War Birds games reveal the lost and forgotten histories of women through a process that Benjamin calls “brushing history against the grain.” Games in this series center marginalized historical experiences, and provide a multiplicity of perspectives rather than a single dominant one. Brushing history against the grain is a political act that helps us re-imagine not only the past but also our present and future.
Rosenstrasse, the most recent game in the series, asks players to take the roles of Jewish and “Aryan” Germans in mixed marriages under the German Reich. From 1933 to 1943, the game asks players to explore these marriages as they come under increasing pressure and face the erosion of civil rights for Jews and their families. In 1943, the Jewish men in these marriages were rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz. The women in their lives began a spontaneous non-violent protest in front of the Rosenstrasse holding facility, and as a result, most of the men were released. The game culminates with the opportunity for players to participate in this story of ordinary women defying the Reich, and succeeding.
Rosenstrasse is both an educational and an activist game. In our design, we seek to help players understand the difficult decisions faced by ordinary people under an oppressive regime, but also to highlight the opportunities that are available for resistance. In particular, we hope to inspire players to stand up for others before members of their own families are targeted. We therefore needed to consider how to diversify the player base for Rosenstrasse, and we identified three key factors we could address in our design.
Logistics. How would players get their hands on our game? What resources would they need to play it? We created Rosenstrasse as a non-digital role-playing game so that it would not require access to any expensive devices, or to wireless internet. When our Kickstarter launches in February, the game will be available for purchase as a boxed set, or for digital download. Making a print-and-play option available helps with price, and does not severely compromise accessibility, as only one participant needs access to a printer.
Role-playing experience. Limiting players to those who were familiar with tabletop role-playing games would severely limit the game’s reach. We therefore created a facilitator’s guide that explains in detail how to run the game. The facilitator receives just-in-time information about each scene of the game. All information directed at players is contained on a card deck that they draw from; while the player reads the information on the card, the facilitator can read the corresponding page in their guide. Additionally, the game includes brief role-playing training exercises for players who are unfamiliar with improvised storytelling. For example, when the players are assigned their characters, they must invent a fact about each character that is not covered in any of the game material.
Historical knowledge. As with role-playing experience, designing toward players with extensive historical knowledge of the period would seriously limit the audience for the game. Additionally, it would mean the game would not reach those players who most needed to learn. At the same time, when dealing with sensitive topics such as the Holocaust, players getting the history wrong is risky. We approached this problem by designing scenes where the historical knowledge was primarily contained in the scene description, and that invited players to use their knowledge of human personalities and relationships to respond to the historical event. For example, our Kristallnacht scene asks two of the characters what they do the morning after, when their neighbor’s shop has been smashed but their own is intact. Do they help her, despite risk to themselves, or do they let her recover on her own? These types of decisions do not require factual knowledge beyond what is contained in the game text itself. For cards where playtesting demonstrated that players make repeated historical errors, we also included a facilitator note so that the facilitator can correct them in real time if need be.
Audience. To date, we have playtested Rosenstrasse with over 150 players in five countries. Our games have included players aged 18-80; the descendants of Holocaust survivors and the descendants of perpetrators; professional historians and educators, and players who had previously believed the Holocaust was a hoax; expert role-players and participants who had never role-played before. While we found some differences between individual players, we learned that less-historically-expert players engage deeply with the history, while even players who are deeply connected to the Holocaust found something new to experience in our game. We consider this level of engagement across many different player groups as evidence of the value of our design decisions.
To learn more about the game, or to be alerted when our Kickstarter goes live, please visit the Unruly Designs site for Rosenstrasse.