Anne Frank's life story is associated all over the world with the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Now a German game designer has turned her life in hiding into a computer game. But is this going too far?
Anne sits in the kitchen studying while her mother prepares lunch for the residents of the hideout, located in a rear house in Amsterdam. She asks Anne to get a bag of potatoes from the attic. But Anne has second thoughts. She feels weak and tired. Should she really go upstairs and get the bag? What if she stumbles and makes noise? Would the neighbors hear the noise and report them? If she refuses to go, will her mother be angry? They are already fighting enough as it is.
These are the decisions the player must make in "Anne Frank," a computer game created by German game designer, Kira Resari. It plunges the player into the world of Frank and her family, memorialized in the famous diary kept by the Jewish girl during the Holocaust.
Anne was born in 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. When the Nazis gained control of Germany in 1933, the Franks, a Jewish family, fled from the Nazi regime to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. By 1940, the Nazis also occupied this neighboring country, and the family was forced into hiding. On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank began meticulously documenting her daily life in the family's hideout in an Amsterdam rear house.
In 1944, the residents of the hideout were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, including Anne Frank, her mother and her sister. Their mother died in Auschwitz, Anne and her sister were sent on to the Bergen Belsen camp where they too later died. Anne's father Otto Frank was the only close family member to survive the Holocaust, and he later published his daughter's diaries. "The Diary of Anne Frank" has been translated into 55 languages and is read in school curriculums all over the world.
Kira Resari doesn't think his game trivializes the life of the most discussed Jewish victim of the Holocaust. "Many think computer games are first and foremost entertaining. But they can be more than that. They can facilitate empathy," he said. "Movies and books also address difficult topics. Why should this be forbidden for computer games?"
Resari refers to his Anne Frank project as an "interactive experience," rather than a game. He wants to recreate the atmosphere in the rear house hideout so that the user can best relate to the way Anne Frank must have felt. In this way the game doesn't offer any opulent 3D graphics or booming sound effects. The overall visual appearance could bd described as simple and rather dismal, punctuated by quiet, melancholic piano music.
The principle of the game is simple: users can move freely within the rear house of the building complex on Prinsengracht 263. The game is constricted to one day in the life of the Jewish girl - October 20, 1942. The Franks haven't lived in the hideout for very long. In the role of Anne, the user meets her sister Margot, parents Otto and Edith, and members of the van Pels family, who also hide there. The user can decide whether Anne Frank is studying, doing her homework, or writing in her diary.
"It's not really about having fun," Resari said. "Instead of action I want to create emotions. What does it feel like to live in 50 square meters with seven people and a cat? The game places special emphasis on social relations."
When reading Anne Frank's diary, Resari had many questions. "I was wondering what the residents did all day long in the rear house," he said, adding he wants to fill in the blanks with his interactive experience.
A challenge for game designers
Resari studied game design at the Macromedia College in Munich. The Anne Frank project was his bachelor thesis. In his first semester, the game design professor Michael Bhatty challenged the students by claiming digital games should be capable of portraying any kind of topic. Maybe a student will one day create a game about Anne Frank, proving that even a cruel fate like hers can serve as material for a clever, meaningful game, the professor said.
In the following semesters, Resari couldn't forget the professor's statement. He traveled to Amsterdam to research and measure all of the rooms in the Anne Frank House. By now, the building has been transformed into a museum and is accessible to the public. When designing the avatars, Resari was guided by the original photographs of the rear house residents.
The Anne Frank House museum offers a three-dimensional online environment, in which visitors can explore the front of the house and the secret annex as it was then, as well as listen to audio commentaries and stories explaining historic facts.
Resari's game can't offer that, but he doesn't want it to, either. Instead, the user is supposed to take away something else, said Linda Breitlauch, professor for game design at the Mediadesign College in Düsseldorf.
"The user doesn't learn facts, but he learns to understand what it must have been like for a persecuted person during the Third Reich," Breitlauch said.
According to Breitlauch games have great potential compared to history books and movies because the user has to make the decision in the shoes of a historic person.
"This makes dealing with historical topics more profound and permanent," Breitlauch said.
On the other hand, game designers also have a big responsibility when creating games like "Anne Frank." They must decide which incidents the users can influence, how events are portrayed and whether, for instance, the users will have the option of saving the Frank family.
Playing God with history?
Anne Frank died of typhus in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen just weeks before the British army liberated the camp
When it comes to game designing, difficult historical material requires a lot of empathy, said Breitlauch, and designers need plenty of sensitivity, just like the screenwriters for the movie "Schindler's List."
In "Anne Frank" Resari doesn't let the users play God. The user can't change that the Franks have to live in hiding or keep them from being discovered and deported. All the player can do is change the little events in Anne Frank's daily life in order to better relate to her.
So far the game is still a prototype and can't be officially purchased. Resari doesn't want to commercially market his product, but rather, perceives his historic gaming project as a cultural asset. According to him, particularly the next generation needs new ways to access history - an approach that's on their wavelength. Anne Frank shouldn't only be a chapter in their history books, he said.