Last week we saw the ballyhooed introduction of Call of Duty: WWII, a game that follows videogaming's generic code for war stories. Mostly, they are about combat, heroism and the glory of victory.
But this is only a small part of warfare. For most affected people, most of the time, war is about hardship, fear and humiliation. Although novels, movies and TV shows often grapple with this aspect of conflict, to date video game developers have been less willing. Apart from admirable exceptions like This War of Mine and Valiant Hearts, the grim reality of war is often ignored in games.
My Child Lebensborn is a forthcoming mobile game that seeks to tell the dark story of children born of occupying soldiers and occupied mothers, and what happens to those kids after the peace treaties have been signed and the soldiers have gone home. Specifically, it follows the life of a child born of a German soldier and Norwegian mother during the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War 2.
Players take on the role of a guardian who cares for the child. Set just after the war, when the child is seven years-old, the guardian must choose between various responses to off-screen events, such as bullying from other kids, or abuse from adults. It's described by Hamar, Norway-based developer Sarepta Studio as a "story-driven nurture game." It's due to be released on iOS and Android later this year.
SS eugenics program
An estimated 12,000 children were born of couplings between occupying German soldiers and Norwegian women. The Nazis encouraged these relationships. They viewed Norwegian woman as ideal Aryan stock for their grotesque eugenics programs. The kids were part of an SS-sponsored program called Lebensborn (Fount of Life).
Some of the children were taken from their mothers and sent to Germany. But around half of them stayed in Norway. When the war was over, the Norwegian government avenged the long occupation by horribly mistreating the children.
Some of them were sent to mental institutions and underwent cruel humiliations and "treatments." The official government line was that these children's mothers must have been mentally defective to sleep with German men, and this alleged condition must have been passed to the next generation.
Those children who stayed with their mothers were subjected to extreme hostility from their neighbors and peers, including social disapprobation and violence. Even today, now grown old, the children of German soldiers say they are sometimes abused in the street. Their children and grandchildren are targets for bullying.
In recent years, and following protracted legal wrangling, the Norwegian government agreed to pay restitution to many of those who had been taken as children, and raised in institutions.
The effects of hatred
Elin Festøy was co-producing a documentary film about the "Lebensborn children" when she decided that the story needed to find a wider audience. She also wanted to create a sense of empathy for the affected kids.
She met with Catharina Bøhler, who was working on a child nurturing game at Serepta Studio. Along with Festøy’s production company Teknopilot, they decided to work together. The project is described by Festøy as “a kind of documentary game.”
My Child Lebensborn is partly funded by a Norwegian government arts grant, and by a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $15,000.
"Older people talk about the war but this story needs to be shared with people of all ages," says Festøy. "It's just as relevant today to know what it is like for kids to grow up surrounded by hatred. What it is like for kids to be surrounded by grown people who hate them and abuse them. It's about the effects of hatred."
Festøy says she was "shocked" when she first heard about the treatment of Lebensborn children. Norway is widely regarded as a highly tolerant society. The nation's suffering and the heroes of its resistance during the war are a big part of its self image.
"We're supposed to be the good guys, fighting against the Nazis, but then we showed this hatred to innocent children, who are easy targets," says Festøy, who interviewed dozens of people for her research.
"We want to make people know what it felt like for those kids," she adds. "We want to highlight how war isn't over until the hatred ends. Our game will be a simulator letting you experience first hand what it is like to grow up in a hateful society, focused on the situation of the child instead of the greater conflict."
Players of My Child Lebensborn can choose for the child to be a boy (Klaus), or a girl (Karin). Karin comes home from school, and it's up to you to figure out her mood, based on her facial expressions. The game's Kickstarter page describes it as "an emotionally challenging experience."
It's not just about managing feelings. As a parent, it's also your job to make basic economic decisions. Should you earn more money by working, or spend more time with Karin, and so reduce your resources?
But the meat of the game is about reading the child and coping with her troubles. "The child is called names at first. Children are just repeating what they hear from parents. But then it escalates," says Bøhler. "It's not just children, but adults who ought to be caring for and protecting the child."
"You choose different parenting approaches in reaction to the bullying and how these affect the child. "You try to explain what is happening to the child, to deal with this feeling of fear and rejection. There are different routes you can take, different actions and advice you can give. It's just you and this kid with serious challenges and a complex personality."
The Unity-developed game features a "mood matrix that governs the child's emotions," according to Festøy. "The way you play feeds into this matrix and the different levels are visualized in the facial expressions and body language of the child. So you will have to pay close attention to the child's expressions to see and know how the child is doing. And the interaction with the child will in that way be unique for every player and playthrough.
"Our game will be a simulator letting you experience first-hand what it is like to grow up in a hateful society," she adds. "Our storyline is based on the Lebensborn children, but the overlying topic is prejudice, hatred based on genetics and the more general fates the children of enemy soldiers in all conflicts."