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Reframe Podcast: Episode 53

Brukel: Explore the life of a World War II Survivor

Bob De Schutter with student

Bob De Schutter is the C. Michael Armstrong professor of applied game design at Miami, where he studies games in the lives of older adults, as well as the gamification of learning. He's also the lead designer on a new game called Brukel, which was just named runner up for the best digital game award at Meaningful Play 2018. Brukel explores the life of a World War II survivor and it's designed around the recollections of his grandmother, who, as a teenager, found herself on the front lines at her family's farmhouse in Belgium.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe. The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Bob De Schutter is the C. Michael Armstrong professor of applied game design at Miami, where he studies games in the lives of older adults, as well as the gamification of learning. He's also the lead designer on a new game called Brukel, which was just named runner up for the best digital game award at Meaningful Play 2018. Brukel explores the life of a World War II survivor and it's designed around the recollections of his grandmother, who, as a teenager, found herself on the front lines at her family's farmhouse in Belgium.

In Brukel, the setting is not only accurate. But every piece of historical audio is also authentic. Which leads to an artfully crafted interactive experience that shows how gaming technology can be used to archive meaningful stories, as well as to provide a captivating counter narrative to the way war is so often portrayed.

(MUSIC FADE)

Dr. De Schutter, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Bob De Schutter:

Hey. Sure. My pleasure.

James Loy:

So first off congratulations on the recent award. Brukel winning best digital game runner-up at Meaningful Play. That seems pretty exciting.

Bob De Schutter:

Yeah, that was pretty fun. I wasn't really expecting that. So I’m happy with how it went. You know, I was submitting it to just make the cut, really, to get into the expo. But it worked out well obviously. It worked out pretty well. If you look at the other contestants, that's what takes the cake for me. The project that won was a company with millions of dollars behind it. A significant amount of people working for it. And then you got me, you know, making Brukel with the help of the IMS students, obviously, as well.

But a large part of Brukel is just basically me. I mean, I’ve done the programming. Not to take away anything from the help. Because, I mean, I had really great students help me, obviously. And, but, yeah, at the end of the day, it's very different from working with a professional company, where you're just a whole bunch of professionals, you know. I mean, the only professional on this project was me basically. Well, I had like four or five assets that uh … a professor from the College of Creative Arts helped me with as well. So that was great. 

James Loy:

It's an interesting game for a lot of reasons, and you have a very strong personal connection to the game yourself. So what is the story behind Brukel? And how did it come to be?

Bob De Schutter:

Sure. Yeah. So as a game designer and, you know, obviously, I know a lot of other people who are game designers. I think every one of them has a folder somewhere with ideas. You know, you play a game, you see a movie, you read a book, like, all of a sudden you have an idea for a game you want to make. With me, since I was going back and forth between Belgium, and the U.S. living here now, it does make you aware of that you come from a different background. So I really became aware of my heritage in a way that I never would have if I would have stayed in Belgium, which actually has been very enriching. I have a much deeper appreciation for where I come from now. 

So that was, like, all of a sudden these stories from my grandmother, that she's been telling me all her life, about how lucky me and my brother have always been, to have, basically, lived a life of privilege and luxury. I mean, my family is not rich. But at the same time we were never poor. So with that in mind, from my grandmother's perspective, who has lived through the second World War, and who actually lived a life where, when she was 14, she had to go just live … she had to drop out of school. Because they needed her on the farm. And in comparison, to me and my brother, who would throw a fit when we were kids, when my dad was, like, yep, you're gonna help me cut the hedges of the house. Like, yeah, it's a very different lifestyle. So, I’ve heard these stories - not the war stories - that came later. But as a child, it was always just, like, you guys are basically princess. Like, you guys are royalty in comparison to how I lived.

Going from there then, to when we got older, when at some point she's just started telling these really weird stories about war experiences that are kind of grim and everything. It's, um … her memory is really fading. And the reminiscing is really going into the strong memories. So, if she starts talking now, it's often war stories. Like, they always come up, and just for no reason whatsoever. So, at that point, I started to think, like, well, the stuff that she's been through is just insane. And at the same time, there were very few Hollywood block … well, video games definitely. Like, Triple-A video games, as we call them, that's the equivalent of all of a Hollywood blockbuster movie. There are very few Triple-A video games that do the perspective of somebody who is not a soldier, or is not a military leader, or a resistance fighter, or something like that. You know. So, it's like this is a very unique thing. So, I just, like, I’m just gonna record this and see what happens.

And I sat down with her, and I have, like, five hours of good quality clips of her talking. And that was pretty much it. It was in the game design folder of products I might do one day. But then, while I was going up for tenure, I felt I was kind of done with what was needed to be done for tenure. But my chair, Dr. Sellers, she kind of agreed with me there. But she also felt like, well, you know, you're still in this phase academically, before you're tenured and all the committees start happening. And all the service just, you know, explodes in your face. You still have time to do, like bigger, projects, and really just make a project that is just … a spanned out project that is just really you, and unique. And when she started talking about it, that really resonated with me. It's like, okay, yeah, you're probably right. I have an opportunity here and it would really make, you know, wrap up my tenure case in a really nice way. So, okay, and I went through the folder, and I decided I’m gonna do Brukel. And I’ve kind of … there have been times that I really regretted doing that. Because, oh my god, that project kicked my ass. But, at the same time, if you look what came out of it now. It's a beautiful thing 

James Loy:

What do you think makes it so unique? Is it that personal connection to you and your family? Or is it the counter-narrative it takes and looking at war from a really different perspective? Or is it the style of gameplay and that immersive experience?

Bob De Schutter:

Yeah, I mean, that's a great question obviously. Because in the question already, you have like three things that are really good candidates for why this game is so unique. And I think, you know, I can obviously pick one of those things. But I think my favorite of it … Like, what I think is the most awesome part of Brukel is my grandmother is … I mean, my dad just passed away with a gastric cancer. My grandmother is 92 now. I don't know how long she's gonna last. But, you know, going through the experience of somebody that you're really close with, like a father, you know, a treasured family member. This grandma Brukel, as I call her when I’m talking about her to my girlfriend, I’m the closest with her of all my grandparents. So that's gonna be a pretty big hit when she passes away. But I will always just have Brukel, which I think it's just so cool. 

James Loy:

One of the things you mentioned a little bit earlier was just, very briefly, about how students helped you create the game. You obviously had a tremendous hand in making Brukel a reality. But how were Miami students involved in the game's creation, in the design? What did they do? Like, how were they involved in the overall process?

Bob De Schutter:

Well, the original idea was that I was gonna do a big project where I was gonna be the studio manager, really, the producer. And the students were gonna pretty much put everything together. So I think in total we worked with about 16 or 17 Miami students. Like, I think, if you put all their work together in terms of time that went into Brukel, oh, somewhere between 10 and 20% of the time that went into getting the game where it is today was done by students. But it's still a nice number I feel. I mean, it's something that, as a university, we can be proud of I feel.

Because if you go to Miami as a very driven student, there are so many amazing stuff that can be done. And the scope and scale of a game of Brukel, it's a 90-minute experience -- 60 to 90 minutes most people that play it -- but still it's a lot of work. Because it's all just … every room has something unique that you go through, as you go through my grandma's memories. But, um, yeah, so the roles that they were doing. The biggest contribution, or a number of students, did art. 

They were organized with leads and with, you know, lower roles. Students that would just make an object versus students that actually decided on what the general look and feel would be. I did the graphic design for it myself. But some of the interface work was done by students too. I had one student … no, two students that ended up helping me with programming stuff, that I just outsource just, you know, less complicated things to program that they did an exceptional job at. They went above and beyond and I, you know, sometimes you just got a realize how awesome some of the students that go here can be. And so, those are the biggest contributions from the students.

Aside from that. There were a couple of EHS students that played the game and just, you know, looked and quality assurance type of stuff and just, like, is this thing doing what it does. How does this come across? And more like soft skills type of stuff as well. Music. I had students … so the main theme is composed by a Miami student, and I think it sounds really good. Like, it's like orchestral music. It's great. So, yeah. So, I think that kind of that was the team at the time. And we did that for a little while with independent studies, and, for some of them, capstone credit internship and stuff like that. And that's how they were compensated. Because I felt that they needed to have some compensation, obviously. I never intended for this game to actually be published commercially at that time. But after a while, I learned from talking to people in the industry that it has to be published commercially, or else nobody will play it. So that's kind of where it is right now with the students. And the students are fine with it, with the credit structure. And, you know, we've got signed agreements that we can move forward that way. And that's how Brukel now will become an actual commercial published game.

James Loy:

I think that's it's kind of surprising to learn like how much actually goes into creating a game. You think about programming and the code and graphic design and things like that. But you just … just the ways in which students were involved, like, the interdisciplinary focus that people have to consider, and be aware of, and have experience with. It seems to be, you know, yeah, it's quite a lot.

Bob De Schutter:

Yeah. Like, nobody … like, making games entirely by yourself, I don't think it's a good thing to do. Like, you're not gonna make it well or right. And there's a thing, like, you know, you can be a jack-of-all-trades. But to make a game, you have to be fairly good at all these things. And I’m not saying that I’m that. Because I’m not. But I’m good enough at a lot of these things just by happen-chance. And, you know, starting with engineering in college … or, in high school. I know math pretty well, or the math you need for games. I did the art school thing. So that worked out well. The psychology stuff, doing user testing, I got that with the PhD. Like, you know, I’ve been instructed in a lot of these things to be better than just average at it. But I’m still not an expert at most of these things. So I think to make a game entirely by yourself, it's really hard. You need an interdisciplinary team.

Like, when we teach game design – I have taught that. And the first thing that I begin with is, like, ok, you guys are all here to learn how to make games. What skills do you need? Come on. And then, you know, go up on the white board and start writing. And then, like, 10 skills in, they’re just kind of running out. And I’m, like, all right, let's see what skills you actually need. Then I just start writing for a couple of minutes. And then, I’m like, okay, do you guys want me to keep going? Just so that you realize, like, what it is to really make a good game. Like, nobody ever says you need to know architecture. Of course you need to know architecture. Yeah. You know, like, nobody will write down, like, you need empathy, or listening skills. But it’s so important to be a good listener when you're making a game. Because if you're, like, this is, you know, the best game it could possibly be, and you don't accept criticism, like, it's always gonna be a bad game. So it's … uh. Yeah. I think Glenn is … Glenn is the first person I ever heard it say … but a lot of people have said it as well. But I’m happy to attribute it to Glenn. But, like, digital games are the liberal arts of the 21st century. I think that's a great quote. I really do. Just because all the … the disciplines that we value in liberal arts, and in liberal education, are very well represented in games.

James Loy:

That also, I think … that also speaks to the way games have evolved and become more respected over the last couple of years and decades. I mean, there's the, you know, are games art? And the … what they can actually do and what they can accomplish? We talked about Brukel, specifically, being that personal meaningful connection, and the way that it shows a counter-narrative of war. And, you know, there's a strong artistic through-line throughout the entire experience. Was that part of your plan from the beginning? To make Brukel ... To help continue to change and continue to show and push the envelope of what games can be, and what they can do?

Bob De Schutter:

For me, it was like I needed to do … uh … what's it called … the research leave. So, you know, for pre-tenured faculty members at Miami, it is recommended that you take a semester off as a research leave. And you do something research oriented. But I always felt like I didn't really want to do that. Because, at the time, I was working 80 hours a week, easily. But since I was working such crazy hours, and I was so ridiculously productive, I felt that why would I want a research leave? Like, I’m already … you know. I'll be way more productive without a research leave. I can do the teaching, and be as productive as anybody who was doing the research leave.

But that research leave was a really good idea. Because it really allowed me to hone in on just one thing. And that's kind of how Brukel came to fruition. But with that, you know, with it being in the context of a research leave, I also needed to validate it. So I wrote up a proposal for a research leave, where: Yes, this is art. Yes, this is educational. Yes, this is this and this is that. And all these. And it worked out really well. But, for me, yeah, like, Brukel had to be a game that could do these things. And now that everything is said and done, I think it does it really well.

Like, is Brukel a work of art? Absolutely. Like, I’ve made design decisions in Brukel that I would not have made if it was always meant to be a product that doesn't needed to make money. If I were to make this commercially, we're talking about a project that would probably cost half a million dollars to make. It's never making half a million dollars. No way. Like, if I can make back 5 grand or something. I'll be very, very happy, you know. If I could just break even on it. But that's not what it's about. It's a work of art. And as an artist, you put money into your art, obviously. And … but, like, yeah, the costs that go with Brukel, I don't think it'll make it back. But that's fine as long as people play it. We'll see.

James Loy:

You mentioned not only Brukel being art, but also at being an educational experience. And I know your research focuses on games in the lives of older adults. But you also study the gamification of learning. So is Brukel an example of that? Or can it be used as one?

Bob De Schutter:

Yeah. Absolutely. The only problem with Brukel as an educational experience, in my mind, is just … it is not necessarily a game for kids under 12, or something. Like, there's definitely an age limit. I don't know what it is. I'll figure that out soon enough. So we'll see what happens with that. 

As an educational experience, I’ve shown it at a conference with a whole lot of teachers. I had a lot of them that want to use it in their class. One of them has offered me to write course materials for it, that can go on a website. So people can just drop it in class as a World War Two history experience. It's designed pretty well for that purpose. And I’m particularly proud of how it's … it's a very engaging experience. It's a … you know, like, you go through that game first just taking pictures of objects that you are unfamiliar with, and my grandma starts talking about what the object is. What it was for. How it impacted her life. Which is interesting, you know, as a history thing. A little educational, I guess. You know, it feels a little educational. But at the same time, you have a camera that lets you do cool stuff. Like, the focus of depth of field, and that has … you know, you can mess with the exposure. You can really take beautiful pictures in the game. Looks gorgeous. So, it's kind of fun and playful.

But then, after midnight strikes, you end up in this horror version of the house where there are Nazi soldiers, and you have to make sure you don't die. And you might suffocate. And you might burn alive. Because all these things happen to my grandmother. Well, not happen. But almost happened. So you ... The first part is a fairly educational history experience. But the second part really puts you in this empathy space, where, you know, you are put in the shoes of an innocent family that doesn't really understand why things are happening, really. Doesn’t understand the geopolitical ramifications of what's going on in the world at that point in time. Because they're just simple farmers. And all of a sudden, there's Germans popping up everywhere. Like, all the people that they know, and love, and all their friends are somehow involved in this. There's a lot of people that they know die. There's English soldiers and German soldiers in their backyard. Dying. Like, literally piles of dead bodies. They dig holes … I mean, the Belgians they … my family. They dug holes, like, little shelters, where they just put some wood on top. Because that was safer than being in the basement of a house, where it's all the concrete and everything, if the house collapses.

So, you know, they're just sitting there in those makeshift shelters with bombings going around. And in the game, like, at some point, you are in one of those trenches that they dug themselves with the wood on top of it. You just fall through the floor, blackout, and you wake up, and you're in one of those trenches, and somebody's walking over. You see, like, dust fall from the wooden planks as the footsteps go over it, and the audio moves in 3d. It's really cool. And my grandmother talks about where you are, so that you have some reference of what happened. And then, there's a big explosion. All the woods just get scattered. And you can walk out of it, and all of a sudden you're in the same room you used to be. Except that it's longer, and there's these weird pictures on the walls from … that you've seen earlier. And you end up in a scene where you're, for the first time, confronted with one of the Nazi soldiers.

It's a … you know, like, as an educational experience, like, oh my gosh. It's something. Because, you know, I do things … I don't really do much in terms of jump scares. But I do psychological horror, where when people play that game it’s like, yeah, this is experiencing World War Two in a way that, like, from an educational perspective, this is something very different from what you typically see. Like, because you're really put into a position that you don't want to be in. 

And if you then combine that with what's happening worldwide right now, with war refugees being shown the door, because, you know, they are the problem. As opposed to, you know, well, there are countries where all sorts of craziness is happening for big geopolitical reasons. And for, honestly, corporate interests a lot as well. And the people that are fleeing these countries are then not even being helped. I mean, you know, it breaks my heart if I then think back about … I mean, my grandmother stayed put because they didn't have any options. And the world wasn't as … you know, there was no internet that would be, like, yeah, if you do this, you can escape the horror. But, like, these things happen to them. And, like, with all that in mind, I’m like, you know, this is a game that is very timely.

So that's kind of the other thing for Brukel that I try to push as much as I can as well. Like, this is a story about, you know, pretty much war refugees that stay put, and that managed to survive through it. But the fact that they stay put allows you to know what it's like. You know, my generation never grew up having to worry about am I gonna have food tomorrow? Am I gonna have water tomorrow? Am I gonna be able to breathe? My grandmother has been in situations a lot of the times where just, like, I …. We don't know …. We've been in this shelter for so long, we don't know if the next bombing, we're gonna make it through because the gas buildup from all the smoke is so bad.

[Scary music plays from Brukel game trailer]

To me that's genuine horror. I mean, my generation, yeah, we watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We watched Nightmare On Elm Street. And, you know, yeah, that's terrifying. But that's not what real horror is when you listen to what my grandma's been through. So, you know, and I think people should be very well aware of how lucky you sometimes are, and maybe just, you know, open a door every once in a while to people who aren't.

James Loy:

Yeah. I feel like that's an experience that you don't often get. I mean, certainly not from games that are based around war, and hardly even in movies. Even the most realistic war movies.

Bob De Schutter:

No. Like, even like a Schindler's List or something like that, which is an amazing movie. But it's still very different. It's still very different. So that's what Brukel tries to do. Maybe … yeah, if Spielberg’s listening, I’m open. Give me a call!

James Loy:

Bob De Schutter is the C. Michael Armstrong professor of applied game design at Miami University. His new game Brukel will be released later on this fall. And you can find more information at brukelgame.com.

And thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Reframe podcast. You can find more episodes available for free, right now, on iTunes, on Soundcloud, and on Google Play Music.

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*Intro/outro music used in podcasts: "Tech Toys" by Lee Rosevere