Imo Kaufman

Imo Kaufman is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Their project is in collaboration with the National Videogame Museum and explores a lived experience of gaming in the UK; looking at gamer subjectivities, performativity, and ideologies through an oral history lens. Imo’s research interests also include the intersection of the alt right and gaming spaces.

Contact information:
imogen.kaufman at

To the (fictional) concentration camp: Wrestling with Jewish Pain and Emptiness in Brenda Romero’s Train

by Imo Kaufman


This article demonstrates the importance of researcher positionality in game studies through a close consideration of the boardgame Train. An alternative reading of Train is presented, alongside the analyses of Ian Bogost and Jesper Juul’s writing on Train, where I argue that the game acts as a site of Jewish emptiness. By examining the role of agency and the (un)conscious assumptions that can sit in the text (both the text that constitutes a game, and the texts we as researchers produce) through a Jewish lens, I demonstrate the consequences of current and future videogame researchers opting out of situating themselves within their work. Failing to do so has implications for how we conceptualise spaces, both gaming and research spaces, as researchers and who we assume exists within them.

Keywords: Researcher positionality, agency, ideology, trauma, harm, boardgames, Jewishness



I remember in secondary school, as a class, watching a film dubbed “The Holocaust Movie.” I do not know if this was its real name. The movie depicted survivors talking about their experiences, but also showed us real footage of camps: of Jewish people being shot and piles of bodies in ditches. I cried when the film played; no one else in my class did. After the class, two fellow students came up to me and asked me why I had cried. I was stunned by this question and left with another: why had they not?

Train is a rhetorical board game, made by Brenda Romero, which is part of a series called “The Mechanic is the Message.” It is rhetorical in the sense that part of its design has an educational or transformative purpose. The players all load blocks onto a train collectively whilst performing different tasks, not knowing that the train is taking said blocks (people) to Auschwitz. Depending on each event of play, players will discover this reality moments or hours in. Once the realisation has occurred, the player can make many contrasting choices; for example, they can choose to walk away, intentionally derail trains, or to continue loading the blocks onto the train to their destination.

Train is often uncritically discussed in game studies from an explicitly non-Jewish point of view: both as a game that demonstrates the power of games, and as an example of the fact that games do not have to be fun, or that a lack of fun can be their very intention. Here, I address the lack of critique of Train and possible readings beyond Romero’s original intention and the absence of Jewish commentary especially in such conversations. This article begins by contextualising the topic of Jewishness and videogames: how Jewish heritage and culture is (mis)represented in games; how Jewish people rarely feature in games themselves; and the implications this has for spaces within, and outside of, videogames. I then address relevant literature, which informs the following analysis: a discussion of the positionality of Brenda Romero followed by a critique of the approaches of Ian Bogost and Jesper Juul when looking at Train. Both Bogost and Juul have produced seminal work in game theory which underpins rhetorical design strategies that can be found in Train: the notion that games do not have to be fun and that game systems can, and do, carry political and ideological messages. This discussion is contrasted against my own critique of Train, which is opened up by an application of agency in play, allowing for a more reflexive understanding of player subjectivity [1]. This article investigates, through my own first-person experiences and through a discussion of Bogost and Juul’s analyses, how Train has specific implications for Jewish stories, players and researchers, all the while acknowledging that these ideas are also relevant in ongoing discussions surrounding othered and minoritized groups in videogame scholarship, such as the depiction of Black characters and stories in videogames [2]. Through this exploration, I will scrutinise how the different spaces within which this game circulates (spaces games create; spaces of game design and education; spaces of play; spaces of critique) are shaped by implicit assumptions which sit in both our analysis, and language, as researchers; the implications of our positionality. In particular, I am concerned with not only how Train functions as a space of Jewish emptiness but with how the analysis surrounding Train extends this emptiness into spaces of gaming research.

I should note that when I say empty, I do not mean a literal emptiness, but a Jewish emptiness. There is a gesture towards, or mentioning of, Jewish heritage, and yet there are no or few Jewish people to be found; to be humanised. These empty spaces do not sit only within games, but within gaming research. This emptiness is, in part, maintained by a failure to anticipate Jewish people (both in games and gaming research), which further extends this dehumanisation. In this paper, I only knowingly reference one other Jewish scholar. So, in this article, the emptiness is reproduced and maintained through the lack of Jewish-led scholarship.

Jewishness in and out of Games

Jewish histories are often unconsciously depicted, and maintained, by now-empty spaces: non-active synagogues, cemeteries and concentration camps. Places that people once lived, mourned and died in are instead now visited and monetised. There is little attention, or capacity, for the humanisation of Jewish people in these spaces, which can often depict Jewish people as historical victims, not as actors with their own agency.

Jewish histories in mainstream videogames are almost exclusively depicted through their proximity to or through a narrative that focuses on WWII, Nazis and, sometimes, the Holocaust [3]. Despite the plethora of videogames that depict WWII, and the attention that has been paid to historical games, little attention has been paid to videogames through an explicitly Jewish point of view [4]. And despite the popularity of WWII as a genre in games, the depiction of Jewish characters is a novelty and not the rule; even when they are included, Jewish characters are rarely the protagonist with few exceptions [5]. For example, Koski has demonstrated how games can retell Jewish histories without explicitly referencing the Holocaust itself, but by mirroring it in a fictional world (Koski, 2017, pp. 397-406). Some games reimagine Jewish stereotypes, such as the Dragon Age series which depicts dwarves as an isolationist and materialistic race, going as far as to give them Golems who are controlled through scrolls in their mouths [6]. Jewish players, or characters, are often not given the agency or possibility to act out their own stories from a Jewish point of view (or do not have their Jewishness acknowledged at all). Notably, said depictions often portray Jews as victims, not as actors with agency, or reassert Jewish stereotypes (as in Dragon Age), extending narratives of victimisation and harmful stereotypes into videogame space. Games that depict Jewish histories, intentionally or not, often provide more empty spaces that exist to be visited (through play) and are produced with financial motivation. The focus of such games is almost always instead killing Nazis, not reclaiming a lost Jewish identity or humanising a Jewish history outside of traumatic space(s). This absence of humanisation or a Jewish point of view extends to the potential player, as they are assumed to be non-Jewish by implication.

In the present, the intersection between gaming culture and the alt-right is evident, especially online. In 2017 one of gaming’s most successful content creators on YouTube, PewDiePie, paid two men to hold up a sign that read “Death to all Jews,” demonstrating the pervasiveness and normalisation of antisemitic harm in online and gaming space [7]. Some content creators who work in the same, or similar, online spaces have observed a connection between the alt right and gaming themselves, dubbing it a ‘pipeline’ in which a viewer can slip from consuming gaming content into dangerous alt right ideologies (Innuendo Studios 2017-2021; NonCompete 2019). In addition, a lot of research has highlighted the connections between the alt right and gaming, especially when looking at Gamergate (Bezio, 2018; Massanari, 2017; O’Callaghan et al, 2015.) The crossover between the alt right and gaming spaces is seemingly worsening or, at least, is certainly not getting better. Jewish spaces that are not empty, such as active synagogues, now have bodyguards outside [8]. As recently as January of this year (2022) at time of writing, a gunman held 4 people hostage in a synagogue, disrupting a religious service [9]. The ideas in discussion here are not only relevant to Jewish histories, but to our present and future; a future that is not guaranteed and requires protection.

If videogame spaces can be connected to the development, or dissemination, of alt right spaces and ideas, then the issue of games failing to humanise Jews and re-establishing harmful antisemitic myths (such as the idea of Jews as materialistic) becomes all the more serious. And it is not just Jewish narratives and histories under threat, but evidently active Jewish spaces and living Jewish people. It is important that, game research does not reproduce more spaces which discuss Jews, our history and our depictions, without making space for Jews ourselves. This issue is further exacerbated by videogaming’s tendency to adapt Jewish culture and histories (without making space for Jews themselves) for monetary gain. Failure to do so risks extending such dehumanisation present in videogame space into gaming research itself.

The Literature

Here, relevant literature and theoretical frameworks within, and beyond, gaming research will be established in order to contextualise and inform the following analysis of scholarship surrounding Train.

By now, game studies has well established that games carry implicit and explicit values through their design, mechanics and (potentially) in play. One of the analysts I later examine in more detail, videogame designer and researcher Ian Bogost, introduced us to the term “procedural rhetoric”: describing the function of hidden procedures as ideology in play (Bogost, 2007, p. 72). Game researchers, before and after Bogost, echoed similar iterations: that games carry and produce values through their design (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014; Newman, 2013, p. 69; Ruberg, 2019, p. 10). For example, seminal digital media theorist and researcher Janet Murray stressed that the computer game was, and could be, a representational system that, in turn, could create or reproduce systems [10]. Such theoretical frameworks are the foundation for scrutinising Train, part of a game series literally called “The Mechanic is the Message.” Games are understood as cultural representations that not only reflect the design intentions in production, but the context of production itself (Newman, 2013, p. 57; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 571). However, the importance of procedurality should not be over-stated: game scholars such as Miguel Sicart have warned against an over emphasis on procedurality when trying to derive a game’s values or meaning (Sicart, 2011). Whilst a key framework, procedurality must be contrasted against other aspects of play, such as agency, as procedural rhetoric’s ideological implications are tied up with and complicated by player choices and positionality.

Agency in play has been explored across concepts such as failure and fun. Failure is especially relevant to the second scholar I later examine, Jesper Juul, who is a game designer, educator and theorist. Juul has argued for the importance of loss of control in the pain/pleasure of play, and in its inevitability of death and failure (Juul, 2013, p. 118). Failure can also be read through a queer framing in Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, a queer and gender theorist, whose work extends the framework Juul presents in The Art of Failure. Halberstam, whilst discussing not videogames but animation, has extrapolated this understanding of failure to expose not only paradox or pain but possibility: the possibility of alternative selves, realities and even revolution, through failure (Halberstam, 2011, pp. 21-25). We can observe such alternate realities in the vastly different playthroughs of Train. A lot of these ideas surrounding failure are intrinsically entangled with agency; our ability to not only have fun, but to explore the limits of a system or what might lie beyond that system. Our agency in play, or ability to have fun, is not objective and is partly derived from our own personal context, as queer game researcher Bo Ruberg points out: “Fun is cultural, structural, gendered, and commonly hegemonic” (Ruberg, 2015, p. 112). Whilst fun is not under discussion in this paper, this point of view is still reflective of a player’s subjectivity affecting their experience of play and the possibility for a player to play outside/against the intended system.

When considering how personal context can affect play, Janet Murray’s understanding of the “zone of dissociation” is key. To be fully immersed in the game, to dissociate, requires that your zone remain intact and undisturbed. The zone is paradoxical in that it is simultaneously hyper immersive, fragile and can be broken by calling attention to the player’s personal context of play (Murray J., 2017, p. 146). This personal context can be broken in different ways. For example, by noticing a harmful depiction of an identity the player themself belongs to, or by having someone else point out a harmful depiction or mechanic to you. The latter can be understood in feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s words: “You cause unhappiness by revealing the causes of unhappiness” (Ahmed, 2010, p. 591). However, when thinking about a boardgame specifically, the player might find it hard to point out harm, or even to protect themselves from said harm by walking away. Social convention expects players to sit down and play the boardgame through to the end (Johnson, 2016). The zone being broken does not necessarily mean that we leave the game, but that we play it with a different context and meaning from our peers. As Antonnet Johnson, a game and pop culture researcher, points out, “players must sometimes perform in ways that complicate, contradict, and even undermine their own lived realities” (Johnson, 2016). It should be noted that Train is intended to break a player’s “zone”: it is not supposed to be fun or immersive in a way that might facilitate escapism from lived realities: “When the destination is known, the dynamic of every mechanic completely changes… It produces a powerful, visceral, nauseating strike” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 319).

The zone is much more likely to break for some players than it is for others. We can observe this phenomenon in the work of Lisa Nakamura, whose research stretches across cinema, Asian American and gender studies. Nakamura’s discussion of identity tourism in LambdaMOO, an online roleplaying game that constructed “default whiteness” by the removal of race in character creation, demonstrates how agency can be a product of privilege (Nakamura, 1995, p. 718). She discusses how white players can take a “vacation” as they pose/perform Asian stereotypes in-game, the game providing “scenarios for the fantasies of privileged individuals,” but a fantasy that does not, and cannot, appeal to everyone (Nakamura, 1995, p. 717). Her research makes evident how other players’ actions, not only the system that they take place within, are capable of disrupting zones: a white player roleplaying as a harmful stereotype can disrupt the play of a player whom the stereotype in question harms. Murray’s “zone” provides a critical framework for understanding the interplay between agency and positionality; how our freedom to take actions is not just dictated by the system(s) we engage with but how our own identities and experiences interact with those very systems. Our readings of games must not only account for agency, the ability to take actions, but for agency as positional.

In addition to the positional, agency is entangled with meaning: what games intend to mean, what they mean to us and how we can or cannot make meaning within/through them. When considering how we should read agency, it is imperative to draw on the work of Tess Tanenbaum, a game researcher whose interests lie particularly in digital storytelling. Tanenbaum and Tanenbaum argue that agency should not be seen as a scale of freedom afforded, but a “commitment to meaning” (Tanenbaum & Tanenbaum, 2010). They argue that “designers and performers [players] are in a type of conversation,” that play is not just about the freedom to take actions but about the possibility of meaning-making and communication (Tanenbaum & Tanenbaum, 2010, p. 14). For example, decolonial frameworks can challenge or undermine a game’s intended meaning, as Souvik Mukherjee, a game researcher concerned with identity and narrative, explores in his own work. Possibilities for meaning-making can be limited by portrayals of historical events/experiences that assume the player’s positionality, inhibiting their agency by forcing engagement with specific histories and making the player “marginal to the identity the game constructs” (Mukherjee, 2018, p. 511). Agency does not just have implications for the actions a player can, or cannot, take, but can affect the ways the player does, or does not, interpret and experience meaning within a game. Agency is both meaningful and positional. Agency, therefore, has implications for the meanings that Train seeks to construct and communicate.

When thinking about agency, ideology is key to disaggregating the positional, or as game designer and researcher Gonzalo Frasca argues, re-thinking agency is not just about the play system, but about the ideology of that system; by opening up agency in play, critical play can occur as the player is encouraged to question and adapt the system in question (Frasca, 2001). It is not only possible for Train to make players question game systems in general, and the systems it abstracts (the Holocaust and the SS), but also for the player, in turn, to question the system of Train itself: what Train represents, and what it works to do. Ideologies sit in unconscious structures within games and can be shared, and reproduced, unconsciously and unintentionally [11]. Important here is that ideology is understood as something with social origin and function; something that can be (re)produced and maintained through language and ideas [12]. Philosopher Louis Althusser writes:

What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live. (Althusser, 1984, p. 39)

Whilst imagined, ideology has a material existence. Aubrey Anable, a game scholar whose work is concerned with bringing together affect, feminist theory and games, stresses the importance of materiality in her work. She tells us that representation in games matters and is also matter (Anable, 2018): matter in the sense that it is material. This “mattering” can gain contextual importance as Soraya Murray, an interdisciplinary scholar of contemporary visual culture, points out when identifying ideologies with “toxic undercurrents” (Murray S., 2021, p. 3). Ideology may unconsciously sit in games, but it is important to understand that it has material implications; that it can affect the player and their material body, can limit, or liberate agency and that the experience of play, and that agency within play is connected to a player’s material time and place. The ideologies reproduced by Train, significantly, do not just sit within the game and its events of play, but in how we talk about and around the game, and the language and ideas that we (game researchers) promote and discuss as a result of it.

This paper is reflective of a videogame scholar’s experience but is concerned with a boardgame, and therefore boardgame research. Considerable work has been done about the legacy of boardgames, particularly Eurogames, and their legacy of harmful, or insensitive, historical depictions (Pobuda, 2018; Foasberg, 2016; LaPensée, 2016; Johnson, 2016; Robinson, 2014). This paper does not have space for a detailed analysis of boardgame literature, but two things do require discussion. Firstly, the concept of ‘abstraction’ is important here, as Romero describes Train as an “abstracted representation of the SS system” (Brathwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 317). When considering abstraction in Eurogames, Will Robinson, a game researcher concerned with serious game design, poses an important question: “[in] abstract systemic representations, we might ask what is being abstracted out” (Robinson, 2014). Robinson calls for an end to apolitical boardgames, and praises Romero’s political engagement with Train, leading us to the second important issue (Robinson, 2014). Many boardgame scholars uncritically reference Train, (LaPensée, 2016; Robinson, 2016; Robinson, 2014). For example, Elizabeth LaPensée, a game researcher and digital/analogue game designer, writes “communities are developing their own games for passing on teachings in many forms… as espoused by Brenda Romero” (LaPensée, 2016), but in the context of Train this is not true. The Jewish community did not produce Train, meaning Romero’s work is wrongly aligned here [13].

The Discussion

A Note on the Creator of Train

Firstly, I will start by briefly looking at Romero’s own positionality and intentions when she was making Train. Romero describes making Train across the period of a year and tells us that the rules are the game (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 317). Train as a system is intentionally ambiguous, and within this ambiguity is potential for meaning making as well as questioning and provocation. She writes: “In short and based on a single set of rules, the game needed to allow for multiple interpretations and those interpretations all needed to work together simultaneously.” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 318). As the creator of Train, Romero’s intentions for its meaning and play must exist in their own right as legitimate, but they also cannot encompass all possible readings of Train. Although Train is not commercially available, it can still be thought about, read about, written about beyond what Romero designed for, imagined and experienced.

She describes the game’s purpose: “Train ultimately asks players to question their assumed knowledge of a system” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 319). This questioning operates on two levels: questioning the purpose of games and questioning the role/complicity of an SS officer in the Holocaust. It is the latter I am concerned with here. The production process and the play experiences are emotional for both Romero and players. She mentions several players crying or getting emotional at play-throughs: “players thank me for the experience. They cry quite a bit” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 321). When the true context of the game is revealed, the “players are confronted with the ethical implications of their actions,” but I would argue that they are simultaneously confronted with the ethical implications of Train, the system that set the stage in which their actions took place (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 324).

Romero does make the point that Train is one game in a series of six, a part of “The Mechanic is the Message.” She writes: “Making six games invites people to consider, for a moment at least, whether there’s a ‘bigger picture here’ before jumping to conclusions or labelling me a racist” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 315). However, I am not interested in the “bigger picture.” I am only discussing Train here, for two reasons. One, Train has become an important cultural artefact in game research, as both a game that challenges assumptions about what games are supposed to do (be fun) and as a system which contends with such sensitive, and important, history. It is Train that I continually, and unintentionally, encounter in game studies. For example, Katherine Isbister, a game and human computer interaction researcher and designer, writes: “[Train] offers an elegant example of a game that calls on interesting choices… to implicate players” (Isbister, 2013, p.9). Train specifically seems to be a point of fascination and intrigue for game scholars. Secondly, a Jewish perspective is needed on Train in game research, considering the vast amount of discussion it has prompted. Ultimately, Train is about Jewish trauma, death and genocide, and yet our present discussions of it have made little, or no, space for Jewish researchers -- a perspective that is made even more important as the creator, Romero, herself is not Jewish. As a Jewish researcher, I can write about the ways that Train discomforts me, but speaking on other games in the series would risk reproducing issues I later highlight in this discussion.

To address Romero’s second point, fixating on labels such as “racist” (in the context of applying it to a single creator) can be counterproductive, and can risk decentring the minority community in question. She does reference criticisms in her post-mortem of Train, “there are those who charge I am being sensationalistic and others who charge that I have exploited these topics or even tricked the player,” but does not contend with them directly, or prise them out (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 322). This is the uncomfortable truth of Train’s multiple interpretations. For example, a group of alt right people could have sat down to play Train and actively enjoyed it; they could have slotted the yellow blocks onto the train carts knowingly, and with glee. And whilst that is impossible now (Train is not available to play) an identical set of pieces and rules could still be made following Romero’s own descriptions and design intentions. And, significantly, nothing in the original set of Train’s rules would prevent this: “Train is over when it ends” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 317). But what if the players do not want it to end? To some, Train, or the play it provokes, will always be reprehensible, and yet in Romero’s words all interpretations apparently need “to work.”

Train Beyond Romero

I will now analyse and contrast the approaches of Juul and Bogost when discussing the boardgame Train, as both texts highlight wider issues surrounding agency and researcher positionality in analysis -- issues that both encompass, and extend beyond, Train itself. My focus here is on the implicit and explicit assumptions and ideas embedded within wider analytical contexts. Alongside the relevant segments of Juul and Bogost here, I also share my own initial notes that sit alongside these quotes. These were written in late 2020 and portray my initial reaction to both Juul and Bogost’s writing. This act of reading and rereading, of interpreting and reinterpreting, is reflective of the close reading technique that Tanenbaum, along with media and technology researcher Jim Bizzocchi, espouses. They connect this method to the Jewish tradition, to the “discourse surrounding the Torah known as the Talmud, in which Rabbis and scholars interpret and reinterpret the text in an ongoing discussion” (Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum, 2011). This approach is process-driven and continuous, creating potential readings that are “in dialogue with each other” (Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum, 2011). Several different dialogues are occurring here: between myself and Juul and Bogost; between all scholars in discussion and Train; and between my past self and myself now.

When Juul discusses Train in The Art of Failure, he talks about feelings of complicity:

The experience is not one of trivialization, but of feeling painfully involved in an event in a way we do not experience in merely fictional representations such as cinema or literature. (Juul, 2013, p. 108)

Next to my notes about this extract, are my own thoughts when I was reading The Art of Failure:

-- why do you need a game to make you give a shit about Jewish people? It is gamifying the holocaust and I don’t know how to feel about that. [14]

I still do not know how to feel about it. This note of my own is a gut reaction, an uncharitable and little-considered reading. I agree that on the surface Train gamifies the Holocaust by literally making it into a game, but I do not think that is inherently bad or reductive as a concept, although I am admittedly very sceptical about its purpose, or effectiveness, here. I do agree that what Juul wrote has implications for empathy; for “giving a shit.” Juul claims that Train does not trivialise the Holocaust but creates a feeling of being “painfully involved.” The first issue here is the assumption that the player will feel involved in the Holocaust in some way. The game cannot ensure that a player will feel involved or immersed; the complexity of player agency has not been effectively allowed for. Juul’s own agency is asserted, but not acknowledged as a product of his own subjectivities. The second issue is the assumption that even if the player does feel involved, it will be painful. What if it is neutral, or worse, enjoyable -- what if the player enjoys feeling involved in a game that simulates an aspect of the Holocaust? Players can, after all, “choose to play along” once the realisation of the game’s true nature has occurred (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 324). If we apply Frasca’s re-thinking of agency here, then considerations of agency and play possibilities must be bound up with the ideological: what are the ideological implications of a player choosing to play along in a game that simulates the Holocaust, a playstyle that is not prohibited by the game’s system or rules, and enjoys it? (Frasca, 2001). Whilst Juul explores failure in play, its possibilities and purpose, he does not explore failure on the part of the game. What if a game is not designed for failure, but fails in its design -- and what are the implications when a game that simulates the Holocaust fails in this way? If the feeling of involvement, or pain, must be understood as subjective and personal -- partly derived from agency in play -- then so must the claim for trivialisation. If painful involvement is what absolves Train from triviality, then its exoneration is not absolute.

Juul goes on to describe other possible ways of feeling “painfully involved” in the event of the Holocaust, through “fictional representations such as cinema or literature” (Juul, 2013, p. 108). I can think of ways of being ‘painfully involved’ in the Holocaust that are not fictional, and not depicted in a film or a book [15]. For some of us, the painful involvement is already there. As Mukherjee argues, empire building games can provide “a more direct experience of engaging with… colonial history” for players from the Indian subcontinent, Africa or the Middle East (Mukherjee, 2018, p. 508). In addition, game scholar and experimental game maker Sabine Harrer points out that games can ‘vacate’ us to other experiences, which can “feel like a walk-through pre-existing pain and trauma” (Herrer S., 2021, p. 548). Juul does not acknowledge this risk or possibility. The fact that Juul can seemingly only imagine fictional experiences of the Holocaust in his analysis implies that the player of Train is not Jewish. In extension, the person reading his analysis is not imagined as possibly Jewish. His use of “we” is alienating through the assumption that everyone falls into it. I am not a part of that “we,” as many others are also not. By not imagining a Jewish player, Juul implicitly fails to imagine a Jewish reader or researcher. The significance of this blind spot is exacerbated by Juul’s own point that Train can bring the subject (player) closer to a serious historical event; the potential impact of Train brings with it increased design and critique responsibilities. Personal experience and generational trauma are not acknowledged and thus another potential experience, and arguable failing, of Train goes unacknowledged. It is possible that a Jewish player, or a Roma player, or any player with personal and painful ties to the Holocaust, could have sat down and played Train.

Now I turn to Bogost’s analysis and consider the further implications of Train creating a sense of complicity. It should be noted that Bogost helped assuage some of the doubts Romero had when making Train at his own tenure party; even if in a minor way, he had some influence on the game’s production (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 316).

Bogost writes, in his Chapter titled "Shaking up the Holocaust Train" in How to Talk About Videogames:

The sinking feeling that accompanies it is palpable -- one cannot help but admit that there is a measure of comfort in extreme order, and that such comfort is one tiny pebble in the foundation of fascism. (Bogost, 2015, p. 89)

And underneath, my notes read:

-- way too comfortable/flippant when discussing the game? If players aren’t uncomfortable then what have the game devs made; a holocaust simulator? [16]

My gut reaction when I read the chapter title “Shaking up the Holocaust Train” was why does the Holocaust require shaking up? And having read the chapter, I still do not know. I am not sure I want to know. If researchers do have “zones” then my zone was broken here (Murray J., 2017, p. 146). When I read this for the first time, I was made acutely aware that, for some researchers, the Holocaust can be discussed so flippantly and with such comfortable intrigue. A luxury I am not afforded. This tone also suggested that a Jewish reader, or Jewish researcher, was not being anticipated. I am inclined to agree with the original notes I wrote alongside this segment: there is an uncomfortableness about the ease with which Bogost discusses Train and the Holocaust more widely. Akin to Juul, he discusses the “sinking feeling” when the player realises that they are playing a boardgame which simulates the Holocaust -- loading not blocks onto the train, but people. He does consider the subjectivity of the player beyond himself; that they may enjoy the “extreme order” in-game and can find comfort in the satisfying play it affords, as well as the discomfort of the “realisation” that the game is designed to create. He does acknowledge that this comfort is a “tiny pebble” in the development of fascist beliefs. The yellow blocks that represent people satisfyingly slot onto the train, something that the player can continue to do once the “realisation” has occurred, even if the game is not designed with such play in mind. However, the implications of this play possibility are not fully prised out. My original question “If players aren’t uncomfortable then what have the game devs made; a holocaust simulator?” still stands. All possible interpretations of Train supposedly need “to work.” What does this possibility work to do?

Turning to Train

I would like to start my own analysis of Train by acknowledging Romero’s use of a smashed window as Train’s game board to indicate the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass [17]. She writes:

It resolved the tension I had about manipulating the player, by presenting something that appeared completely innocent and game-like (I wanted the presentation of the game to suggest the possibility of something other than fun). I wanted to take advantage of that assumed knowledge without pushing it. I also wanted to give the player who knew, the opportunity to bow out before the game even began. (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 319)

I, of course, can only imagine sitting down to play Train (not knowing its true purpose) and seeing this and considering whether it would be enough to protect me, to tell me to “bow out.” I already know what Train is and does, therefore I can never authentically encounter this smashed window as intended. But I am not convinced. I am not convinced that seeing the game laid out on a window would been enough for me to know, to understand. For me, the smashed window is not enough to absolve Train of its risk to accidentally expose players to intergenerational trauma. To know enough to “bow out” becomes a test that a Jew must pass for themselves. And, of course, the Jew cannot be identified visibly beforehand. Jewishness, akin to queerness, is often a hidden identity, displayed through gestures, or language, but mostly invisible to the untrained eye (Woods, 2017, p. 116). No physical attributes absolutely denote Jewishness. In other words, there is no way to definitively know that the players of Train are not Jewish unless they tell you so. Even Romero herself highlights this possibility, when she discusses telling a friend about the game, who she (prior to telling him) “did not know… was Jewish” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 321). I had seen a lot of imagery of Train that includes the broken window before I read of Romero’s explanation, and I never put the two together. My attention was always, instead, directed towards the yellow blocks that are supposed to be people.

The system of Train represents Jewish people, by the hundred thousand, as yellow blocks; the Jewish people in Train are never humanised, are never empowered. They are at the mercy of the player’s choices and actions. We can observe a similar phenomenon when looking at the boardgame Small World (2009), where Johnson demonstrates how the game tokens, in this case the “Lost Tribe” tokens, can dehumanise the communities they are meant to represent (Johnson, 2016). In Train the yellow blocks sit as a physical prop in the game, passive and without their own agency. This dehumanisation does not just occur through the representing of Jews through blocks, however. The assumption that Train makes, that the player themselves is not going to be Jewish, is an extension of this dehumanisation. The possibility of a Jewish player at the table is not designed for, and actively (but not securely) designed against. To repeat Mukherjee, the Jewish player is “made marginal to the identity the game constructs” (Mukherjee, 2018, p. 511). There are no real Jewish people depicted within Train and its play and the player themselves is assumed/anticipated to be non-Jewish. Even Bogost and Juul discuss Train in a way that assumes the reader/player is non-Jewish. Train, then, as a game and as a topic of analysis provides yet another empty space that is connected to Jewishness but does not make space for Jewish people themselves. Train becomes yet another site of Jewish emptiness.

However, Train not only works to potentially dehumanise the Jew, both historically and in the room, but simultaneously humanises the position the player takes up, that of the SS officer. The game is an abstracted representation of the SS system, and within this abstraction we ask: what is abstracted out? The Jew and their agency are, but not only that; decades of antisemitic propaganda, knowledge of the Nazi party’s rise to power, the reality that each yellow block is not a yellow block but thousands of families. The SS officer does not have, and never had, this level of naiveté. Whilst the intention of Train is to make the player experience complicity through their play, it does so in a fantastical imagining, allowing a humanisation of him (the officer) that is beyond generous. Unlike the player, the historical officer the game calls back to always knew he was loading people onto that train. And yet the mechanic of Train tells a different story: that the officer (the player) was loading people onto a Train to Auschwitz without meaning to. We can observe a similar phenomenon in the boardgame Goa and its depictions of colonialism, as Nancy Foasberg, researcher and humanities librarian, writes:

By putting players in the position of colonizers, whose work is seen to consist of careful and difficult management, the mechanics of games like Goa portray themes of colonialism sympathetically. (Foasberg, 2016)

Whilst Train does intend to confront the player with the reality of the Holocaust, it can also be seen to sympathise with the SS officer. Romero describes one player who “still continued to play [after the game’s realisation]… putting herself in the position of a guard with a family to feed” (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 325). If all interpretations need “to work” then so must this one. And importantly this player who roleplays as an SS officer with a family to feed could be sat opposite a Jewish player, who failed to recognise the window, who then must comprehend the horror of this reality quite literally playing out in front of them. By putting the player in the role of the officer the game partakes in a kind of identity tourism. In Nakamura’s words, Train provides a “phantasmatic… space,” a “stage” in which this kind of identity can be performed (Nakamura, 1995, p. 715). Whilst it is not racialised appropriation or performance, the kind that Nakamura addresses, it still offers players a ‘vacation’ into the experience of being an SS officer. When writing on orientalism and abstraction in Eurogames, Robinson calls for game designs to “change to reflect histories worth telling” (Robinson, 2014). I have to question how much this history was worth telling, as a boardgame that sets a stage in which yet another space empty of Jewishness is made and maintained, alongside a humanisation of the very people who contributed to making so many of those very empty spaces in the first place.

I do not believe there is a correct reading of Train. I believe that alternative, or less positive, readings of Train do and need to exist alongside existing responses to the game. Considering how often I have organically come across Train in my own game research, all discussions of it being uncritical, it feels significant that we as game scholars reference it so often but do not question its intentions or its meaning beyond them. Such discussions and readings have left me with a lot of implications to sift through about game research as a space; where I and people like me do or do not fit into it. The fact that both Bogost and Juul thought Train, a boardgame, was worth discussion in the first place is interesting -- and that across their analysis similar methodological issues arise; regarding agency, tone and the assumptions that sit in the text; that there is no risk of Jewish players playing Train, that there is no Jewish reader and, by extension, no Jewish game researchers. I hope that my own analysis of Train highlights analytical opportunities missed by Bogost and Juul and further demonstrates how Train provides not a space where Jewish history and agency can be revived, but another space void of Jewishness and Jewish people.

Concluding thoughts

It may be an obvious statement, but the way we write about things matters. The way we write carries assumptions about who exists in the spaces we ourselves occupy. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall tells us, language carries unconscious ideological structures and, despite their unconscious nature, they are still open to interpretation and analysis (Hall, 1985, p. 106). It should be noted that within his own writings Hall situates himself, and his personal context, within his work, exploring his experiences as a West Indian immigrant to the UK alongside his ideological theory, his personal experiences informing his analysis in turn.

This article is about Train, but it is also about more than Train. Here, Train and the analysis that surrounds it have been explored and implications and meanings prised out. However, I do not just wish to call for more diverse and sensitive readings of Train. Beyond Train, I want to call for better researcher positionality across game studies which will, in turn, lead to more nuanced and sensitive analysis, especially when discussing intergenerational, traumatic events. Researcher positionality is not just about more accurate analysis, but about harm. It is about recognising systems that produce harm and not (re)producing it yourself, at least in the ways you can control. Sometimes this is an uncomfortable, or even painful, process: “To see racism you have to un-see the world as you learned to see it… you have to be willing to venture into secret places of pain” (Ahmed, 2010, p. 83). The implicit assumptions found here -- that Jewish people are not at risk from playing Train; that Jewish people will not read your research; that Jewish people will not research games; that Jewish people are not in the metaphorical room -- produce and maintain antisemitic modes of harm, even if unintentionally. Jewish people, both in and outside of games, suffer a legacy of being depicted as victims and nothing more: we are to be killed, saved, props in a game to be moved around. Train furthers this legacy by one more.

Romero admits that the “crying still surprises” her when people cried during or after playthroughs of Train (Braithwaite & Sharp, 2010, p. 321). I cannot fathom it surprising her, and yet I entirely can. Just as my crying, back in school when we watched “The Holocaust Movie” seemingly surprised my peers. This is the position, the experience, that I bring to Train. Thinking about our positionality as researchers can not only expand our analysis but lets us acknowledge its limitations and gaps. My agency as a researcher is not only positional but meaningful, and I know that my agency as a researcher when discussing Train is affected by its meaning: what it means to me, and what it seemingly does not mean to others [18].



[1] Brenda Romero, Train, (2008).

[2] T. Higgin, ‘Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games’, Games and Culture 4, no. 1 (2009): 3-26; B. McKernan, ‘The Meaning of a Game: Stereotypes, Video Game Commentary and Colour-Blind Racism’, American Journal of Cultural Sociology 3 (2015): 224-53; Adam Ruch, ‘Signifying Nothing: The Hyperreal Politics of “Apolitical” Games’, Communication Research and Practice 7, no. 2 (22 March 2021): 1-20; Nick Robinson, ‘Videogames, Persuasion and the War on Terror: Escaping or Embedding the Military-Entertainment Complex?’, Political Studies 60, no. 3 (1 October 2012): 504-22; Dima Saber and Nick Webber, ‘“This Is Our Call of Duty”: Hegemony, History and Resistant Videogames in the Middle East’, Media, Culture & Society 39, no. 1 (1 January 2017): 77-93; Tara Jane Copplestone, ‘But That’s Not Accurate: The Differing Perceptions of Accuracy in Cultural-Heritage Videogames between Creators, Consumers and Critics’, Rethinking History 21, no. 3 (3 July 2017): 415-38.

[3] It is beyond the remit of this article to discuss the wider fascination with WWII and the Holocaust in media, but I acknowledge that this phenomenon is not exclusive to videogames. However, the nature of games, the role of play and agency, presents unique challenges and nuance when thinking about how Jewish people should and should not be depicted, and how we (as game researchers) should discuss these depictions in turn.

For example: Muse Software, Castle Wolfenstein, (1981). Sledgehammer Games, Call of Duty: WWII, (2017). DreamWorks Interactive, Medal of Honor, (1999). Digital Illusions CE, Battlefield, (1942).

[4] Adam Chapman, Anna Foka and Jonathan Westin, ‘Introduction: What Is Historical Game Studies?’, Rethinking History 21, no. 3 (3 July 2017): 358-71; Johannes Koski, ‘Reflections of History: Representations of the Second World War in Valkyria Chronicles’, Rethinking History 21, no. 3 (3 July 2017): 396-414; Adam Chapman, Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practise (New York: Routledge, 2016); Matthew Kapell and Andrea B. R. Elliott, Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History (New York: Bloomsbury Academic and Professional, 2013).

[5] See: Robert Zussman in Call of Duty: WWII. William Joseph “B. J.” in the Wolfenstein series is an example of Jewish protagonist.

[6] BioWare, Dragon Age Series, (2009-2014).

[7] Arwa Mahdawi, “PewDiePie thinks ‘Death to all Jews’ is a joke. Are you laughing yet?” The Guardian, 15th February, 2017,

[8] Read more about this phenomenon here:

[9] Haroon Siddique and Oliver Laughland, “Texas synagogue siege: hostage-taker named as 44-year-old Briton,” The Guardian, 16th January, 2022,

[10] Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017), 89, 262. Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press, 2007), 72.

[11] Freeden, 3 and 22; Stuart Hall, ‘Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2, no. 2 (1985): 106.

[12] James Donald and Stuart Hall, Politics and Ideology: A Reader (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986), ix; Stuart Hall, ‘Psychoanalysis and Cultural Studies’, Cultural Studies 32, no. 6 (2 November 2018): 894.

[13] Romero states she is Irish Catholic here: B. Brathwaite, J. Sharp, “The Mechanic is the Message: A Post Mortem in Progress,” In K. Schrier, & D. Gibson (Ed.), Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values through Play, 315.

[14] Reading notes, 17.

[15] Painful involvement is understood to be personal and malleable - going beyond literally familial connection, to connection(s) through heritage, generational trauma, identity and history.

[16] Reading notes, 7.

[17] Read about the Night of Broken Glass here:

[18] I would like to note that Bogost and Juul could be Jewish. Even if they are, Jewish academics are not a monolith; we do not all have the same experiences, the same points of view. I am allowed to disagree with them. But if they had situated themselves within the discussion of Train, I may have disagreed with them differently.



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