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Regional Studies in computer games
The Playful Way to Get to Know Germany

Games enable people to immerse themselves in a culture and to experience history hands-on, says Thorsten Unger, CEO of the Bundesverband der deutschen Games-Branche (Federation of the German Games Industry – GAME).

Mr. Unger, “Serious games”, i.e. games with an educational purpose, are gaining more and more importance in Germany, but the name “serious games” – isn’t that a paradox?

At first the name may well sound like a contradiction in terms as seriousness is seemingly incompatible with the activity of playing games – after all playing games always presupposes people do it voluntarily. In this case, however, it is all about combining playing with something meaningful by exploiting the human being’s desire to play and then directing it towards more sophisticated content and learning objectives.

In various areas, this principle is already being applied. Is it conceivable that Serious Games could also be used to convey knowledge about the German way of life and culture, in order to introduce the country with its historical, economic, social and cultural peculiarities to people in the form of a game?

There are two reasons why games are well suited to providing knowledge of a country’s way of life and culture. On the one hand, because games with their rules and their objectives simulate certain systems. For example, when a country’s economy is depicted in the form of a game, it shows how well economic interdependencies can be grasped by playing the game: players receive immediate feedback; furthermore games embrace a culture of failure by allowing repetitions and thereby enable players to rectify mistakes. This creates an understanding of how economics works. On the other hand, computer games tell stories. And these can naturally be told against real backgrounds and themes and can be enriched with facts, thus enabling historical or systemic content about Germany to be imparted in a playful way.

Although there are still not so many Serious Games explicitly about the German way of life and culture, there is, for example, the game called Patrizier (Patrician), which, by simulating the way things were traded in a particular historical setting, enables players to learn all about the merchant associations of the Hanse (the Hanseatic League). Even classic computer games, including those designed for entertainment purposes, like the Anno series and Siedler, ultimately impart historical knowledge, because they are embedded in a real historical context.

  • Mystery of Neuschwanstein (2015), puzzle game
    Mystery of Neuschwanstein (2015)

    puzzle game The fairy-tale Castle of Neuschwanstein is one of Germany’s most famous landmarks. This may also be due in part to the life story of its builder, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who more and more sought refuge in his dream world and died in 1886 under mysterious circumstances. The “Mystery of Neuschwanstein” game provides historical facts about his life, and the players, as journalists, analyse the events that may have led to his death. One of its special features is a series of hand-painted scenes in the so-called “Wimmelbild” (hidden object) style.
  • Utopolis – The Animals Awake (2015), puzzle game, simulation
    Utopolis – The Animals Awake (2015), puzzle game, simulation

    In “Utopolis” up to 25 players take on the roles of five forest animals. Their task is to complete various missions and, when doing so, they have to use their different animal abilities as skilfully as possible: the squirrels are good collectors, the stag beetles are gifted craftsmen, the wolves can suss out the area quickly. If their adventure is to be a success, it is crucial for all the players, who negotiate their rules in a chat forum, to cooperate. In the game, the basic mechanisms of democracy are taught: legislation, community thinking and the rule of law.
  • Adventure German – A Mysterious Mission (2013), serious game
    Adventure German – A Mysterious Mission (2013), serious game

    As a journalist who has come to Germany from abroad to look for her uncle, the player has to solve a criminal case in a German company. “Adventure German” was conceived as a language learning game. At the same time the game imparts information relating to the world of work in Germany. For example, during the game, the players practise how to put a CV together or a letter of application. Furthermore, the players/German language learners obtain basic information on intercultural communication.
  • Forge of Empires (2012), strategy game
    Forge of Empires (2012), strategy game

    The player founds a settlement in the Stone Age and bears witness to the changes it undergoes through the various eras. Each era is marked by different phases of social development. The change from one era to the next is characterised by research into new living concepts, production facilities, military technology or cultural institutions. Points of contact with German regional and cultural studies arise, for example, by players being given the opportunity to construct so-called legendary buildings – the game suggests Aachen Cathedral for the early Middle Ages period and the Dresden Frauenkirche for the colonialist period.
  • 1378 (km) (2010), Ego-Shooter
    1378 (km) (2010), Ego Shooter

    The player is taken back to the year 1976 and placed at different points along the inner-German border. He or she can either take on the role of a border guard of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the role of a so-called “republic deserter”, trying to get across the border to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The aim is to enable people to experience this brutal part of German history. Those players who act as border guards have the choice of arresting refugees or of even becoming a refugee themselves. Those who shoot refugees while trying to escape to the West have then to stand trial in the game.
  • Patrician IV – Rise of a Dynasty (2010), business simulation
    Patrician IV – Rise of a Dynasty (2010), business simulation

    In this game the player is a merchant in the Northern Europe of the 14th century, the heyday of the so-called Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League came into being when German merchants started collaborating with the aim of promoting their trade abroad and this spawned a trade association that at times boasted 200 coastal and inland towns. This strategy game conveys knowledge of the German “Patriciate”, the upper class of the Middle Ages and simulates the development and expansion of a trading company in Hamburg: starting with the range of products available in the cities and the names of important people, then moving on to information about epidemics, fires and famines. The game’s scope of action is fully in line with the historical facts.
  • Settlers 7 – Paths to a Kingdom (2010), business simulation
    Settlers 7 – Paths to a Kingdom (2010), business simulation

    In the medieval Europe of the 15th century the task for the players is to build a kingdom with fortified towns and small villages, in which settlers produce goods. To achieve this there are three strategy options: military, trade and science. What is particularly interesting from a historical and cultural studies point of view is above all the fact that the game is embedded in the context of the Renaissance. That was the period when knowledge from the ancient world was revived and employed in the fields of architecture, visual arts and philosophy. German monasteries also played an important role at that time in the development of various technologies.
  • Eco Tycoon – Project Green (2010), simulation
    Eco Tycoon – Project Green (2010), simulation

    The player chooses one of seven geopolitical continents and, as its head of state, tries to develop it into an ecologically exemplary continent. In order to harmonise the economy and ecology and make them sustainable, the player has various legislative initiatives at his or her disposal, for example, the taxation of carbon dioxide emissions and the funding of packages for renewable energies. In this way “Eco Tycoon – Project Green” provides some excellent insight into one of the German government’s most important political programs – the turnaround in energy policy.
  • Anno 1404 (2009), structural strategy game
    Anno 1404 (2009), structural strategy game

    The player assumes the role of a seafarer in the late Middle Ages. The aim is to expand into previously uncharted regions, to build settlements and develop them into towns. To do this, increasingly complex economic cycles have to be created. Diplomatic relations with foreign cultures also play an important role. The game attaches importance to a representation of the historical context that remains faithful to the facts. The strategy game enables players to find out, in particular, about the way medieval European society was structured in clearly identifiable classes, called the estates of the realm.
  • The Guild 2 (2006), business simulation
    The Guild 2 (2006), business simulation

    In the Germany of the 15th and 16th century a trading dynasty is to be established encompassing Augsburg, Berlin, Dresden, Hanover and Cologne. The game enables the player to start his career as a craftsman, scholar, patron or crook, then over several generations to acquire wealth and political influence with the help of his or her commercial and private skills. “The Guild 2” deals not only with people’s personal circumstances in the Middle Ages, but also with such things as political and temporal power, trade, hierarchies, illegal wheelings and dealings and the influence of the church.
  • Genius – At the Centre of Power (2007), simulation, strategy
    Genius – At the Centre of Power (2007), simulation, strategy

    The aim is for the player to make a career for him or herself as a politician in Germany. The path the player takes leads him or her from the local municipal level to becoming a member of the Bundestag (German parliament) in Berlin and then even to a candidacy for the Chancellorship. Various tasks have to be accomplished, for example, building a kindergarten in his or her respective constituency or organising a functioning infrastructure. In order to make progress, the players have to deal with the mechanisms of political decision making. “Genius – At the Centre of Power” provides some good insights into the political and social systems of Germany.

Regional and cultural studies hands-on

Can we say then that Serious Games, compared to conventional learning methods,  have the advantage that they bring regional and cultural studies to life, that their interactivity immerses the players in the culture of a country and enable him or her to gain insight into the country’s national heritage?

When playing a game, you always take an active role in an overall operating context – you, yourself, can be a king, a racing driver or a football player. This intensifies the media experience and is comparable to the immersion method of language learning, so-called “total immersion”. This is when learners are immersed in the foreign language environment and have a more intensive learning experience due to the direct confrontation with the language, without being able to slip, for example, back into their native language. In the operating context of a game the players always see the immediate results of their actions and, when it comes to content, they move in a clearly demarcated space, in this case, the computer game. This also enables them to learn how effective they can be themselves.

In Germany there is a game called “Lernabenteuer Deutsch. Das Geheimnis der Himmelsscheibe” (A Learning Adventure. The Mystery of the Nebra Sky Disc") produced by the Goethe Institute. It is a Serious Game with regional and cultural studies content for the teaching of foreign languages. “Genius – Im Zentrum der Macht” (Genius - At the Centre of Power) playfully explain the German political system. It seems, however, that beyond these few, Serious Games focusing on the German way of life and culture are rather rare.

Yes, in the field of game development there is still a lot to do. Next year the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg is to be commemorated and this will provide us with an excellent opportunity to enable people to experience history in the form of a game. Outside Germany, quite a few impressive, very realistic simulations and stories have been produced, for example, about Waterloo or the earthquake in Haiti. The fact that we have no culturally motivated games market in Germany is also due to lack of funding instruments. In the end, however, the question is of course what a regional studies game actually is. The term is somewhat flexible, if you think about a game called Eco Simulator, which, due to its focus on the issue of renewable energy, has a strong connection to Germany – but of course it would also work in any other country.

The advantages of digital games

Hasn’t the idea of communicating regional and cultural studies in the form of a game been around for quite some time – one only has to think of games like “Stadt-Land-Fluss” (similar to “Scattergories”), “Deutschlandquartett” (German Quartets) and the German edition of “Trivial Pursuit”. What advantages does the digital game format have?

The media experience is different. No board game can ever immerse its players in a role in such an intensely audiovisual way as the digital game does. The operating options in board games are more limited and the action has to be much more simplified than in a computer game. This quickly becomes clear, if you compare Monopoly with the digital simulation of a national economy that responds to situations dynamically and calculates, for example, supply and demand accordingly.

Regional and cultural studies games then seem to bring a lot of benefits, but does this method encounter any limits?

Personal, real experiences, of course, cannot be replaced. One has to bear in mind that Serious Games are always designed with educational purposes in mind. Regional and cultural studies content can be complex and that is why it is not always easy to impart the facts via a game. You cannot convey just any old amount of information, it has to be clearly focussed and embedded. The usual learning-media triad consisting of briefing-action-debriefing, i.e. learning from preparation, implementation and follow-up, is a major challenge for digital games, especially as they are played without supervision. In order to increase learning success, more importance is being placed these days on the introduction to the game and tutorials.

What development opportunities do you see for Serious Games in this area?

Technological progress is bringing about a whole new range of developments. Augmented Reality is opening up new, exciting, interesting media experiences and is able to impart regional and cultural studies content effectively. Maybe we will soon be able to wander around Wartburg Castle and see Luther in his study. Visual representation enables us to participate in the action directly and to experience things first hand. Take, for example, the things you can do in the Waterline Museum in the Netherlands - as a parachutist, you can reconnoitre a particular geographical location and its military importance for the defence of the country, and then land safely in the museum. The moment you start playing makes history come alive.
Thorsten Unger Thorsten Unger | Photo: © GAME e. V. Thorsten Unger is the CEO of the Bundesverband der deutschen Games-Branche (Federation of the German Games Industry – GAME) and for a long time worked himself as a games developer, especially in the field of Serious Games. In numerous specialist articles, interviews and public discussions he has promoted the potential of games and their cultural significance. He is an entrepreneur and consultant in the field of learning and communications media.