The Director of the Berlin Wall Memorial says a videogame based on the "death strip" that once separated East and West Berlin is "tasteless" and an "unsuitable" way to teach about a serious subject.
"Death strip" was the name given to the no-man's land of gravel, trenches, traps and guard towers that ran along the Berlin Wall, the infamous barrier that divided the German capital following the end of the Second World War. The death strip was the primary obstacle faced by Germans who wished to cross into the West; it was wide open, offering no cover and a clear field of fire for East German guards, and in its early days escapees who were wounded while attempting to cross were sometimes left to bleed to death as a warning to others.
It's a grim topic and, based on the promotional video, one that's treated with an appropriately serious tone in 1378 (km), a game created by Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design student Jens Stober. Named after the length of the border that split East and West Germany, the game is set in 1976 and allows people to play as either East German border guards or refugees fleeing to the West, with the choice to "shoot, arrest, run, give up, kill or be killed." Escapees who are caught face imprisonment, while guards earn honors for preventing their escape - but those who kill more than three times are "magically transported to the year 2000, where they face trial for their crimes."
"Through the personal identification as a fugitive of the republic or a border guard, and the intensive experience of the border areas, the interest of the young generation in the conflict of recent German history will be awakened," the university said in a statement.
But Axel Klausmeier, the director of the Berlin Wall Memorial, doesn't believe videogames are an appropriate tool for teaching history. He called 1378 (km) "tasteless" and described it as an insult to the families of those killed while trying to reach freedom. "The seriousness of what once went on at the border can't be portrayed in this way," he said.
Klausmeier's attitude is unfortunate and off-base, but not entirely surprising. There are a great many people for whom videogames remain an inherently trivial pursuit and to them, the idea of using "games" to present serious subject matter is utterly foreign. Six Days in Fallujah fell victim to essentially the same thinking. Videogames have come a long way, but they clearly still have a long way to go.
1378 (km) will be available as a free download beginning on October 3, German Unity Day.