The 16-Year-Old Modder Who Decided 'Crusader Kings II' Wasn't Jewish Enough

A hardcore strategy game about medieval life gets even more hardcore.

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Apr 19 2017, 6:00pm

Crusader Kings II is a sprawling, ambitious strategy game set in the Middle Ages, one known for its stories of intrigue, backstabbing, and other plots spinning out of its central premise: relationships. The choices you make regarding, like the decision to have children—or, if it seems to advance your interests, deciding to kill your own children—are what move the game forward.

As such, Crusader Kings II tends to attract a specific type of person, and that extends to the folks who decide to make mods for the game, as well. It's no great shock that someone has crafted an extensive Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings II, but those aren't the mods that started catching my eye, as I looked around the game's still-robust community of creators.

Jewish Kings, which intends "to make Jewish characters more interesting and historically accurate,"comes from 16-year-old Canadian high school student Jonathan, who goes by the name Gefilte Fish online. (Jonathan asked for his last name to be kept out of his story.) His interest in ancient and Medieval history is what drew him to Crusader Kings II, an experiment in exploring his Jewish identity and applying lessons from some programming courses he's taken.

The online discussions surrounding the mod are fascinating, with other amateur Jewish experts weighing in with thoughts on his use of language, terms, and other elements of Jewish history. If Crusader Kings II already attracts a specific type of person, Jonathan's mod is even more specific.

It also draws trolls dishing out anti-Semitic comments, one of topics I covered when I chatted with Jonathan about the work put into his Jewish Kings mod.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Waypoint: What got you interested in playing Crusader Kings II ?

Jonathan: Being a fan of strategy games, especially games based in a historical setting, I was easily drawn to Crusader Kings II. I always found myself being drawn by realistic, historical games, and repulsed by unrealistic, fictional, fantastical games. There is something very amazing in being immersed in a Medieval lord simulator such as Crusader Kings.

What's your relationship to Judaism? Is it a central part of your life?

Jonathan: I was born into a secular Jewish family. (There is a Jewish religion, and a Jewish ethnicity. The two usually go together but not always.) Though recently I have become more interested in Judaism. It is not a central part of my life; if it was, I probably wouldn't be wasting any time playing video games.

Your mod, Jewish Kings, aims to "make Jewish characters more interesting and historically accurate." For the laymen among us, what does that mean and how big of an undertaking was it?

Jonathan: Crusader Kings II does have Jewish characters, but most of them are not playable, and the few who are are—the Khagan of Khazaria and the Duke of Semien, to be specific— easily get destroyed by neighboring empires, and anyway are not very fun to play. I decided to add more options for playing as a Jewish character, such as new and unique decisions and events. In addition to making the Jewish character experience more in-depth, I added events for non-Jewish characters. For example, different kinds of Jewish courtiers can arrive at the court of a non-Jewish character. A non-Jewish ruler might be confronted with a migration of Jews to one of his provinces, and will have to choose either to accept them or not. Historically, sometimes European lords had to face tough decisions like this one. I added this event and others like it to make the experience more extensive and immersive.

Images courtesy of Jonathan

In comparison to big Crusader Kings II mods such as CK+, my mod is not so big. However, for people such as myself, the changes that I made were sufficient. An interesting fact: Originally, I wanted to name my mod "Idishe Melkhim," the Yiddish form of "Jewish Kings," but since no one would understand the meaning of it, I translated it to English.

The game includes Jewish characters, events, and references already, but you wanted to go deeper. What motivated you to actually spend the time building a mod?

Jonathan: Originally, I was perfectly content with the Jewish characters and events already in the game, and I just wanted to correct a few historical inaccuracies here and there, but as I got better at modding, I decided to add more. First, I slightly modified small things such as names of scriptures and priestly titles for the various Israelite religious sects, to make it more historically accurate. Much later I added big things such as new decisions and events. Then, I started to experiment, and I was curious to see where I could take this mod. I spent many hours writing and testing new events and decisions. I suppose that what motivated me was the possibility that I could improve the game and make it more enjoyable to play.

"Originally, I wanted to name my mod 'Idishe Melkhim,' the Yiddish form of 'Jewish Kings,' but since no one would understand the meaning of it, I translated it to English."

Talk to me about the big additions you made to the game, such as the new cultures and events. What'd you draw from?

Jonathan: Most of my changes to the game are small, but a few are relatively large, in my opinion. I added two new Israelite cultures: Mizrachi, the culture of the Jews who lived in the Middle East, and Hebrew, which is the predecessor of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. I changed the names of people in each culture and I gave them different bonuses to make them more historical and distinctive. For example, characters of Hebrew culture get +1 piety, and Sephardi get +1 learning. I gave all characters of the Jewish religion +1 learning to reflect how historically Judaism always emphasized the importance of studying religious texts. At first, I thought that it would be wrong to give Jewish cultures and religion so many (arguably over-powered) bonuses, but then I saw that in the base game, Buddhism has +4 learning (which is objectively overpowered)! I lost all shame and decided to proceed with the addition of said bonuses.

I made Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture nonexistent in the early game, but then develop in and diverge from their predecessor the Hebrew culture around the 9th Century, as it did historically. I gave the Karaite sect a head of religion: the Exilarch, and also one for the Samaritans: the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). I added events which only fire when a character restores the Jewish High Priesthood: The Sanhedrin restores the punishment of known murderers and adulterers. I added events where rabbis and other zealous Jews try to encourage other Jews to lose bad traits such as jealousy, pride, greed, and develop good traits instead. I added event chains where a Jew and a non-Jew discuss theology, and one of the two (possibly) develops sympathy for the other religion: A rare friendly interaction between Jews and non-Jews in the Medieval World. I added a decision for Jewish characters to observe the holiday of Yom Kippur with other vassals.

Of course, during all the event chains I mentioned (and the ones I did not), a wide variety of different outcomes might occur depending on the characters' traits, your decisions and chance.

Do you find that most people who are adding the mods are Jewish, as well?

Jonathan: I assume that most (though not all) people who add my mod are Jewish or have a very strange fascination with Jewish culture or history. Normally, if someone wants to add more events and decisions to the game, they download CK+ or some other big mod. I think that it's only Jews who would want a mod that focuses specifically on Jewish events and decisions, and the kinds of people I meet who download my mod seem to confirm that belief.

There aren't many video games that invoke religion, let alone ones practiced in real-life. But Crusader Kings is an exception. Did the fact that Crusader Kings makes religion important play a role in why you hoped to deepen its Jewish representation?

Jonathan: Crusader Kings certainly is unique in that it invokes religion. I must say, much of my mod makes changes and additions to the Jewish religion, though I would not say that I did it because of the importance of religion in the game itself. Religion in my mod is simply a tool through which I deepen the Jewish representation, but my goal is not just to deepen religion, but to deepen the broader Jewish experience (and that just so happens to include religion). However, I find it difficult to imagine what my mod would look like if religion was not an important mechanic in Crusader Kings II. The game takes place in the Middle Ages, so naturally religion is a major factor. And because religion is a major factor in the game, it had to be a major factor in my mod as well.

People often talk about how their identity influences how they play and interpret games. Is that true for you, as well? Does being Jewish have any impact on how you play video games?

Jonathan: For many people, their identity has little if any influence on the way they play it, but for some it makes a big difference, especially if the game portrays the player's nation, culture or religion. Obviously, no one wants to see their culture or religion portrayed badly or inaccurately, but I think that it goes beyond that. When a person plays a game with their own culture or religion, the player feels more immersed and invested in the game. It becomes more personal, more relatable. The player's imagination takes over, and they tend to read into the game on a deeper level. Needless to say, this does have an impact on how a person plays and interprets a game. For example in my case, when I play as a Jewish character in Crusader Kings II, I have a slightly different mindset. I think that the events that take place in the game relate to me differently. This sounds absurd but it's true.

Just looking through Steam, it's clear people have tried to deploy anti-Semitic comments in an effort to upset you and people who are fans of the mod. Has that been a big distraction?

Jonathan: The Anti-Semitic comments made on my mod's page are a bit upsetting, but only for a few seconds. I believe that people who make foolish comments about any culture or religion are not worth being upset about, so no, it has not been a big distraction.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email here.