Some people tend to believe Serious Games are an XXI century invention. Something new and revolutionary. What it is new are the formats, but the concepts have been among us for a long long time. Knowing this, I was no less amazed when visiting a museum in Hamburg, I came across the most incredible serious board game: Luftschutz tut not!. Mixed with gas masks, bombshells and other items that told the sad story of air raids in the city, there was a box with a snake-&-ladders-style game. The game mechanics were not the interesting thing, but the background that presented: how to react when facing a bombing.
The board depicts a happy family preparing for dinner. Air raid alarms start and the family moves orderly to the assigned shelter. While they wait patiently, German soldiers manage the fire extinction and alert population when the danger is over. Players finish the game when they reach the final scene, the family again happily reunited around the dinner table. Step by step, kids are taught to normalize air raids and behave in a calm way in case of an attack.
Propaganda development is probably the most interesting legacy of the nazi regime. They had a cause and a goal and clearly knew how to put the population on their side. The Reichs Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda was the clarifying name of the ministry that, under Goebbels firm leading, left no neglected aspect of German culture. Though recruiting adults was a relatively easy job for the ministry, really soon they understood that it was even easier to implant kids with the regime ideas.
Activities like sports, clubs or associations were firmly tied to the regime so youngsters needed to become part of the Hitler Youth, the first step inside the party, in order to enjoy their activities. Everything was organized with one goal in mind: train an unquestionably loyal army.
Not only this game I found at Saint Nicholas Memorial in Hamburg but lots of different models were designed with training and propaganda in mind. Between 1940 and 1944 and aimed to children as young as 4, this “educative” board games covered subjects like strategy, defense and the best way to destroy the enemy. All of them used the basic Serious Games principle: if it’s fun it’s easier to learn.
In ‘Bomber über England’ or ‘Bombers over England’ players lead their airplanes over the map of Great Britain, bombing their cities. The strategic importance of each city is marked by the number of points obtained for destroying them: +40 for Newcastle, +100 for London or -80 for destroying the German ally Amsterdam.
‘Taking on ze Tommies’, being ‘Tommy’ the way Germans popularly referred to British soldiers, was developed by a member of the Luftwaffe to teach people how to defend themselves during an air raid. Mixing game mechanics from games like Battleships and Risk, players tried to knock down British airplanes while considering the counter-attack tactic most likely to success.
It is interesting to see how nowadays debates about Serious Games were also alive in nazi Germany. ‘Juden Raus!’ or ‘Jews out!’ is considered one of the most racist games known. Players try to expel Jews out of walled cities. The more Jews you expel, the better. But the open debate and criticism to this game in the 1940’s in Germany was not about fierce antisemitism but about the suitability to use games to teach serious concepts. A review in an SS newspaper put it like this:
‘Jews out! yes, of course, but also rapidly out of the toy boxes of our children, before they are led into the dreadful error that political problems are solved with the dice cup.’