By now you've likely read about the Berlin Wall game 1378(km). Drawing the title from the length of the border between East and West Germany, German university media-arts student Jens Stober designed the game to inject choice into the recreation of the space in a videogame. Stober's blog notes that the purpose of using a game to tell this story is because "I personally have the control over my behavior and my reactions, which take place in real time and in changing situations." To this end, Stober allows the player to experience both sides of the story: as an escapee in one and a wall guard in the other.
This is not the first time we've discussed the Berlin Wall on the Newsgames blog. The Berlin Wall map for Garry's Mod we examined last year served as a depiction of a physical space without tackling the operational of procedural realities of a living space. That is likely why it never created any controversy. You can only play as an East Berliner and it is quite easy to run right through Checkpoint Charlie because you're allowed copious damage resistance thanks to its roots in Half-Life 2. While 1378(km) is also based on a Source mod, it appears (from the video) to be tuned differently. We of course cannot know how it plays until it is released, but we can imagine that as a university project the designers would pay attention to this reality.
Even before its release, which was to coincide with the anniversary of the unification of Germany, the game sparked heated debate as the families of victims killed while trying to cross from West to East Berlin learned of the game. Dietrich Wolf, spokesman for the Federal Foundation for the Reconciliation of the Communist Dictatorship, called it "an ego-shooter game" and said it was "unacceptable given the historical context." A member of the Association for Victims of Communist Tyranny said it, "makes a mockery of the victims." These comments should sound familiar to those who know Super Columbine Massacre, JFK Reloaded, Six Days in Fallujah, or the many other controversial games that have touched on real events.
The response illustrates the age-old problem of documentary and current event newsgames involving violence: audiences do not have the videogame literacy needed to understand these works and producers do not have the tools to adequately demonstrate their importance. While claims have been made about the lack or presence of maturity in videogames as a medium, the fundamental issue in play with 1378(km) is not related to the game industry, but rather to journalism as a profession.
Ignoring the multitude of videogame blogs that picked up the story, who are more sympathetic to trials of a medium in flux, the mainstream news all reported the same story. Articles from the BBC, CBC, Reuters, and Time look almost identical. "There's this game made by this student about the Berlin Wall and people are upset about it so we got quotes from each side." That's all. The journalist is supposed to provide information to help make citizens make decisions about issues, but these articles don't address the issue at all.
Let's recontextualize the game by hypothetically attributing it not to a college student but to a news organization. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Germany's reunification, the New York Times decided it would design a game to explore the issues of the Cold War's defining symbol. Just like Stober's game it put the players in the shoes of Eastern refugees and Western guards, and just like Stober's game the player was offered choice in their behavior in the world.
It still would likely have offended the same groups, who have the right to be upset about the portrayal of their history, but instead of the rote description of two sides at odds, the story would likely have been about the New York Times' rights as a news organization. Rather than a game created by some inconsequential student who could be cast aside, 1378 km could have been reframed as a piece of journalism. There would certainly be detractors, but I'm willing to bet other news outlets and journalists would have been sympathetic to the Times.
The problem, then, is that there is a disconnect between the trained journalists and their subjects of inquiry. In the eyes of the news outlets enumerated above, 1378(km) is not considered a journalistic work (and until it is released nobody can judge one way or the other) and therefore does not deserve special defense. And this is something we didn't explicitly state in Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Not only should journalists consider the potentials of newsgames as something they can and should use, but they need to recognize existing newsgames produced by non-professionals as works in dialogue with their field. Until then, games like 1378(km) will never be given a fair chance.