The Anne Frank Game

I’m not good at games—my only defence is not to play it back but to opt out of the game altogether. Samantha Harvey

Have you heard of the Anne Frank game? It’s not exactly Scrabble Light. In fact, it’s a dangerous game, full of unknown risks and devastating consequences, especially if you play it with your dearest friend or spouse. Beware: Falling Rocks Ahead.

Nathan Englander described the game in his short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” first published in the 12/5/11 issue of the New Yorker. It is also one of several other stories in his recent book with the same title. Each of the tales is said by Englander to involve a moral test of its characters.

The game is a “thought experiment” in which you make a prediction about another person’s behavior. In this case, it’s a prediction about whether or not the individual will hide you in the event of another Holocaust. When asked about the origin of the game, Englander replied:

“The truth is the idea for the game comes from the fact that my sister and I have played the game forever and ever. She is older. And she invented it. And it become clear to me that it wasn’t a game at all. The highest compliment we give to certain friends is to say something like, “Yes, Nicole would hide me. She really would.”

In the story, the narrator and his wife are talking with old friends of his wife who are visiting from Israel. All four are Jewish, the Americans living in Florida are secular Jews, while the couple from Israel have shifted from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox. The characters are drunk and high and begin trying to decide who might hide them and who might betray them if there ever was to be another Jewish genocide.

The game becomes quite another matter when the couples move beyond their friends and neighbors, strangers, Christian or Jew, and start trying to decide if they would save their spouse. Would you hide your wife or your husband and would you say what couldn’t be said?

You see how risky this so-called game can be? Had you known that, you might not have agreed to play. However, in the story, the characters had been drinking all afternoon and then started smoking marijuana. And so they began. Elsewhere Englander says,

I am obsessed with the social contract, or rather the ways it can be tested and eventually broken. It fascinates me how an individual has to hold so many opposing realities in his or her head simply in order to survive.

Let’s look at this game from another perspective, one less a test of a person’s character and more a matter of what is known about predicting future behavior. And what has been confirmed over and over again in studies of this issue is that individuals are woefully inaccurate in predicting their own and anyone else’s behavior.

Given that you know about the game and the fallibility of human judgment, would you want to play at all?

There are many roads that lead to Rome. If fact, all roads are said to lead to Rome. Some are more scenic than others, but they can be treacherous in spots. Whatever road you take will have its consequences.


Stefanie said...

A very interesting thought experiment. One I hope we never have to find out the real answer to.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Stefanie. I appreciate your comment. If we broaden the meaning of Holocaust to groups other than the Jews, I don't think we need to look very far to see that the issue is still a real one for many individuals.

Stefanie said...

Sad, but true.