Videogames rarely shy away from the bleaker moments of human history. From the horrors of the Crusades to the grim, cut throat frontier of the old West, some of the greatest gaming moments of recent years have been firmly rooted in the bloodiest episodes of the past. Unlike other media, though, there's always an air of controversy surrounding videogames that deal with events in living memory.
Take 1378 KM
, for example. It’s a Half-Life 2 mod that places players in the role of either a guard or a refugee at the Berlin Wall. The refugees have to cross the wall, the guards have to stop them. Unsurprisingly, it’s currently causing huge controversy in Germany. The game's creator, Jens M. Stober, defends the game as a work of art, suggesting in a statement on the site that it's not necessarily the content of the title that's causing controversy, but the medium.
There have been documentaries, feature films, paintings, sculptures and a huge variety of other pieces created that deal with the terrible things that happened during the communist regime in Eastern Germany, but videogames have one feature that's not present in the others - interactivity. In a videogame, you're not simply presented with the facts, you're presented with a choice. You can choose not to shoot, if you want.
Stober's defence of his game is amicable and well thought-out. He says the game is an educational tool, enabling gamers to engage with a dark period of German history by presenting it in a modern medium that they understand. He's clear that the game is not intended for children, and he welcomes the discussion that the German press has instigated through its coverage. He also apologises for any offence he has unintentionally caused.
The German press has been less measured in its response, however. 1378 KM has been branded as ‘disgusting,' ‘terrible’ and ‘a violation of human dignity.' This raises the question, though; why are there lines that videogames are not allowed to cross? In no way does 1378 KM glorify the slaughter of innocent refugees, nor is it a scandalising attempt at garnering publicity; an accusation often levelled at the No Russian level of Modern Warfare 2. It's a digital representation of a terrible time in German history, designed to elicit certain emotional and psychological responses from the people playing it.
Few of us will ever be caught in a situation even remotely like the one portrayed by 1378 KM, but that doesn't mean that a videogame should be banned from allowing us to participate in the theory of such an event. There are never any complaints about the number of soldiers we gun down in World War II games, yet when the people in our sights are civilians, somehow we're deemed too immature to deal with the consequences.
The questions raised by 1378 KM are important if the medium we all love is to truly break through into the mainstream, in the same way as films and television. We need to learn to look past the medium and consider titles such as this not just as games – because making a game of any tragedy is cause for concern – but as something else.
Interactive entertainment can be a powerful tool, enabling us to experience events that would otherwise remain alien to us. The game isn't a murder simulation any more than a film portraying the same events could be considered snuff; it's a project that deals with difficult issues in a new and innovative way. Surely that should be championed, rather than branded obscene?