These are not exactly the most comforting words to hear shouted in the middle of your high school cafeteria. If you are anything like me, just the word “Hitler” sends a shiver up your spine.
When I heard this vicious accusation, my head whipped around to see a group of my classmates and close friends playing, of all things, a game. I stomped over to see just what had merited that distasteful insult. As it turns out, the comment bore no malevolence; it was simply in reference to a new and popular social deduction game called “Secret Hitler.”
Social deduction games such as Mafia and Werewolf involve using logic, persuasion and oftentimes manipulation to seek or conceal information to win the game. “Secret Hitler” includes five to 10 people divided into teams of liberals and fascists.
The fascists comprise a smaller team whose identities are revealed only to one another. An article in the Chicago Sun-Times explained that in order to win, the liberals “need to pass five liberal policies or identify — and thus assassinate — Hitler before the fascists pass enough of their policies to install Hitler as chancellor.”
Trust, therefore, becomes a crucial aspect of the game. A liberal player must possess a keen and critical eye to judge if they can trust those who claim to be liberal. If the fascists can dupe the liberals, they can put forth their own agenda and ultimately reign victorious.
The game’s constant uncertainty and the resulting dubiety inevitably incites raucous outbursts from the zealous players. The passionate posse of “Secret Hitler” devotees at my school were often told to settle down, or at least to keep the loud mentions of Hitler to a minimum.
Yet their tireless verve and uproarious game-playing sessions seemed only to be amplified as more and more people joined to play or observe “Secret Hitler” in action. I had never quite seen such a hodgepodge of my peers gather together around the cafeteria folding tables.
People who never would have made plans outside of school or hung out otherwise assembled multiple times a week — even multiple times a day — to play this apparently obsessive game. To those, like me, who never took part in this odd phenomenon, one pressing question pervaded: How and why did this game become popular?
“Secret Hitler’s” genesis dates back to late February or early March 2015. 32-year-old Mike Boxleiter binge-watched the acclaimed 2001 mini-series, “Band of Brothers,” a Steven-Spielberg produced show that follows the tale of an army company’s endeavors in World War II battling against the Nazi regime.
Following his obsessive viewing spree, Boxleiter arrived the following Monday morning to the office he shared with the games eventual co-creators, Tommy Maranges and Max Temkin (Temkin also co-created “Cards Against Humanity,” another edgy and popular game).
He told them that “after having watched 705 minutes of Americans battling Germans, he had an idea for a new game, based on Hitler’s rise to power,” according to The New York Times.
Within two days, the three had created Secret Hitler’s first prototype. In November 2015, the co-creators posted their idea on Kickstarter hoping to accumulate $54,000 to start manufacturing and distributing their product. To put this number in perspective, “Cards Against Humanity” only accrued $15,000, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
In the very first day alone, “Secret Hitler” raised $1.5 million from over 35,000 backers, enabling the game’s production and evincing obvious public intrigue. According to The New York Times, it is assumed that as of September 2017 the creators had already sold “tens of thousands of copies,” and they even sold out their second-print run.
And yet despite the game’s seemingly historical context, the creators have made crystal clear the intended present-day parallels. The New York Times reported that the game’s release fortuitously aligned with an “unforeseen trend: a significant surge in interest in fascism around the 2016 election, which also saw brisk sales of dystopian literary classics and a rejuvenated discussion of the movement that brought leaders like Hitler and Mussolini to power.”
On the FAQ section of the “Secret Hitler” website, one question reads: “I don’t think there’s anything funny or cool about fascism. Who can I complain to?” The inquiry is followed by President Trump’s address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in addition to a number which customers can text to find their representative’s contact information. The creators even went so far as to send the game directly to some U.S. senators.
The creators of the game continued the political running gag by making a Trump expansion pack available for purchase. The cast of characters include Trump himself, Mike Pence and some members of Trump’s administration who still held their positions as of June 7, 2017.
The website’s candor cannot be misconstrued as anything but utterly anti-Trump. The site inquires, “What will do you do first? An unconstitutional Muslim ban? Withdraw from popular environmental treaties? Fire the FBI director? The only limit is your imagination!” The site states that the pack is available solely in the U.S. with the simple explanation, “Trump is our problem.”
Subtlety evidently is not the creators modus operandi, and the game’s unconcealed message points current politics’ ever-expanding influence. Typically, people would expect to see political-leaning messages infiltrate forms of media such as television shows and social media accounts, but most likely not in games.
But the messages infused in “Secret Hitler” do just that; even more, they attempt to make the player feel something. Temkin admitted to the Chicago Sun-Times that it “adds to the sting of the game that you are accused of allowing history to repeat itself.” Something which seems superficial could in a way quickly turn into an unexpected self-analysis.
Maranges also stated the he considers Secret Hitler “a simulator for people who think it would be so easy to spot Nazis.” By shaking players’ faith in their own perception skills and linking the game to modern-day events, the creators’ cleverness becomes strikingly visible.
I wonder if my classmates felt this whirlwind of emotions: The exhilaration of playing an entertaining game paired with the eerie feeling the creators also desired to elicit by directing attention to the country’s current political climate.
“Secret Hitler’s” enduring implications and its longevity will be seen in the coming months and years. For now, the surface-level amusement and the deeper political insight the game provides continue to attract customers to this enthralling, headline-making and remarkably poignant diversion.