Piotr Sterczewski

Piotr Sterczewski is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts (Faculty of Management and Social Communication) at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He researches social and political aspects of conflict in games. He is also a game critic writing for various Polish magazines and worked as a videogame language tester for Electronic Arts. piotr.sterczewski@uj.edu.pl

This Uprising of Mine: Game Conventions, Cultural Memory and Civilian Experience of War in Polish Games

by Piotr Sterczewski


The article is an analysis of three Polish games depicting the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 -- Uprising44: The Silent Shadows (DMD Enterprise, 2012), Little Insurgents (Miłuński, 2009) and Enemy Front (CI Games, 2014b). The focus of the study is the interplay between conventional game-design solutions employed in these titles and dominant discourses of Polish cultural memory used and potentially reinforced by them. Discourses of the games show complex tensions between the inclusion of tragic historical themes and heroic or light-hearted narrative and gameplay. The article uses representations of civilian experiences of war as a key to examine how games expose or conceal potentially problematic content and reinforce or undermine a “mnemonic hegemony” related to the Warsaw Uprising.


cultural memory, war, civilian experience, Warsaw Uprising, Poland, Uprising44: The Silent Shadows, Little Insurgents, Enemy Front


In March 2014, the Polish developer CI Games released a teaser trailer (CI Games, 2014a) for its upcoming World War II-themed shooter Enemy Front (CI Games, 2014b). It consisted of a scene set during the Warsaw Uprising, an armed Polish rebellion against the Nazi occupation, in which a group of civilians -- with a woman and a child in the foreground -- are caught by a squad of German soldiers in the courtyard of a house and executed on the spot. In the last shot, the camera pans out from the faces of the dying mother and child to an anchor painted on the wall -- an emblem of the Polish Underground State (“Fighting Poland”) and a signifier of a heroic tradition. After a fade to black, two screens with captions are shown: one saying “The Warsaw Uprising lasted 63 days. Over 200,000 civilians were killed and the city was completely destroyed”. The other one reads “It was the single largest military resistance of World War II”.

While it was clear for the players that Enemy Front would be a shooter, the content and tone of the teaser trailer suggested that the experience of non-militant participants of the uprising would be a significant theme of the game. Some comments from Polish players reflected this expectation: They expressed hope that history will be represented “with due respect” (Aleksander Nevsky, 2014) and praised the game for tackling “difficult topics”, showing WWII as not “just shooting the Germans”, but also as taking the opportunity to “present the topic from the dirty side” (Łukasz Domański, 2014). In the end, the game, however, turned out to be a fairly conventional shooter, with a heroic, US-American war reporter-turned-soldier protagonist, and with civilian struggles not being a significant part of story or gameplay. Some elements of the trailer already pointed towards this heroic mode and this focus on military rather than civilian experience: the anchor symbol, the caption underlining the exceptional scale of the Warsaw Uprising, and the marketing catchphrase “Join the resistance”. Still, the 90-seconds promotional video and its reception encapsulate significant tensions that can be observed in Enemy Front as well as many other Polish historical games: between the need for the expression of national identity and the ambition for success on the global market; the values of remembrance and the showcasing of the entertainment appeal of the product; the inclusion of “serious” historical themes and the maintaining of a fictional, heroic, action-like tone.

This article aims to show the complex interplay between game conventions and dominant discourses of Polish cultural memory in representations of civilian experience in three Polish war-themed games (two video games and one board game) depicting the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The examples are: the third-person shooter Uprising44: The Silent Shadows (DMD Enterprise, 2012), the family-oriented, cartoonish board game Mali Powstańcy [Little Insurgents] (Miłuński, 2009), and the first-person shooter Enemy Front (CI Games, 2014b), which has several levels set in the Warsaw Uprising.

I chose this source material for several reasons: Firstly, despite the fact that the Warsaw Uprising was a disastrous failure and had significant negative consequences for the civilian population of Warsaw, with an estimated 200 thousand casualties, it is still one of the central events of heroically oriented threads of Polish cultural memory (Kobielska, 2014). The dominant modes of remembering the Warsaw Uprising underline the bravery and dedication of the combatants, but the controversies surrounding the commanders’ decision to start the uprising, as well as the emergence of civilian microhistories and marginalized “herstories” (Grzebalska, 2013) contribute to this event being “an active battlefield” of conflicting politics of memory (Kobielska, 2014, p. 37).

Games about the Warsaw Uprising reflect these tensions to some extent while remaining rather conventional instances of their genres; focusing on the active, heroic narratives of the insurgents, they apply a range of discursive devices which Pötzsch calls “filters” that “supress unpleasant, yet salient features and consequences of military and other violent conduct” (Pötzsch, 2015, p. 4). Secondly, these games (especially the video games, Enemy Front and Uprising44) negotiate the ambition of maintaining and expressing national identity and catering to the needs of the global entertainment market. The realization of both these goals in Polish productions is often put under scrutiny by Polish players (Kucharska et al., 2015). Thirdly, realistic war-themed shooter games usually allow one to play as an Anglo-American character, and are often analysed in game studies as part of an imperialist, colonial, US-American-centric military-entertainment (“militainment”) complex (Höglund, 2008; Nieborg, 2009) or “games of Empire” -- produced by and contributing to “planetary, militarized hypercapitalism” (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009, p. xv). Games aimed at reinforcing national identity, developed in semiperipheral (Chase-Dunn & Hall, 1993) countries like Poland, do not fit neatly into such categories; but neither are they good examples of “games of multitude” (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009) or “countergaming” (Galloway, 2006) that could oppose, protest or criticize a “globalized empire”. Instead, I propose a perspective where such games can be seen as contributing to a national “mnemonic hegemony” (Molden, 2016), “built by prioritizing some memories over others according to the specific power constellations of a given society” (p. 128) [1]. In the same time, these games make use of well-known media conventions to achieve the status of accessible and enjoyable products for a global market.

In order to present these tensions more clearly on the media-source material, I engage in a textual and procedural (Bogost, 2007) analysis of Uprising44: The Silent Shadows, Little Insurgents and Enemy Front. As Astrid Erll (2008) observes, each media technology “has its specific way of remembering and will leave its trace on the memory it creates” (p. 389). I will assess how specific conventions of the game medium play into discourses of cultural memory. From among the levels of analysis proposed by Erll, I will focus mostly on what she calls “intra-medial rhetoric of collective memory” (specific means and modes of representation) and “inter-medial dynamics” (“the interplay with earlier and later representations” of the same period or event), with brief mentioning of their “pluri-medial contexts” (connected mostly with the broader social conditions of lasting influence on cultures of memory) (p. 390). Erll’s framework -- originally applied to literature and cinema -- has recently been adapted for game studies by PӦtzsch and Šisler (2016).

Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric is a part of the theoretical background of this article as it underlines the connection of game rules to the overall ideological construction of the game [2]. Procedural rhetoric has been under debate for being an overly “mechanical” perspective, which does not explain meaning-making processes sufficiently, overemphasizes the significance of game rules in conveying meaning (Möring, 2013), and assumes a passive role of the player (Sicart, 2011). An extended engagement with this criticism is beyond the scope of this article. It seems sufficient to say that Bogost often underlines the importance of a broader discursive context, framing, and possible divergent interpretations (Bogost, 2007, pp. 75--84, 99--120, 126--135) -- and his analyses of specific games show this in practice. Procedural rhetoric allows to focus on the “intersections of narrative or thematic and ludic/procedural content” of the game (Harper, 2011, p. 400); such a perspective is useful for my analysis, as the way the historical events play out in the games is an important factor in their ideological outcome.

Bogost does not give a strict methodological formula for analyzing the procedural rhetoric of games. As both his own writing and other uses of this framework (Wendler, 2014; Maloney, 2016; van Nuenen, 2016) demonstrate, the specific procedural means of expression can vary greatly from game to game. The games analyzed in this article were chosen because of their shared thematic premise rather than any formal similarities. While Enemy Front and Uprising44 are both shooters, which allows for several points of direct comparison, Little Insurgents is a cooperative board game, employing very different game conventions. In all these games, however, there are certain game-specific aspects that can be analyzed, such as: the conditions of victory and failure; scoring mechanics; difficulty level; strength and agency of the player’s character(s); the choices offered to the player; the extent of influence the player character can have on the gameworld, etc. All these formal aspects of the game can influence its memory discourses, which justifies the choice of procedural rhetoric as a means of analysis.

It is important to note, however, that analyzing these games only from the point of view of procedurality would be insufficient and misleading; procedural complexity is not their sole -- or even their most important -- aspect, given the scope of this article. Shaping the games’ memory discourses can be traced to other game elements, often based only on textual and visual representations: paratexts (such as manuals, educational brochures, cover art, trailers, etc. [Genette, 1997]), dialogues, art style, flavour text on cards/loading screens, and others. These elements were reviewed during the course of the analysis in order to find direct or indirect claims on nodal points of Polish mnemonic hegemony related to the Warsaw Uprising, and the results of this inquiry are presented in this article alongside the conclusions from the procedural analysis. Moreover, the chosen approach allowed a highlighting of discrepancies and tensions between the procedural, textual and paratextual layers of the games. Such cases were found in all three described titles, proving that the interplay of national memory discourses and dominant game conventions produces non-obvious effects.

During the initial analysis, I played Uprising44 and Enemy Front -- both shooter games with a linear structure -- from start to finish in an exploratory manner. When levels offered certain degrees of choice (e.g. in terms of tactics), I tested more than one possibility. I also checked the games’ reactions to untypical behaviour, such as failing deliberately, going the wrong direction, delaying the story progress, and shooting at own squad members. The playthroughs were supplemented with watching Let’s Plays in order to increase certainty that nothing crucial was missed. Little Insurgents was tested in several playthroughs with two different groups of volunteers; we played both basic and advanced variants of the game, with different tactics used to check what effects may be produced through the game’s ruleset (we played both cooperatively and competitively, aiming for failure, prolonging victory, etc.). During the whole process, special attention was given to the elements of the games which were connected to the collective memory of the Warsaw Uprising, especially civilian experiences.

Civilian Experiences of the Warsaw Uprising

The Warsaw Uprising (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place a year before) was started by the Polish underground Home Army on August 1st, 1944. Its goal was to retake Poland’s capital from the German occupation before the advancing Soviet forces -- in order to preserve the political autonomy of the Polish state. The fighting lasted for over two months (which was considered a surprisingly long time given the initial plans and assessments), and resulted in a capitulation of Polish forces, mass deportations and the almost complete destruction of the city. Various factors are considered to be reasons for the failure of the uprising: a premature and imperfectly coordinated launch of the uprising; an imprecise assessment of the broader front situation; the military advantage of the German forces; a poor level of supplies for the insurgents; an insufficient diplomatic coordination with Poland’s allies and their overestimated support; lastly, the factor perhaps most commonly appearing in Polish discourse -- the deliberate lack of significant help from the Red Army forces stationed near Warsaw (Davies, 2004; Borodziej, 2006; Richie, 2014).

The uprising was started in the middle of a large, functioning city and caught hundreds of thousands of civilians by surprise. While the insurgents (claiming military and civilian power during the uprising) were met with a certain level of support and help from the civilian population, there were also many documented cases of conflicts, insubordination, assaults, lootings, aggression toward the insurgents, and unauthorized capitulations to the German forces (Hanson, 2004; Borodziej, 2006). Contrary to later stereotypes, civilians did not support the uprising with uniform enthusiasm (Davies, 2004). Civilian losses were estimated to be around 200 thousand, with several dozens of thousands executed by Nazi soldiers, and the rest dying because of regular warfare, accidents, diseases etc.

As noted before, the Warsaw Uprising is one of the key elements of Polish memory culture, “discussed endlessly not only among historians” (Kobielska, 2014, p. 37) and “continuously recalled and utilized nowadays, so that it has become a cultural (and pop-cultural) icon” (p. 37). While the commemoration of the uprising was partially discouraged and manipulated by the officials during Communist rule (Napiórkowski, 2016), in the most recent decade we can talk of “a Rising ’44 boom” (Kobielska, 2014, p. 37), mostly thanks to the establishment of a multimedia Warsaw Rising Museum in 2004 and its widespread, diverse educational and promotional activities (p. 38). As Napiórkowski puts it, “similarly to the biggest cultural franchises, such as Star Wars, the Warsaw Uprising has its own aesthetic -- a system of hallmarks consisting of color coding, typography, and even a set of distinctive logos, namely the Fighting Poland anchor and the number 44” (Napiórkowski, p. 14).

In the practices of remembering the uprising, “heroic military narratives” are privileged over civilian microhistories (Kobielska, p. 37), and the controversies around the decision of starting the uprising are being toned down under a hegemonic assumption that the uprising was “inevitable” (p. 38). While more critical, contesting voices in the uprising memory field sometimes also get institutional support, the hierarchy is still in favour of heroic discourses (p. 37).

Maria Janion, a literary scholar, diagnoses the dominant Polish views on war (including the Warsaw Uprising) as deeply rooted in the Polish variant of Romanticism, heavily influenced by the history of uprisings against external rule. This period produced a strong semantic opposition between the personal (individual, internal, intimate) and the social (national, communal), with priority given to the latter, and with special significance attributed to the act, especially of a military kind. What naturally followed from this distinction was a perceived superiority of the military and heroic above the civilian, the usual and the mundane (Janion, 1998). Janion analyzes Miron Białoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, a famous autobiographical, highly stylized and antiheroic book written from the perspective of a civilian young man during the uprising, and proposes an explanation for some fiercely negative reactions to the book after its publication in 1970. She argues that in the Polish heroic school of history there are two schemas opposed to the “undignified” will of survival: a military schema which suggests that everyone should want to fight and try to take revenge on the enemy, and a sacrificial schema, in which people should want to “die honourably”, in a solemn, romantic, exalted, meaningful manner (pp. 99--101). According to Janion, Białoszewski’s originality lies in defying both the military and sacrificial canons, and proposing a deeply anti-romantic, mundane spirit of “live and let live” (p. 101). Tensions between these modes very often appear in the Polish discourses around the Warsaw Uprising. The games analysed in this article reflect these tensions as well, but it is apparent that both military and sacrificial schemas play a significant role, and appearances of the mundane are scarce and subjected to a general heroic tone.

A Phantomic Existence of Civilians

Uprising44: The Silent Shadows was the first Polish video game to feature the Warsaw Uprising and as such attracted significant attention from Polish players, game critics, and even mainstream media already in the production phase. The hopes were mostly crumbled after the (troubled) launch: the game received almost unanimously negative reviews. The poor technical quality and a high number of bugs were the most commonly mentioned points of contention, but practically every formal and aesthetic aspect of the game was heavily criticized (see e.g. Bednarek, 2012; Kozłowski, 2012; Siekiera, 2012).

While game quality is not necessarily relevant for the purposes of this article, in this case it is worth noting because of its discursive relations with identity and memory. For many Polish players and reviewers Uprising44 was not simply a bad game because of its low quality; it was bad also -- or maybe especially -- because its low quality was perceived as being disrespectful to the main topic, or as a wasted chance of showing an important event of Polish history in an appealing manner, and of then presenting this “to the world” or “to the West” [3].

This ambition of success on the international market was not only the fantasy of the Polish players, but also clearly one of the aims of the designers, as interviews prove (von Stroheim, 2011). In adapting the game to foreign markets, the production team even changed the name of the main character in the English language version from “Kuba” to “Jimmy” (thus creating some confusion over his nationality), and exchanged a quotation from Juliusz Słowacki, a Polish poet from the Romantic period (which was an especially vital source of inspiration for the insurgents’ cultural formation), to one from Shakespeare.

The ambitious plans of the designers encapsulated not only preparing the game for international distribution, but also making it thematically complex. In the interview given a year before the release (when the game was still supposed to be a real-time strategy game and not a shooter), the designers of Uprising44 talked about the objective of making a high-quality product that would tackle topics not present in electronic entertainment before. The game should “present a fragment of history of our country, but obviously without falling into unnecessary martyrology”, and be “impressive enough to grab attention of foreign players”. Asked by the interviewer on the matter of civilians -- according to him, “a popular topic since Białoszewski” and a key problem in the contemporary evaluation of the uprising -- the designer states that there would be “no shortage of civilians in the game”, that they would move through the map as non-player characters, and that some side missions would be connected to helping them (von Stroheim, 2011).

The intramedial rhetoric of the final version of Uprising44 contradicts the latter claim. Civilians appear in the actual gameplay only once and very briefly -- four characters in plain clothes can be seen in the mission where the player character helps civilians to escape through sewers. Apart from that, they are scarcely mentioned in dialogues, historical trivia or mission objectives. Sometimes the presence of civilians in a level is openly suggested -- like in the mission “Path to Freedom” with the objective “Hold the position until civilians arrive”, or the mission “Autumn is Near”, where the objective says “Give cover to the civilians boarding the ship”. However, in these levels the game space is filled only with combatant characters (insurgents and Nazi soldiers), and there are no civilians visible.

The almost complete absence of civilians in the city in Uprising44 can be partially attributed to technological issues. The game -- as pointed out by many reviewers -- is not optimized well, and the lack of civilian characters is probably caused by the designers’ will not to overburden the game engine with too many models, or by another reason connected to saving resources. But just as in the case of the well-established convention of enemies’ dead bodies in shooters disappearing after a short time, such a design choice, even if justified by technical reasons, is ideologically non-neutral. Disappearing bodies sanitize the consequences of player character’s actions, and the absence of civilians in a ludic version of a war-ridden city communicates the fantasy of a pure, agonic military struggle between two factions of comparable force. Such a discursive omission makes the ideological layer of the game simpler and more palatable.

Taking civilians out of the player’s sight can be described as applying all the filters of selective realism as described by Pötzsch (2015) at once. Because of the violence filter, “the only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of noncombatants” (p. 5). In Uprising44, civilians are not subjected to direct violence, apart from the very general background information given in the dialogues, mission objectives and loading screens.

In line with the consequence filter, which “severely de-emphasizes negative long- and short-term impacts both at an individual and collective level” (p. 5), the justification of starting and continuing the uprising (the object of ongoing controversies in Polish historical discourse) is never seriously questioned. Uprising44 is fully linear and offers the player no “moral choices” that could alter the plot: the history of the Warsaw Uprising in this game (as well as in Enemy Front) is fatalistic from the very beginning, evading any suggestions that the events could have gone in different directions.

The character filter -- determining “which in-game protagonists can acquire identity other than combatant and gain a voice to explain their point of view” (p. 5) -- works here not only in the case of the most obvious distinction between the soldier and the civilian, but also between a highly trained soldier and an insufficiently trained and equipped insurgent. The player character is a member of the elite squad Cichociemni (“Dark and Silent”), which were trained in the West and parachuted into Poland. The designers of Uprising44 justified this choice with arguments referring both to history and game conventions: in an interview they said they “did not want to make the heroes of the game out to be gaunt young boys with relatively few skills and helmets that were much too large” (von Stroheim, 2011).  The soldiers of Uprising44 have military training, equipment and proper strength because gamers are used to playing as skilled characters; according to the designers, it is all a matter of balance between historical truth and appeal to an average player (von Stroheim, 2011). Therefore, both procedural and narrative means are used for making the characters already perceived as heroic in Polish cultural memory (the insurgents of Warsaw) even more heroic (to fit the dominant convention of a medium that privileges strong characters and relies heavily on power fantasies).

Lastly, the conflict filter (“limiting possible understandings of, and solutions to, in-game conflicts” [Pötzsch 2015, p. 5]) in the game frames the uprising as inevitable, obvious and universally just. This combined with the fact that civilians in the game exist only to get rescued and to enable the heroic deeds of insurgents naturalizes the choice of a full-blown military revolt over any other tactics that might have been safer for the city’s population.

The phantomic half-existence of civilians contributes to discourses showing the Warsaw Uprising as only a military affair, marginalizing the non-combatant experience, and underlining the heroic agency of the player character in accordance with dominant game conventions and Polish mnemonic hegemony. The other two games analyzed in this article repeat this pattern to some extent, but add other discursive dimensions worth examining in terms of their relations with cultural memory.

Little Insurgents: Uprising for Kids

Mali Powstańcy. Warszawa 1944 [Little Insurgents. Warsaw 1944] is a family-oriented, educational cooperative board game with a cartoonish visual style, designed by Filip Miłuński and published by the commercial publisher Egmont in partnership with the Warsaw Rising Museum (as mentioned before, one of the key institutions for the contemporary Polish collective memory of the Warsaw Uprising). The game, published in 2009, was one of the first titles of the recent wave of history-themed Polish board and card games: over thirty such games were published in the last years, many of them in cooperation and with financial support of the state or regional institutions, such as the Institute of National Remembrance, National Centre for Culture, Centre for Thought of John Paul II, or the aforementioned Warsaw Rising Museum. These games tackle a variety of topics taken from Polish history. The two most prominent themes are World War II and the period of the Polish People’s Republic [4]. While military conflicts are often the main subject of these games, they are not wargames in a classic sense of the word (complex military simulations, focused on historical verisimilitude, typically designed for two players playing against each other), but rather use more accessible game design conventions in order to reach a wider audience. Cooperative games are especially popular, partly for ideological reasons: most of the games do not let the players play as enemies of Poland [5]. Almost all of these titles could be described as reinforcing patriotic, conservative, right-wing discourses, focusing either on heroic military stories or on the everyday struggle against the oppressive system; the games mostly commemorate moments of perceived greatness and unity in Polish history, and the enemies are almost always external. A few notable counterexamples are the games with satirical overtones (such as Alternatywy 4 [4 Alternative (Disjunction) Street] based on a comedy TV series [Mirska & Sypek, 2013]) and a single case (so far) of a game focusing on left-wing identity politics: Krakowski Szlak Kobiet [The Kraków Trail of Women] (Fundacja Przestrzeń Kobiet, 2013), telling “herstories” of sufragettes from the late 19th and early 20th century in Kraków.

Little Insurgents is a family-friendly (recommended from age 8) game intended to maintain the heroic mode of remembering the Warsaw Uprising, a failed military struggle that claimed the lives of over 200 thousand people. As such, it represents a peculiar intersection of game conventions and memory discourses. The game employs richer intermedial dynamics than Uprising44, starting with the very title. It clearly refers to the famous monument of the Little Insurgent (Mały Powstaniec) designed by Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and erected in Warsaw in 1983: The figure depicts a small boy in too big a helmet, wielding a machine gun. The monument commemorates the child participants of the uprising. While the figure is sometimes regarded as symbolic, since typically people under age 14 could not be assigned to combat tasks during the Warsaw Uprising (Kowalik, 2015), the underage participants of the uprising are an important motif in Polish cultural memory, often present in school programs (Napiórkowski, 2016, p. 299) and prominent in remembrance practices of contemporary Polish scouting organisations which see the Gray Ranks, underground scouting from the period, as a part of their heritage (Kazek, 2014).

The Little Insurgent monument, however, is highly controversial: Its opponents say that it glorifies using children in warfare and presents war as an adventure (Kowalik, 2015). The figure was even a target of a critical artistic intervention on International Children’s Day in 2011, when a group of activists decorated it with balloons, a rubber life buoy, and a slide to an inflatable swimming pool; the catchphrase of the happening was “let’s bring back the Little Insurgent his childhood” (Organizatorzy Akcji, 2011).

The design of the board game Little Insurgents shows the effort to evade these controversies. The main topic is the activity of Scout Military Mail during the uprising, and each player takes command of a patrol of named young scouts, represented by individual tokens, delivering orders between various points on the map of Warsaw; the game is mostly cooperative (players need to avoid common danger as undelivered orders eventually lead to losing access to whole districts, which may in turn lead to failure), but includes an element of competition as well, based on the number of delivered orders per player -- there is, however, no sensible diegetic explanation for this competitive aspect.

The educational brochure (in three languages) constitutes a paratextual element in the sense of Genette (1997). It was written by a historian and was added to the game to provide some background on Scout Military Mail. The brochure sheds some light on the reasoning behind the choice of the topic (quoted verbatim from the English version):  

The Scout Military Mail is one of the extraordinary phenomena of the Warsaw Rising. Its establishment came not only as a fulfilment of the need to stay in touch with the loved ones, but also served as one of the symbols of the functioning of the legal Polish State, and proved that the society was capable of self-organisation in extreme circumstances. The establishment of the post in the 1944 Warsaw was a state-building act… In extreme combat conditions, all post branches, functioned perfectly, as well as sorting and censorship offices (military information was removed). Letters were duly distributed by boys and girls -- mail carriers devoted in their service to free Poland (Ozimek, 2009).


The quote shows the ambition of underlining the heroism of young insurgents, the self-organization of the Polish underground state, the importance of non-military services during the uprising, and the influence of Scout Military Mail on civilian population. Ozimek’s description -- apart from a clearly idealizing tone -- gives an oversimplified image of the Scout Military Mail, which functioned differently in various districts and stages of the uprising, was subject to limitations, and suffered casualties among the scout carriers (Hanson, 2004). It is also significant that while the historical brochure emphasizes the civilian use of the Scout Military Mail (“the need to stay in touch with the loved ones”), the rules of the game clearly name the correspondence “orders”, and the failure of players has military consequences.

The official description of the game (used in online stores and press releases) states that Little Insurgents “contain no elements of violence” (Egmont, year unknown). No less ironically (given the topic), the box informs that in 2010 Little Insurgents won the award “Child-Friendly World” [“Świat Przyjazny Dziecku”] from the NGO Committee of Children’s Rights. Indeed, to say that the game employs violence filter would be an understatement; it rather forms an airtight violence cover, taking the sanitization of war to borderline absurd levels.

In the basic version of the rules (recommended for children and inexperienced players), there is a token of a German soldier, moving on the board in an automated way. A scout who meets the soldier goes to prison and effectively loses the next round. In the next one, however, the scout automatically leaves the prison; after that, the player can choose where to deploy the scout. This element of the game demonstrates a stark contrast between its historical topic and its procedural rhetoric. Being caught by the enemy during the Warsaw Uprising could lead to all kinds of harm (including death), while in the game meeting an enemy is shown as a rather inconsequential and entirely reversible event. In the advanced rules, the German soldier disappears, and the only parameter informing the players on the risk of failure is based on losing districts: a rather abstract and purely symbolic decontextualized mechanism which limits the agency of players, but does not make consequences tangible. This design choice has problematic implications: if one was to take the procedural argument deriving from the game rules seriously, Little Insurgents proposes a simulation in which the success of the Warsaw Uprising is fully dependent on underage scouts from the Scout Military Mail. Despite the educational content of the game communicated mostly in traditional forms (such as drawings, a map, or a written brochure), the procedural rhetoric of Little Insurgents puts the whole responsibility for the uprising on a small group of characters, and obfuscates the complex social, political and military factors contributing to the outcome of the historical event.

The confusion goes even further as Little Insurgents actually makes it possible to win the Warsaw Uprising. Victory comes automatically at a predefined moment (the victory card is placed in a specific place of the deck), suggesting that the uprising was not only possible to win, but that time was a crucial factor in victory -- an assertion that is highly dubious given the already unexpectedly long duration of the uprising. The topic of victory and failure in Little Insurgents and other Polish history-themed games is explored in greater detail in one of my previous publications (Sterczewski, 2016).

As in the case of Uprising44, in Little Insurgents discursive omissions create a game space conveniently cleared of any potentially problematic elements. Scout couriers and German forces are the only agents represented in the game: civilian population and the “adult” insurgents remain invisible. But while the historical Scout Military Mail was devoted mostly to civilian correspondence, in the game scouts are delivering military orders of crucial importance to the uprising’s success, as the procedural rhetoric of the game suggests. It seems as if the designer had decided that delivering civilian messages was not heroic enough for a game; it is a discursive move similar to choosing a member of a military elite unit instead of a regular insurgent as the protagonist of Uprising44.

Two add-ons to the game -- Liberator and Poczta Cywilna [Civilian Mail] -- lead to a further convergence of military and civilian themes. Liberator adds a mechanic of intercepting air-drops from the Allies; among the supplies, underage scouts can find grenades. Grenades can be later used in a direct fight, as implied by the rules, resulting in regaining control of the districts. Civilian Mail adds a new type of tokens -- personal letters, but delivering them is treated as a task additional to delivering orders.

Neither the game nor its paratexts (such as educational brochures, instruction, information on the box, promotional materials) address any potential ethical concerns in relation to depicting children’s participation in warfare in a positive light. They also do not mention casualties of the Scout Military Mail. In Little Insurgents, the heroic narrative of the Warsaw Uprising combined with game conventions focused on pleasant experiences and the possibility of winning converge in a product devoid of any problematic content or non-hegemonic threads of Polish cultural memory. The Warsaw Uprising in Little Insurgents does not carry even the faintest taste of tragedy -- the representational layer, the procedural rhetoric and the paratexts of the game all contribute to the depiction of war as an exciting, but rather benign adventure in which nobody can get hurt permanently.

Enemy Front -- Game Conventions versus Martyrology

Enemy Front, a first-person shooter released by CI Games in 2014, is a more accomplished game than Uprising44, and emerges as more discursively complex than Little Insurgents. The game is a good example of the tension between standard, heroic conventions of games and an attempt to play into more tragic modes of Polish cultural memory. It is a very conventional shooter with serious ambitions, and this contrast is apparent in several aspects of the game.

The teaser trailer described in the introduction to this article was clearly targeted mostly at Polish players, and it appealed to a popular mode of Polish cultural memory, which could be described as heroism born from tragedy. The focus on celebration of (collective) suffering that is connected with the notions of greater good, sacrifice, testimony, and spiritual metamorphosis, and in which the victims maintain their ideals, courage and sense of dignity, appears very often in Polish cultural memory, and is sometimes described by the commonly understandable word “martyrology” [“martyrologia”], used eagerly by both proponents and opponents of such mode of remembering history. Lech Nijakowski describes the consequences of this notion as follows:


In this discourse Poles are great not only by their culture, religion and civilization, but also by bravery and heroism. The trope of ‘Pole -- the discoverer’ and ‘Pole -- the genius’ fades into the background in favour of the dominant trope of ‘Pole -- the fighter’, who always fights for the noble cause, even if he is doomed -- like an ancient tragic hero -- to be defeated by heartless powers. Poles are victims not in the sense of defeated losers, but in a religious sense -- as offerings. They offer their lives not only at the ‘altar of the fatherland’, but also of the world, inscribing themselves into the divine plan, the theodicy (Nijakowski, 2008, p. 199).


While the Warsaw Uprising is not the only setting of Enemy Front, it is certainly singled out as the most important one, both in terms of plot and composition: the story of the game is told achronologically, with levels set in the Warsaw Uprising serving as a tentpole of the narrative (and providing both the opening and ending sequences of the game). The protagonist of the game is Robert Hawkins, an US-American war reporter writing about anti-Nazi resistance movements in Europe; due to certain plot developments he becomes a resistance combatant in various countries himself, and becomes especially attached to the Polish Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising.

Hawkins is a generic over-the-top action hero not unlike the protagonists of popular war-themed action movies who can singlehandedly take down a military base full of enemies. In relation to the topic of the Warsaw Uprising, he is a typical figure of an outsider who needs to be introduced to the new phenomenon, mirroring the player or viewer who is also not familiar with the setting. This is clearly a narrative choice made with international market in mind, but it also has another dimension: a foreigner from the West deciding to join the uprising gives it an external justification, shows it as an example to follow, as well as puts the whole event in the broader context of anti-Nazi resistance in Europe. Right in the intro cutscene, we hear Hawkins making a pompous speech over an insurgent radio station, starting with “This is Warsaw calling, this is Warsaw calling all the free nations”; the motif of the protagonist speaking over the radio station becomes recurrent and serves as a proof that Hawkins had internalized the ideals of the Warsaw insurgents.

In terms of game space and characters, Warsaw of Enemy Front is much more lively than the Warsaw of Uprising44; civilians are still scarce, but they do appear in several significant scenes, and more traces of their presence are visible. Notably, the first civilian we meet in the game is a priest taken hostage by a German officer, whom the player needs to liberate in a slow-motion action sequence. If the player manages to kill the officer in one shot, they get an achievement “Power of Faith”; later, Hawkins receives a blessing from the priest and goes back into combat. This scene is a telling example of another important aspect of Polish cultural memory: the connection between patriotism and Catholic religion. One of the other levels (inspired by a historical event) of Enemy Front depicts the defence of the insurgent post inside the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw; the player is positioned as part of the group that clears the church of enemies and prevents it from invasion. In a medium that typically avoids overt positive religious references in mainstream productions, underlining these two scenes is significant as it reinforces the message that the player fights for the right cause transcending the materiality of military struggle; the uprising has not only a political rationale, but is also metaphysically sanctioned.

The comparative procedural analysis of the levels set during the Warsaw Uprising with those set in other places reveals a meaningful contrast. The levels situated outside Warsaw are much more action-like and highlight the exceptional combat prowess of Hawkins who personally kills dozens of enemies and fulfils tasks of epic scale; a telling example is a level in which Hawkins blows up an entire heavy water production facility in Norway and escapes it as the whole construction crumbles right behind him. These sections clearly belong to a chain of remediation (Erll, 2008) of WW2 for which “a canon of existent medial constructions” (p. 392) consists of action war movies like The Heroes of Telemark (Mann, 1965) or Where Eagles Dare (Hutton, 1968). Contrary to this, the parts of the game depicting the Warsaw Uprising are more toned down, often accentuating the difficulty of the situation and the advantage of enemy forces, and showing urban warfare as a much more cooperative, collective, tactical endeavour: most of the time Hawkins fights as a member of a squad. Apparently, the historical matter of the Warsaw Uprising is treated with certain reverence and caution, and the designers try to maintain the representation of the event as dire and dramatic. This is not to say, however, that the uprising levels are much more realistic; the protagonist still happens to personally rescue the whole squad or take down several tanks.

The gameplay of Enemy Front is also filled with very conventional shooter “gamisms”: even in these supposedly tragic circumstances, we often get to see “bullet cams” and graphic, spectacular deaths shown in slow motion (a hallmark of CI Games’s shooters); and given the duration of difficult, positional urban warfare, on the streets of Warsaw one can find surprisingly many red explosive barrels conveniently located between enemies. There is also a telling paratextual hint to this juxtaposition of conventions of the game medium and local discourses of memory that can be seen on the box of the Polish retail edition: a sticker informing of the Polish language version of the game has a stylized “anchor” symbol of the Polish underground instead of the usual “PL” letters, and this obvious reference to national identity appears right next to a small box stating that the game “contains an advanced sniper technology created on the basis of CryEngine”.

Enemy Front, however, does not avoid showing civilians like Uprising44 and Little Insurgents do. A scene in an insurgents’ hospital is one of the sequences showing a wider social context of the uprising. The high-octane action stops for a while and is replaced by a sequence using mostly environmental storytelling (Carson, 2000), that is familiar from exploration games or from non-combat scenes in the Bioshock series. The player is free to explore various rooms of the building and catch several vignette-like glimpses of different human experiences of the uprising: a nurse searches for lost meds, doctors lose a patient during an operation, several patients roll over the beds in pain, lightly wounded people try to pass time with small talk, a makeshift morgue is filled with bodies wrapped in linen. Most of the patients of the hospital are insurgents (they can be recognized through their white-red armbands), but there are some civilians as well. Significantly, there is one point in which the player gets an opportunity of heroic action -- one of the insurgents lying on a bed starts bleeding suddenly, and the player can help him. The process of stemming a bleeding with a new bandage is simplified to holding one button, communicated to the player (in a PC version) with a message “Press F to rescue”. [6]

The hospital scene in Enemy Front is a relatively rare instance of what Berents and Keogh (2014) call “everydayness” of conflict, usually avoided in war games. According to them, “through videogames as well as popular culture more broadly, war is made banal and everyday by, conversely, the banal and everyday experiences of war being excluded from these representations” (Berents & Keogh, 2014). It could also be seen as an example of what Galloway calls social realism: “realist games that reflect critically on the minutiae of everyday life, replete as it is with struggle, personal drama, and injustice” (2006, p. 75). However, the fact that the player is granted the possibility of a heroic deed even in the single place of the game where combat prowess is useless is a confirmation of the weight of the heroic game convention; apparently, the designers did not want to strip the player of agency for too long in an assumption that it would be unpleasant to them. Maria Janion in her essay on depicting war in Polish literature also writes about this dialectic of the mythical and the specific:


In Polish social consciousness and in Polish prose, interconnected with mutual projections, the myth transformed into stereotype has devoured the concrete; such myth defends itself from the concrete as it poses the biggest danger to it, because it contains an irresistible truth of the detail, experience, memory -- not yet mistified, not yet solidified into a safe and easy shape of a collective platitude (Janion, 1998, pp. 62--63).


There are two more scenes featuring civilians in Enemy Front, both highlighting the tension between the martyrological narrative and game conventions. In the first one, the player character witnesses from a window an execution of a small group of civilians, accused of being insurgents; the desperate denials do not save them. The player’s character is helpless and cannot stop the execution. However, in a short while he will be storming through the courtyard where the execution took place, and thus the killed civilians will be avenged. The initial helplessness of the hero is downplayed by his ability of violent retribution. Martyrology of the innocent victims is made visible and heroic agency of the protagonist is maintained. In the second scene, in the finale of the game, Hawkins’s task is to cover civilians running towards the boats that will evacuate them to the other side of Vistula river; the sequence, again, involves some spectacular blowing up of German tanks. After a dramatic retreat, the protagonist also boards one of the boats, and hears a civilian shouting “We will make it! Thank you! Thank you!” In the outro scene, Hawkins looks back at a burning Warsaw from the other side of the river.

Again, the existence of civilians in Enemy Front serves only as a backdrop for heroic deeds of the protagonist. Civilians are deprived of agency and are uniformly obedient and thankful to the insurgents. This is another case of deploying a conflict filter (Pötzsch, 2015); as mentioned before, historical sources complicate such an image of universal concord. It is also worth noting that this is heroism without sense of tragedy: even if the fate of the whole city can be regarded as tragic, this tragedy is not connected to the protagonist: effects of his actions are always positive, he is never presented with a significant choice or confronted with unintended consequences of his own deeds -- he only reacts to the atrocities of others, in a linear way determined by the plot.

Interestingly, both Uprising44 and Enemy Front end with an image of civilians evacuating Warsaw through the Vistula river together with the insurgents, towards Soviet positions at the end of the uprising. However, only a small number of people left Warsaw this way, and the majority of survivors was moved to the transit camp in Pruszków after the capitulation, from where many were deported to forced labour or concentration camps (Hanson, 2004; Davies, 2004). The most common way of leaving Warsaw does not appear in games probably because it did not offer similar narrative opportunities and would be much harder to align with the heroic action convention of military shooters.

Is Different Memory Possible?

Are different, more nuanced depictions of civilian experience of war thinkable in Polish games and -- more broadly -- pop culture? This War of Mine (11 bit studios, 2014), a point-and-click action-adventure/management game about a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged modern European city, is an interesting case of presenting civilian experience of war in a more complex way. Inspired by testimonies of the sieges of Sarajevo, Leningrad and Monrovia, as well as the Warsaw Uprising (Kowalczyk, 2015), This War of Mine shows the consequences of warfare on civilian populations (including the psychological ones), the everyday struggle of acquiring and managing limited resources, the internal diversity of civilians and conflicts between them. Suffering and fight for survival do not have any sublime, external meaning. However, even if This War of Mine strongly connotates being set in the Balkan region, it is politically decontextualized -- it does not tell a story of any specific place, nation or interest group. It can be argued that decontextualization opens space for a more universal message, but it is also a safe choice that allows for abstracting from specific discourses and refraining from taking political stances.

This War of Mine as a game about the Warsaw Uprising or its immediate aftermath would probably be much riskier, especially in terms of reception in Poland. The current Polish “mnemonic hegemony” (Molden, 2016) promotes heroic or martyrological images of the Warsaw Uprising as those most obviously “memorable” (in analogy to “thinkable” [p. 132]). Questioning or problematizing the dominant modes of remembering would probably be met with significant resistance from the participants of Polish gaming culture.

Comparing the intramedial rhetorics and intermedial dynamics of the analyzed games with other popular media about the Warsaw Uprising, like literature and film, and their plurimedial contexts (Erll, 2008), it seems that Polish games are less complex and more hegemonic in terms of their construction of cultural memory, and that they do not undergo a comparable level of criticism and scrutiny. A valuable recent example of such a relatively complex media texts would be the film Warsaw 44 [Miasto 44] (Komasa, 2014), a high-budget production on the Warsaw Uprising, which quite successfully merges popular appeal and an inclusion of topics like war trauma, civilian casualties, plurality of stances on the uprising and internal conflicts of the insurgents, all without falling into standard martyrological tropes of sacred suffering. When it comes to games, it seems that the prevalence of heroic storylines and conventions of game design prioritizing dynamic action, strong protagonists and/or the avoidance of unpleasant experiences hinders Polish games’ ability to play into cultural memory in a more complex, multisided way.


Uprising44, Little Insurgents and Enemy Front are examples of games that aim both at reinforcing national identity through propagating a certain vision of history and achieving success as commercial products of interactive entertainment. The interplay of these two tendencies unearths tensions between dominant conventions of the game medium and hegemonic threads of society’s cultural memory. These games use a set of discursive “filters” to confine problematic and potentially controversial content through generic and narrative conventions. This strategy sometimes fails, economically and/or discursively -- like in the cases of Uprising44, that was accused of being a “disgrace” to the memory of the insurgents because of its low quality, or Little Insurgents, where genre conventions and sanitization of the content to make a game “family-friendly” stand in a radical dissonance with the topic. Sometimes, as in the case of comparing the levels related to the Warsaw uprising in Enemy Front to the rest of the game, it can be observed how genre conventions change possibly because of ideological ambitions tied to them.

The theme of civilian experiences of war was chosen as the focus of this article both for the problematic status of non-combatants in Polish cultural memory and its underrepresentation in games in general. Further exploration of these issues may shed new light on the ways games interact with national identities and deal with marginalized, controversial and complex themes.

These games do not fit into the established frameworks of serious games (defined through intentions of designers and focused mostly on specific, often measurable influence on the players or other persons/phenomena [Michael & Chen, 2006]). Neither do they fit into games of multitude (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009) or practices of countergaming (focused on tactics of resistance against dominant discourses [Galloway, 2006]). In Poland, a semiperipheral (Chase-Dunn & Hall, 1993) country in Central-Eastern Europe, the negotiation between adhering to globalized game conventions and participating in local discourses of cultural memory produces specific effects which demand further analysis in local, national and regional contexts. Games such as those described in the article can simultaneously reinforce hegemonic discourses, like strong national identities, militarized perspective on history, conventional gender norms etc., and be an expression of marginalized themes, like less known events, groups and texts. As game studies are predominantly globalized and focused on Anglophone games and gaming cultures, more research into specific, local phenomena could contribute to diversification and decentralization of the field and greatly improve our understanding of the relationship between games and cultural memory, social discourses and ideologies.


[1] It is important to note here that this notion is based on Laclau and Mouffe’s understanding of hegemony, where these power constellations are always contingent and thus susceptible to change.

[2] For an extended argument for understanding procedural rhetoric beyond persuasion, see Matheson, 2015.

[3] A reviewer from CD-Action, the biggest Polish printed gaming magazine, rated the game 1/10 and wrote: “This title inadvertently does harm to our history, because it tells about one of the most important events of the last century in a painfully inept (not to say pathetic) way, completely simplifying the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of people who died or were hurt in this act of patriotic desperation” (Siekiera, 2012, p. 79). A reviewer from Gamezilla, a popular gaming website, expressed his concern over the influence on the future historical games: “Uprising44 may cause the Polish history to be omitted in games -- and that’s a pity, because there are many important moments of it that could be transponed to virtual grounds. But it takes serious designers to do this, people who would be aware of the seriousness of the topic and critical to their own abilities” (Bednarek, 2012). Another one mused on the game’s potential value to foreigners: “The game is inspired by the uprising, but it lacks historical facts... I stress this because the game was planned to be published in the West to popularize knowledge about the heroic fight of the people of Warsaw -- whereas to a player living outside of Poland Uprising44 has practically no educational value” (Kozłowski, 2012).

[4] In the latter group, there are games about the democratic opposition, such as Strajk! Skok do Wolności [Strike! For Solidarity] (Narodowe Centrum Kultury, 2013), or about the everyday life in the era, such as hugely popular Kolejka [The Queue] (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2011).

[5] When the game War Card: Afganistan [War Card: Afghanistan] (Kuźnia Gier, 2013) enabled play as Taliban combatants fighting Polish soldiers, it was met with some backlash (Głowacki, 2013; Becla, 2013).

[6] It is worth noting that Enemy Front was released before the infamous “Press F to pay respects” from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare [Sledgehammer Games, 2014], a similar mechanism simplifying a non-violent action in an unintentionally comic way.


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