Pokemon and the Jewish Question
"What rock and roll was to the youth of the Sixties, gaming is to the youth of today," says Killol Bhuta, brand manager, Ford Motor Company. I guess it must be true, because as someone who was born around the sixties, I like rock and roll - but I just don't get today's obsession with video games.
Even among adults, video games are wildly popular; according to the Entertainment Software Association (http://www.theesa.com/facts/index.asp), the average age of Americans who bought video games last year was 37 - and even 19% of over 50s play games! Not only that - seventy-five percent of American heads of households play computer and video games, according to the group, and the industry sells $8 billion dollars worth of the things every year in the U.S. Boy, am I out of step!
Numbers like these indicate that gaming is more than just a pastime - it's a pop culture phenomenon. Just like rock in its time was supposed to evoke the feelings of the age - the Age of Aquarius, that is - video games, as the vehicle of youth culture, give kids (and wannabe kids) their important cultural cues. Even if you don't play games, you can't avoid their influence - more and more movies and TV shows are either based on characters from video games, or look like they might have been plucked out of a game. Which came first, Pokemon as a video game, as a TV show, a movie, or a messy card game? How about The Matrix series? Mortal Kombat? However they started, these and other such games/shows/movies are all pervasive nowadays, and tell you all you need to know about the popular culture.
Lots of people think that games, with their often excessive violence and gangsta-rap style theme music, reflect a brutalization of society, while others point to the very common themes of fantasy and escapism (Myst, Age of Empires, etc.) in many games as signs of alienation and isolation. Maybe, maybe not; I think you could take a circa 1969 article critical of The Beatles and just replace "John Lennon" with Carl Johnson (of Grand Theft Auto) and get a perfectly up to date "worried adult" critique of the video game phenomenon.
I have a different question about video games: Is it Good for the Jews?
Jews, as we know, have been everywhere in popular cultures throughout the ages - and they tend to crop up in the most surprising places. Jews were all the rage when orthodox Catholicism set the tone for popular culture during the dark ages, but even during more secular eras, Jews and Jewish related themes were never far from the surface of cultural doings. Here, for example, is author Herman Melville's take on American "manifest destiny: "We Americans are the particular, chosen people the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world," (White-Jacket, 1850).
So it stands to reason that the newest pop culture phenomena would have something to say about Jews, or Jewish themes, as well. Living as we do in an era when enlightened people, like game authors, tend to downplay ethnic, racial and religious issues, it's difficult to find any identifiably Jewish characters in top video games, but Half Life, for example, with a story that takes place in a European style setting and features a place called City 17 (a tribute to the anti-Nazi movie Stalag 17?) has several characters with Jewish sounding names, including Gordon Freeman, Judith Mossman, and Dr. Kleiner, who are all engaged in a fight against a fascist style outfit called the Combine. That Gordon's buddy in this fight is a guy named Calhoun might mean something, like ethnic America (Jews and Irish) struggling against Nazi tyranny during WWII - or it might not.
Aside from the tenuous Jewish character connections in Half Life, though, there are plenty of references to Jewish symbols and concepts in the gaming world. One vampire vs. good guys vs. other bad guys shoot 'em up, called the Legacy of Kain, has plenty of Jewish-type names, including Raziel, (as in the Angel Raziel, to whom the Kabalah attributes protection against fire), Rahab (prostitute of Jericho), and Kain himself, Adam's "bad seed." Raziel, the, game's main character, starts out as a good guy, turns into a vampire (which some think is a code word for "Jew" - see http://www.nthposition.com/bloodculture.php), and in a third incarnation, rises up against the vampires. Kain apparently was a bad guy who later turned into a good guy. The Legacy of Kain story got me thinking along the lines of Christological issues of Christian salvation vs. Jewish damnation, but then that's just me.
And there are plenty more Jewish game references; there's a Golem in Monster Rancher, Nephilim in Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (among others), a Tower of Babel in Doom (among many others), a guy name "Flinty Stone" in Viewtiful Joe who, according to the Wikipedia, is a "golem like agent who speaks with a Jewish accent (Ashkenazic, Sephardic or Yemenite?)," and others too numerous to mention. The truth is, popular culture is so full of Jewish references that mean one thing in the Jewish world, another in the Christian world, and something else entirely in the pan-global Far Eastern/Pagan flavored New Age humanistic "religion" we have today (Madonna-style Kabbalism is a good example), it's tough to pick out what exactly all these Jewish references mean, if anything.
And then, of course, there's Pokemon, which was recently banned by Saudi Arabia for alleged Zionist references (apparently one of the characters uses a star of David for something). On the other hand, one of the many, many Pokemon characters uses a swastika as his shield, a situation that caused the ADL much concern (http://www.adl.org/presrele/mise_00/3511_00.asp). There is also supposedly a Pokemon called "UnGeller" who bends spoons; Web sites I've seen say "UnGeller" means "Evil Geller" in Japanese, and Nintendo, Pokemon's creator, is being sued by the spoon bending showman Uri Geller. Of course, Geller is easy to make fun of, and swastikas are good luck charms in the Far East, but Japan has in the past been accused of fostering an anti-Semitic culture (http://www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism/asw97-8/japan.html), which would at least partially explain negative Jewish images in popular games, many of which are based on the Japanese anime pop-culture tradition.
Of course, any good gamer is going to have his or her eye on the action, not philosophy, but will players of In Nomine connect the "immortal" characters in the game, Ahasuerus and Cartaphilus, with their roles in Christian tradition as the Wandering Jews (http://www.sjgames.com/in-nomine/articles/INChar/Humans/Immortals.Wandering.html)? Will players who take the roles of Combine soldiers pursuing the Jewish sounding named characters in Half Life ever think about pursuing real Jews in their "regular life?" Maybe. But maybe not - after all, is there anyone around anymore who really believes that "All You Need is Love?"
January 6
   David Shamah
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