At Holocaust museum in Fortnite, superheroes and atrocities collide

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, May 23, 2024

At Holocaust museum in Fortnite, superheroes and atrocities collide
In an image provided by Epic Games, a Holocaust museum within Fortnite called Voices of the Forgotten, designed by Luc Bernard. By opening its popular servers to player creations, Epic Games has taken on a role of vetting how sensitive topics are displayed. (Epic Games via The New York Times)

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- There was a checklist of precautions that Luc Bernard needed to enforce before opening the doors of his virtual Holocaust museum in the video game Fortnite.

No shooting. No shouting. No break dancing.

Those absences defy the normal rules of one of the world’s most popular games, where players can dress like googly-eyed hamburgers to exchange gunfire with John Wick and Batman. But Epic Games, eager to keep people on its Fortnite servers as much as possible, has opened up real estate in its virtual worlds to almost anyone with an idea.

Now the publisher, which was not involved in developing the Holocaust museum but advised Bernard on how to follow its content guidelines, finds itself vetting sensitive topics that can become public relations fiascos with a single misstep. The risk of propagating historical inaccuracies has also concerned Holocaust educators, although several are supportive of the attempt to reach younger audiences.

“With the rise of Holocaust denial and other forms of antisemitism, it is important that new generations worldwide learn the truth of the Holocaust,” Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in a statement.

“Online opportunities can help advance that goal,” she continued. “At a time of declining trust overall, museums — because they display authentic items — are still trusted sources of information. Maintaining that trust requires rigorous adherence to historical accuracy.”

After his virtual museum opened to the public this week, Bernard welcomed The New York Times on a tour of Voices of the Forgotten, which promises to teach visitors “about the heroes who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust and also the Jewish members of the Resistance.” His avatar was dressed like Spider-Man, and a few curious players wandered into the galleries with their own get-ups and names like DoctorLlamaLord.

The museum’s architecture resembles a modern mansion outside of Miami with large windows and a reflective marble floor. Beyond a small lobby, the exhibit begins with information about Kristallnacht, the 1938 attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany that are widely recognized as the start of the Holocaust.

“Hate is rising worldwide and I think we need tools to make people more empathetic,” Bernard said while wearing sunglasses and puffing from a vape during a Zoom call. He noted that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on Holocaust museums, but that only 20% of Americans have visited one.

Most of the pictures and placards within the Fortnite museum focus on lesser-known aspects of the Holocaust — in which about 6 million Jews were killed — as well as figures who might escape the lens of a traditional institution. Bernard, 37, has dedicated sections to the Tripolitania riots (one of the bloodiest attacks against Jews in North Africa) and Willem Arondéus (a member of the Dutch resistance against the Nazis).

But the information within the museum is limited to a few short sentences about each topic, and some of the text, including the summary about Arondéus, was pulled from Wikipedia entries.

Bernard, who has worked in the gaming industry for more than a decade, confirmed that he used Wikipedia and, without elaborating, said he double-checked that information through other sources; this year, he also released a game called The Light in the Darkness that focuses on educating young people about the Holocaust.

Alan Cooper, a spokesperson for Epic, said that all projects made in Fortnite — which include maps with an ice dragon and a prison breakout — were subject to creator rules and content guidelines. The company helped Bernard legally vet the contents, which cannot be gory or disturbing, but he is responsible for the claims and facts within the museum.

“We regularly review and update these rules based on the continued growth and development of our ecosystem,” Cooper said.

Epic’s decision to work closely with Bernard comes months after the Anti-Defamation League said the company’s policies toward Holocaust deniers deserved an “F” grade because of Nazi-related usernames. A spokeswoman for Epic said the grade did not reflect the company’s work to remove usernames that violate its rules, and that it uses automated tools and human moderators to prevent hate speech and derogatory language.

In a statement about the in-game museum, Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the ADL, said, “Until the game industry can change the norms of hate and abuse in online multiplayer games, we cannot view experiences like these as a true alternative to more traditional forms of Holocaust education.”

Traditional Holocaust museums have been cautiously supportive of Bernard, who was bullied on social media by Holocaust deniers and the white supremacist Nick Fuentes after announcing his Fortnite project. Other experts pointed to past controversies when serious topics were addressed within Fortnite.

An official event that commemorated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2020 allowed users to view images from the civil rights era and watch his “I Have a Dream” speech. But King’s message was juxtaposed with default loading screens for all Fortnite players that included the message “Aim for the head!” and players were able to use emotes that allowed them to dance and crack a whip. (The emote ability was later disabled by Epic within the experience.)

More than eight million players attended the event, Epic said. The real King memorial in Washington receives about 3.3 million visitors per year, according to the National Park Service.

Fortnite has 70 million monthly active players, and some Holocaust educators are optimistic that Voices of the Forgotten could be a blueprint for reaching young people where they are: in the gaming world.

“How do we meet this next generation that has been raised online?” asked Jacob Ari Labendz, director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Labendz said that while the museum exhibits lacked context, they did provoke important questions. “He is forcing anyone that comes to the museum to realize that the Holocaust is not just a European story but a global one,” Labendz said.

Without attendance figures, it is too early to tell what the museum’s impact will be, but Bernard says Holocaust museums have reached out to commend his efforts.

“You have to think about the young people,” he said. “I wanted to show positive stories of resistance leaders so they have someone to look up to.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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