It's Feb. 27, 1943. Berlin. Anneliese Edelman returns home with some fish, a rare treat for dinner. Her husband, Max, should be back from his double shift at the factory, but their home is empty. For Anneliese, what was an ordinary day becomes the day her soulmate disappeared.
Jessica Hammer, assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), and co-designer Moyra Turkington created this scene for Rosenstrasse, a live-action role-playing game that builds up to the 1943 Rosenstrasse protest, a non-violent demonstration led by Aryan wives whose Jewish husbands were arrested for deportation in Nazi Germany.
The game is in the final stages of development. The duo plans to add an augmented reality component, with a web app, music and sound developed by students at the ETC, which is housed in CMU's Integrative Design, Arts and Technology (IDeATe) Network. The HCII is one of more than two dozen units from across the university that also participate in IDeATe.
Rosenstrasse is the first of a three-game series that Hammer and Turkington are developing to highlight women-led historical protests.
Turkington, leader of the War Birds women's game design collective, said she found the Rosenstrasse story compelling because it pitted a few thousand women against one of the most totalitarian and oppressive regimes in modern history. In doing so, many of them saved their husbands.
"These women, who had nothing on their side but the fact that they were German citizens, stood up in the street and said, 'No,'" Turkington said. "That's a really inspiring story because what it tells me is there is no evil that you can't say 'no' to in some way or other. You just have to be brave enough to start."
Rosenstrasse explores the erosion of civil rights for Jewish-Aryan couples in a range of situations, from the economically and legally vulnerable to the wealthy and protected. The story begins in 1933 Berlin, and explores the developing relationships between the couples and the ongoing revocation of their civil liberties. It ends with the arrests and women's protest. The players' choices throughout the game determine the fate of the male characters, Hammer said. The result is an intense emotional experience that can take roughly four hours to complete.
"It's more than a game," said Xin Tu, an ETC student and visual designer for the project. She said when players go through the story, they become the character and care about the character's loved one.
"You understand the situation they have, the struggles they have," Tu said. "You go through their life at a very fast pace and you make decisions as a human, not as a player."
Stand up first and early
For Hammer, writing the game was a personal experience. Her family was directly impacted by the Holocaust.
Her paternal grandmother was one of the few who survived imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and she met Hammer's grandfather in a displaced persons' camp following the war.
Hammer's maternal grandfather fled Germany for the Netherlands in 1934. He emigrated to the United States in 1935 and brought his parents and siblings to America the following year.
"It was a challenging game for me to write because you ask yourself: 'Why these protests in 1943 for this small number of men, and why not protest for all of those who were being murdered?'" Hammer said. "One of the interventions that I want to make with this game is to say: 'You stand up first. You stand up early.''"
Hammer said games can provide a safe space for players to see the impact of their actions in ways not possible in real life. With Rosenstrasse, players can practice the skills of saying "no" to wrongdoing. For instance, when the characters take part in the Rosenstrasse protest, they are asked to confront Nazi prison guards.
"We provoke them. We put them in situations where they actually have to practice the skills of resistance and of not simply submitting to authority," Hammer said. "These kinds of psychological changes are really important for people in their ordinary lives to be able to say, 'No. Too far. I won't do that.'"
Karen Schrier, assistant professor of games and interactive media and director of the Games and Emerging Media program at Marist College, said games like this allow for ethical engagement, as well as the development of skills related to ethical thinking, such as interpretation, reasoning, reflection, and gathering and evaluating information.
Schrier said that there is a mythology that people should stick to objective reasoning when making ethical decisions. However, Rosenstrasse's focus on relationships and its prompts for reflection help show that it also is important to consider our emotions and deep ties with others when at an ethical crossroads.
Additionally, Schrier said the game encourages historical empathy and the consideration of other perspectives on historical moments.
"[Games can help] us realize that, even in our own present and future moments, there may be other interpretations of how to act, how to respond and how to think through ethical issues. Therefore, games like Rosenstrasse might also spur us to, in the future, seek out those other perspectives," Schrier said.
By engaging with the historical subject matter, Turkington said she hopes players will have a deeper understanding of the peril people faced. Turkington said she hoped players would take modern-day events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the recent wave of bomb threats against Jewish community facilities, more seriously, because the game shows them how inaction and uncaringness can lead to the destruction of an entire people.