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East German border game

December 14, 2010

'1378 km' gives players a glimpse of border guard life along Germany's Cold War-era inner border. It is now available for download, months after the game's planned release sparked outrage among victims' groups.

In the game, players take on the role of East German border guards
In the game, players take on the role of East German border guardsImage: Jens M. Stober

The developer of a "first-person shooter"-style computer game, which lets participants take on the role of an East German border guard or escapee along the former East-West border, defended his project ahead of its release last Friday evening, calling the game a way for younger generations to learn about Germany's history during the Cold War.

The 24-year-old media arts student behind the controversial computer download, Jens Stober, said critics had never even seen the game, which was held back from its planned launch on Germany's anniversary of reunification, October 3, following heated criticism.

"It has to be released today so that finally, everyone can form an opinion of it," Stober told a crowd of 100 gathered at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, ahead of the project's premiere.

The game "1378 km" - a reference to the total length of the boundary dividing East and West Germany - triggered protests from victims' advocacy groups in recent months, who argued that it was insensitive to those who had lived under East Germany's oppressive communist regime.

Up to 16 gamers can play "1378 km" at a time, and the game allows them to choose to be a border officer or an escapee in the year 1976. East German guards who catch a player trying to flee have three options: imprison him, escape with him, or shoot him.

But Stober, who even received a death threat for creating the game, said it turned the "shoot-'em-up" concept on its head, since points are deducted when players take aim at escapees.

"You shoot, you lose," the game's creator said.

Despite the fact that it is a shooter game, the creator of '1378 km' said: "You shoot, you lose."
Despite the fact that it is a shooter game, the creator of '1378 km' said: "You shoot, you lose."Image: Jens M. Stober

Ongoing opposition

Stober's game was still generating controversy ahead of its official launch last Friday night, with the head of the UOKG, a Berlin-based umbrella group for victims of the communist dictatorship, calling on the university in Karlsruhe not to release the game.

The UOKG's Rainer Wagner called for changes to be made and to "talk with the victims."

Referencing his own attempts to flee the inner-German border, which twice landed him behind bars, Wagner said "1378 km" would only serve to traumatize victims once more.

More than 100,000 East Germans attempted to flee East Germany between 1961, when the border was built, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

According to the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, 136 people were killed trying to flee along the Berlin Wall alone, with estimates ranging from 270 to 780 people dead along the entire border.

"Don't put the game on the Internet, and don't allow for the shooting of escapees," Wagner said.

Stober has said he would make changes to the game in the coming weeks but that he has no plans to remove the border soldiers component, calling it the "foundation of the game."

Historians estimate hundreds of East Germans died while trying to cross into West Germany
Historians estimate hundreds of East Germans died while trying to cross into West GermanyImage: Jens M. Stober

Academic support

Meanwhile, the university's vice rector Uwe Hochmuth said the school was prepared to engage in a dialogue with victims' groups but that the process was dependent on the game's release, which would allow people to form an opinion on the project.

Members of the school's faculty defended the game against moral and ethical challenges at Friday's meeting, making a case for artistic freedom.

"This work is an art project, and art has always tried to overstep boundaries," the university's head of media arts, Michael Bielicky said.

But another person attending the discussion ahead of the game's launch claimed "1378 km" had nothing to do with art - and moreover, that the game failed to address the gravity of the topic:

"I crossed the border, and I'm telling you that this game is nonsense. This was a very defining experience for me, and I'm disappointed that a game has been made out of it."

On more than one occasion, Stober has made assurances that he is well-aware of the serious nature of his game's subject matter. He said he envisioned the game as an interactive way for his generation to experience the country's Cold War past. Stober reportedly spent a full year conducting research for the project.

Earlier on Saturday, the game's website reported that stress on the server had prevented users from downloading the game but said the problem had been resolved by the afternoon.

Author: Amanda Price (DPA, EPD)
Editor: Cyrus Farivar