Game Design,  Travel

building a game about the berlin wall

When I visited Berlin, I was struck by how profoundly the city impacted me in the 2-3 days I was there.  Wandering around on foot from the Brandenburg Gate to Checkpoint Charlie to the Reichstag Building, I was surrounded by the heaviness of the capital’s history, and yet a sense of optimism.  Berlin tugs both ways – a highly technologically advanced, efficient, socially aware city that bears this burden of what was World War II, and more recently, the Cold War.

TL; DR: Click the link below to play The Wall:

Fast forward a few months and I was sitting in the bullpen – the shared room for 70+ Masters of Entertainment Technology students – at Carnegie Mellon University, late on Thanksgiving night.  For the first time in weeks, the room was nearly empty because of the holiday.  But, used to the constancy of the game development cycle, game designer Julian Toker and I were there, half out of habit, half out of compulsion, to make a new game.

Inspiration for a game for change

The topic was a game for change.  We planned to make a game for the Games For Change festival (which I would later end up attending and thoroughly enjoying).  It was that lingering dichotomous feeling of Berlin that inspired my suggestion, “We should make a game about the Berlin Wall.”


Julian jumped at the idea.  Crossing the wall naturally lent itself to game mechanics, and he created several paper prototypes that night, while I researched and read everything I could about the Berlin Wall.

Soon after, we teamed up with programmer Akshay Ramesh and artist Wenyu Jiang for our endeavour, and building The Wall began in earnest.

Designing an educational game

It was important to me for the game to be historically accurate.  We had four levels representing different stages of the Berlin Wall from when it was first built to it being reinforced and finally torn down.  We had defectors crossing the death strip using methods I read up from actual attempts.

There’s this added layer of making something educational where you want to “teach” your players.  While making The Wall, I was conscientious about putting in synopses that I’d written, newspaper headline style, describing the successful and unsuccessful attempts at crossing the Berlin Wall through the years.  Where I could, I would include the names of defectors, and the years they lived.

The conundrum was, of course, that few people were likely to read these informational screens in between scenes, no matter how succinct I made them.  How then, was this game going to be educational?

Turns out I needn’t have worried about that.

Because we were so clear in our vision of what the game was, we had put a lot of effort into making the gameplay itself a representation of crossing the Berlin Wall.  The articles are there for your interest, and can be skipped.  Whether you read the accounts of defectors or not, whether you remember what year the wall was reinforced, you’ve played the game.  And that’s the important part.

How do you measure learning?

Asking if someone has “learned” something by quizzing them about dates and names and figures is asking the wrong question.  So when I ask if someone has learned something from The Wall, the questions I ask are more abstract, but judge learning a lot better than hard facts.

Assessment of learning from The Wall:

  1. What are some ways people tried to get across the wall?
    • Players name running, swimming, ballooning, ziplines, tunnels… (all of these were actual ways defectors tried to cross the Berlin Wall that we included in the game)
    • Often they say they didn’t know that people tried to cross the Berlin Wall that way, and they are impressed or fascinated by the more unique methods employed
  2. What did the Berlin Wall look like?  How did it change?
    • “There was one wall and then there were two” or “It got a lot taller” or “They added barbed wire in one of the levels” are all good answers
  3. What prevented you from finishing the level?
    • Mentioning they got shot by a guard in a guard tower, or the dog found them, shows that they know about some of the ways the Death Strip was patrolled and how defectors were caught
  4. What direction were you going?
    • “The game is backwards, it’s right to left”… You mean, east to west? 🙂

Answers to these questions show real signs of learning, of coming away from the game with a little more knowledge than before.

Finally, I like to ask one more question:

  1. How did you feel playing the game?
    • Scared
    • Panicked
    • Frustrated because I kept dying
    • Running out of time
    • Couldn’t go back

As much as learning is about gaining knowledge, I think it’s also about having a new feeling or impression of something.  I learned a lot during my trip to Berlin, and most of it is still wrapped up in this mixed emotion of the past and future mingling in the streets to create a broken and yet forward-striving city.  Years later, I still haven’t unpacked it all, nor can I fully put it into words.


Learning is more than being able to remember facts

I hope The Wall gives players more than just a few facts about the Cold War.  I hope it inspires people to learn more on their own, about the topics it barely touches on, when they close the game.  And most of all, I hope it evokes a feeling.  Because that’s what learning is.

The Wall was developed in about two weeks.  You can read more about our game development process here.  Akshay and I have recently dusted it off and cleaned it up for Unity 2019.  It is available to play at the link below.

Click the link below to play The Wall, a game about Berlin during the Cold War: