Harrowing Game Exposes War’s Impact on Children
Sergei couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, yet here he was, cold and frightened in the middle of a war zone. On my doorstep.
The city had been under siege for 15 days, and food was scarce. But when Sergei asked to stay with my band of run-down, desperate survivors, I couldn’t say no, even though I figured that by giving him a bed and what food I could spare, I was damning my little group.
This War of Mine, a survival game for various platforms, garnered a lot of attention in 2014 for attempting to show what it was like not to fight a war, but simply live through it. It’s a chilling cross between The Sims and The Diary of Anne Frank. Finding food and keeping warm during the winter is tough enough, but later you might find your camp to be the target of gangs and raiders in the newfound lawlessness.
The Little Ones, an expansion released January 29 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, digs a bit deeper. With the help of Emir Cerimovic, a consultant who survived the Siege of Sarajevo, Polish developer 11 Bit Studios grasps at a grim real-life scenario few games have touched: What is war, for the children who live it?
“I was nine years old when war started in Bosnia,” Cerimovic said in an email. “I remember seeing tanks from my balcony, but I felt alright because they were [on our side]. My mother felt [uneasy], so she decided to visit her mother in Zenica for the weekend.”
“That was one day before the war started, and that probably saved us.”
Cerimovic and his family stayed in Zenica for more than eight months. Even in relative safety, Cerimovic’s family struggled for months. They’d cut down what vegetables they could find growing in the nearby graveyard, and stash honey away as an occasional indulgence. Eventually, they were able to escape to France.
“I remember the ambient stress from adults. I remember fleeing with my mother and brother. And I remember the long trip to France,” Cerimovic said. “But mostly I remember being a kid. It’s funny, but… I was always playing with small soldiers, making commando stories inspired by 80s action movies. ”
This War of Mine already had a reputation for tragedy, with dramatic in-game events that challenged players to keep their moral compass in the face of inhuman circumstances. You could risk your survivors’ lives by stealing food and supplies from a military installation—or you could just raid a poor, unarmed, elderly couple and lose a little bit of your humanity, instead.
If the game’s designers were going to add children into that equation, they needed a compelling reason, said lead designer Pawel Miechowski, or else the game would turn into a “genocide simulator.”
“Instead, we wanted the expansion to revolve around how to teach children, educate children, and what they can offer to us in return,” he said. “They bring hope and light; they show us that warfare is founded in prejudices that we don’t need to have.”
Rather than treat children as a burden, which would make players resent their appearance, The Little Ones allows you to teach kids new skills. Much of the game is built around doing daily chores — purifying water, cooking food, and building new things for trade with other survivors. By offloading some of those tasks to kids, you can let your adults get more rest.
“Kids never want to be a burden, ” Miechowski said. “Even if they don’t understand what’s going on in the world, they still know when they’re helping and when they’re hurting.”
I spent a few days teaching Sergei how to make filters to purify water, set traps for rats and collect vegetables. Once he picked up those skills, managing the shelter became much easier. Where once I feared Sergei would weigh us down, and almost certainly cost lives, he actually became the lynchpin of my survival strategy. Marko would make nightly treks out to new parts of the city, gathering what food and supplies he could while Bruno and Pavle stood watch for raiders to keep Sergei safe.
Despite the relative ease of survival after Sergei took on his share of responsibility, enduring the slog of the siege started to wear on me as a player. After 30 days, lumber for firewood started to thin out, and keeping the shelter warm was a pernicious struggle. With each extra day, I felt like I was inching closer to disaster. If any of the pieces of my machine broke down—if someone got sick or hurt—then my plan would start to unravel.
It was Sergei, in his innocence, that kept me going. Every so often, he’d pose a tough series of questions to one of the other survivors. He’d ask if the people that made the bombs that kept falling were “like us.”
“Like us.” Of course they were. And of course they weren’t. That’s a complex question. But not through his eyes, not in the mind of a child. Sergei didn’t understand war. He didn’t understand why someone would choose to cause someone else pain.
Kids are kids, even in wartime, says Cerimovic. That’s both good and bad.
“Even child soldiers maintain their innocence, and that is why they’re potentially more dangerous,” he said. “They will shoot because they are manipulated [to], but they don’t feel it is wrong. They don’t have the conscience yet that the other person really exists.”
For me, Sergei wasn’t just a helpful number on my spreadsheet, a handy piece of DLC. My motivation for playing This War of Mine shifted towards wanting to get him through the war. Maybe he could walk out with his optimism intact.
On the 44th day, Sergei had left, to go find his family.