Introducing the younger generations to cultural heritage is a constant challenge in a rapidly evolving world. As technology plays an increasingly dominant role, new platforms such as social media and video games, can be used to introduce difficult cultural heritage to young people. Here’s how social media accounts and game developers take on the challenge to teach young people about one of Europe’s darkest histories: the Holocaust.
At first sight, technology and dark heritage might not be the most logical combination. However, memorial sites have found an unconventional way to raise awareness among young users by taking to the popular social media platform TikTok. The platform, known for its short videos, has become a powerful tool for reaching millions of kids and young adults from Generation Z (aged 14 to 25).
Former concentration camp Neugamme in Germany is one of the memorial sites that recognized the platform’s potential to reach young people who are no longer active on older social media platforms like Facebook. By sharing videos on TikTok about the history and the narratives presented at the site, they aim to create visibility and engage Gen Z users with the history of the Holocaust. And with success; take for example 21-year-old David Gutzeit and his sister Jonna, who visited Neuengamme after discovering it on TikTok. “It’s not enough for me just to read about it in school books, I want to see and feel where these Nazi atrocities happened,” said David to DW.
We want to create visibility and reach Gen-Z users on TikTok. We would otherwise hardly be able to reach them with our educational work on other platformsIris Groschek
And he is certainly not the only one, reckons Iris Groschek, the historian responsible for the TikTok channel at the Neuengamme memorial, the first channel of its kind: “Many young people come here because they saw us on TikTok”, she says. “We want to create visibility for the topic among the young target group and reach Gen-Z users on TikTok. We would otherwise hardly be able to reach them with our educational work on other platforms.” The account has some 27,900 followers, and some TikTok videos have millions of views. Other concentration camp memorials, such as Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Mauthausen in Austria have followed the trend and started their own accounts, with success.
TikTok’s outreach potential is obvious, because a single video has the potential to reach millions of viewers, surpassing the number of physical visitors to memorial sites. Recognizing the significance of Holocaust education, TikTok has taken proactive steps. The platform automatically links every video about the Holocaust to educational websites, such as aboutholocaust.org.
Additionally, TikTok has launched the “Shoah Education and Commemoration Initiative,” which has received the prestigious Shimon Peres Prize. Through partnerships with memorial centres and educational institutions like the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, TikTok offers workshops and exchanges to further Holocaust education.
Digital first-hand experiences
But there are more fields that are part of the modern digital world that take the step to do more with heritage, such as video games. They can offer a unique platform for learning as well, particularly for younger generations says Christian Huberts of the Foundation for Digital Games Culture to DW. More immersive and interactive than social media, games can provide first-hand experiences and foster empathy, he reckons. For example, if players are given fewer and fewer opportunities to intervene in a plot, they could experience “how a fascist political system can spread its power, how rights suddenly disappear”, Huberts explained.
Take for example the video game “The Light in the Darkness”, made by independent developer Luc Bernard. It tells the story of a working-class family of Polish Jews in France during the Holocaust. It is one of the first video games to portray the Holocaust accurately, and Bernard decided to release the game for free for educational purposes. Another recent video game that fits in this category is “The Darkest Files”, made by a Berlin-based studio, where players can assume the roles of resistance fighters or prosecutors.
As a descendant of a family heavily affected by the Holocaust, Bernard noticed that there was little attention to representing this dark episode of history. Video games often focus on the military aspect of World War II, with the most notable examples being the “Medal of Honor”, “Battlefield”, and the “Wolfenstein”-series, which are all shooter games, with little attention to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
The emergence of games addressing the Holocaust marks a shift in the gaming industry’s perception of its role in letting the next generation come into contact with dark cultural heritage such as the Holocaust. “There just need to be more games about that period,” Bernard reckons. “Not just war games.”
Does that mean young people will now only learn about the complex history of World War II through social media and video games from now on? Certainly not: teaching kids in school about history should always be a core part of introducing them to these difficult parts of our collective heritage.
However, we shouldn’t ignore that the immersive and interactive nature (and huge popularity) of social media and video games, provide a great way to reach younger generations. Learning empathy and understanding complex historical narratives should always be one of the core values of introducing young people to heritage, and new technologies can certainly help.