evil. Ultimately, so are we all. He could be declared Eskimo for all I care.

  26. JoeD2nd says:

    There is no “need” for anyone to be represented in anything. The only need is the misplaced need of those who feel a special kind of guilt and sympathy that makes them believe they can right someone else’s wrongs. This is a terrible condescension. The Jews don’t need rockpapershotgun or anyone else to treat them as children. No group does. If people want to put Jewish characters in their games they will. If they don’t they won’t. There’s no “need.”

  27. dethtoll says:

    It’s worth pointing out that Joel from The Last Of Us is Jewish. It’s not actually obvious in-game, but there’s official art out there of the cast in Christmas sweaters and he’s got a menorah sweater on.

  28. BigMoneyTKMAGA says:

    this is why everyone thinks video game journalism is a fucking joke, goddamn yall are retarded

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