"1,378 (kilometers)" is a game designed by German media-art student Jens Strobe for the University of Design, Media and Arts in the city of Karlsruhe. Name after the length of the wall that used to divide East and West Germany during the Cold War, the game lets you play either as a refugee fleeing the East German state or a border guard charged with stopping them.
Being historically accurate, one of the means by which you have to stop people from leaving the country is shooting them, despite them being unarmed civilians. (The other choices are to arrest them or to join them.) This way more than 1,000 people were killed on the German-German border.
If the player decides to shoot an East German refugee, the regime will award him with a medal; however, the game will then fast forward to the year 2000 where the player has to face a trial for killing a civilian. The player is taken out of the game for about a minute which gives him the chance to reflect on what he did and the inhumane practices of the East German government. Moreover, killing too many refugees will result in a loss of points.
When I first read about the game a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was a great idea. (At a talk I once suggested the development of a game which aims to replicate the terror and paranoia caused by the East German secret police.)
Due to the simulational nature of digital games, players are able to experience the horrors of the inner German border first hand. It's like a documentary, except that it is playable. The difficulty and cruelty of the escape translate directly into the rules of the game, the player gets the chance to ask himself how he would have reacted and can vary his actions accordingly.
Games like "1,378 (kilometers)" are a great way to teach history to younger generations by means of their preferred medium. They are also a good example for how games can incorporate and convey national images and stories in order to keep their memory alive. With some enhancements it might work even better (e.g. the player is confronted with the biography of the person he just killed, or he has to face an East German military court if he fails to stop the refugee).
As such you'd expect a game like this of being able to contribute to the social acceptance of the medium. However, it mostly met harsh criticism.
Despite not being available yet, people like the director of the Berlin Wall Memorial, Axel Klausmeier, called the game “tasteless,” and an insult to the families of those killed along the border while trying to escape. He also said the game was “unsuitable” for teaching historical facts. “The seriousness of what once went on at the border can’t be portrayed in this way,” he said.
Another critic is Rainer Wagner, a man who spent two years in an East German prison following a botched escape attempt and who is now head of an organisation for victims of communist violence. He says the game “appealed to the basest human instincts”, and that “this game…is even worse than other shoot ‘em ups because normally in such games, one shoots at armed enemies – here, it is unarmed civilians.”
Others labelled the game "tasteless", "stupid" or explained how a university was not a suitable place for producing "killer games". Hubertus Knabe, chairman of a memorial place documenting the crimes of the East German secret police, even pressed charges against the maker of the game on the grounds of it glorifying violence.
If find these discussions remarkable for two reasons.
On one hand, it shows that digital games still haven't reached German society. Parts of the populace still don't regard them as a means for the communication of serious ideas – despite believing in their potential to incite violent acts, if the medium is supposedly that powerful why not use it for educational purposes?
There's a general unwillingness to engage with games, this "vulgar" medium; like cinema and television before it it has "the traits of a young street arab; [it is] an uneducated creature running wild among the lower strata of society" (Kracauer).
This cultural conflict – which is very distinct in Germany – is aided by a generational conflict. Despite being several decades old, to some people games are still a new form of technology which did not yet enter their cultural meaning horizon They are therefore destructively criticised as an unwholesome leisure pursuit and idle waste of time. Like every newly introduced technology, digital games cause suspicion and fear and are identified and stigmatised as deviants from the promoted social order by parts of the society lacking the knowledge and strategies to make sense of them.
On the other hand, if critics of the game explain that it should be banned because people can be shoot like rabbits, this is not so much a criticism of the game but of the system it aims to simulate.
The game's creator aims to replicate the horrors of the inner German border; the fact that people can be shoot is not his fault but is a direct result of the policies of the socialist East German regime. They are just reflected by the game's mechanics. In this respect the criticism is rather about getting even with the past, charges are pressed against the system of rules of Germany's second dictatorship.
Still, as a result of the public uproar the game did not get released. It was supposed to come out on 3 October, the 20th anniversary of Germany's reunification, however the release was postponed.
I'm really looking forward to this game, not only because it demonstrates games' potential but also because it has the courage to say something meaningful (in contrast to something like Medal of Honor).