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Border terror

September 30, 2010

A young German programmer has come up with an unorthodox way of commemorating the 20th anniversary of German reunification: he's created a computer game that simulates crossing the deadly former inner-German border.

A screenshot from '1378 km'
'1378 km' features a recreation of the inner-German borderImage: Jens M. Stober

A university student from the southwestern city of Karlsruhe has chosen his own unique way of recalling the division of his country by developing a computer game that requires gamers to shoot East Germans attempting to cross the border into West Germany.

The game is titled "1378 km," in reference to the length of the old border fortifications between East and West Germany (856 miles). The game is a first-person "shoot-'em-up" similar in gameplay to video game "Half-Life."

Border guards from the former Communist East operated under a shoot-to-kill policy at the inner-German border. This strategy cost the lives of hundreds of people trying to escape to the West.

A screenshot from '1378 km'
Gamers must shoot three East German escapeesImage: Jens M. Stober

To the tune of the East German national anthem, gamers get a bird's eye view of the former border fortifications, complete with a mined death strip, watchtowers and grim-looking border guards ready to shoot at anything that moves.

A 'history lesson'

The new video game triggered a mixed response, with the director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, Axel Klausmeier, calling the game "tasteless" and a slap in the face of victims' families. He said there was nothing to be learned from a shoot-'em-up computer game.

But the game's 25-year-old creator, Jens Stober, a student at the media design faculty of Karlsruhe University, insists there is a need for the game.

"It's my impression that, particularly among young people, that part of history is no longer really debated and has been forgotten," he said.

"Being young, too, I myself didn't know much about the border fortifications either. Many of my peers have no idea that the inner-German border was 1378 kilometers long. They've only heard about the Berlin Wall, but that was only a small part of the border. So I wanted to bring the big picture back to young people's minds."

An old patrol tank on the inner-German border
Hundreds died trying to cross the inner-German borderImage: Maksim Nelioubin

Stober added that "after three killings at the latest you'll automatically drop out of your action as a border guard, and you'll find yourself in a year 2000 courtroom facing multiple charges.

"By then it should have dawned on every gamer that this is not your regular first-person shooter, but it's something very different."

Reflection on the past

Adam Rafinski, a teacher at Karlsruhe University who has lent his support to Stober's game concept, maintains that "1378 km" is a serious game that you don't just play as a pastime, and that users can take a history lesson from the themes presented.

"I can well imagine that people who'll be playing this game will ask themselves a lot of questions," Rafinski said. "They'll want to know more about the fortifications, the automatic firing devices and all the rest, and why they were there. And they'll realize how difficult it must have been to make it across the border."

Author: Hardy Graupner (dfm)
Editor: Nancy Isenson