serious games

Game Based on Germany's Death Strip Stirs Controversy

"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).


Fostering a Better Understanding of History? The Berlin Wall Mod for Half Life 2

Gamepolitics just directed my attention towards this interesting mod for Half Life 2: Thanks to some talented modders gamers can now experience a virtual recreation of the walled East-Berlin. Explains Garry's Mod:

The anticipated BerlinWall map has been released. The map offers singleplayer experience from the view of an East German citizen, dreaming of living in the West Germany. The gameplay in the map is non-linear, you can take many paths to west. Also, avoid making mistakes, they can be deadly, and remember to check everywhere for some sort of weapons.

The map works the best in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, but like common Source-based maps, it also works in Garry's Mod. Not offering the best gameplay experience in it, but works great for posing and comics.

This is the kind of stuff I love: Using the simulational nature of digital games to foster a better understanding of historical events as they offer a grade of immersion other media don't, fostering much needed respect for the often chastised games in the process.

If the rules work accordingly. Unfortunately I haven't yet had a chance yet to play this mod (as I'm using a Mac) but from what I've gathered this might not always be the case.

According users of this forum, parts of the game involve direct armed confrontations with guards. Violence of this sort certainly wasn't part of the process of trying to flee from the socialist reign of terror as this would have been even more suicidal. Apparently it is also possible to run through barbed wire without getting injured, an aspect I find highly objectionable as one of the most gruesome deaths at the wall (or what was to become the wall) was caused but just that: Getting stuck in barbed wire, getting shot, bleeding to death.

These problems are increased by an age old problem: Trying to escape from East Germany certainly involved a lot of arbitrary factors – games rules don't, otherwise that game wouldn't be playable. Or to put it differently: Life's not fair, games (mostly) are.

By speaking speaking of belittlement: Saving the "game" or a God mode weren't options for these people who decided to take the ordeal of escaping upon themselves.

From what I could gather from the screenshots the problematic nature of this games also extends to its representation. Using Combine soldiers as an ersatz for East German border guards again is highly troublesome – just like using the iconic crowbar as a weapon – due to the connotations that spring up in our heads: The first thing I thought of was headcrabs.

As much as the creators of this mod should be applauded for trying there still are massive problems up ahead, but as a glimpse into games' potential as a tool to teach it can be regarded as a thought-provoking – yet problematic – project.


Digital Games as Social Commentary on Migration

Gamepolitics brought my attention to this interesting PBS website maintaining a collection of games dealing with immigration. I think games are the perfect medium to explore this issue due to the similarities between playing a game and negotiating one's way in a new, alien society: In both cases it's about trying to figure out the rules and stick to them in order to succeed. If you fail you won't be able to finish or enjoy the game respectively slip into the role of a social outcast – with the difference that games will in most cases give you another chance. An arcade game in this connection can even serve as a metaphor for bribery or the fact that money helps to gain social acceptance: As long as you feed the machine with quarters you're allowed to stay.

Due to their simulational nature and their reliance on rules as their core mechanic and defining criterion, games offer fascinating possibilities for cross cultural training and they can also serve to highlight the prejudices migrants or minorities feel in a new environment. Let's say statistics found that the chances of dark skinned emigrants finding a job are 40% lower compared to white people despite them having the same qualifications. This result now could be included as a arbitrary rule in a game dealing with finding a job in their new environment. Arbitrary because not only because it would reflect the different real-life attitudes of people living in this society (prejudiced/ not prejudiced/ not too sure etc.) but also because it can help to built up the frustration a migrant might feel while on the job hunt.

Also it made me think about the assumption that we won't play a game differently just because the tokens changed. Take chess for example, you can play it with the figurines of king and queens but you might as well just play it with different piles of mud. Will this change your overall goal or your style of play? Probably not. But imagine a game of Space Invaders where you as some border patrol officer have to shoot illegal immigrants instead of aliens. Due to the meta-text and intertextuality of the game and the representations in it you might more consciously think about your style of playing (meta-text and intertetuality = the marketing, box art, references to other media, the way the player's character and NPCs are presented and what that entitles etc. – it basically it means games don't exist in a vacuum but within discursive formations of the society they're played in). This of course always depends on your political beliefs and attitudes. Do you see these migrants as intruders who just want your piece of the cake or poor, disadvantaged people who contribute valuable services to society by doing the jobs no one wants to?


The World of Borecraft Pt.2

The World of Borecraft Pt.2 As a counterpoint to Justin Peter's rather critical account of the serious game phenomenon over at Slate, Gamasutra takes a more sympathetic look at digital games with an agenda. In Who Says Video Games Have to be Fun? The Rise of Serious Games some major players in the field get a chance to voice their opinions on the current state of the discipline, its potentials and problems – one of them being that despite the increased media coverage, these gaming forms still lack some mainstream success. Says Chris Swain, assistant professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division and a co-director of the school’s Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab:

"the field of political/activist games is very young. We need some success stories to prove our value because right now political games mostly grab headlines and have little real impact.”

But the cause is legitimate and important and in the long run can only benefit the medium:

“I’m all for escapism,” Frasca [Gonzalo Frasca, co-founder of Powerful Robot Games] of says, “but I think that games that deal with serious topics can be more engaging to certain people.” “For 30 years now we’ve focused on making games produce fun,” adds Bogost [Ian Bogost, founding partner of Persuasive Games]. “Isn’t it about time we started working toward other kinds of emotional responses?” Bogost believes that will happen eventually. “I know that comparisons to the film industry have grown tired and overused,” he says, “but indulge me in this one: when you watch the Academy Awards this year, how many films in the running for awards are about big explosions and other forms of immediate gratification, and how many are about the more complex subtleties of human experience? “Someday, hopefully someday soon, we'll look back at video games and laugh at how unsophisticated we are today,” Bogost adds. “It's like going to the cineplex and every screen is showing a Michael Bay flick.”

Good call. Even though taking fun out of games while keeping them engaging is a very thin and delicate line. Which also leads to the question: can a game about such an issue as Israeli-Palestine conflict be "fun"? Or rather: should it be fun? Wouldn't that trivialize the horror and the casualties of the conflict? It certainly can be engaging, as PeaceMaker demonstrates. But then again, as I pointed out before, the decision for a certain form of game design always depends on the kind of agenda-game you're working on. Taking the fun out of games might work better for Bogost's newsgame approach and his focus on the mundane. The annoying issues these games are dealing with are mainly conveyed by annoying mechanics, which constitute the main message (actually that's the case with all games since they aren't a narrative medium – they, so far, just aren't suited to tell stories – but here this fact is put to the front).