Award-winning Game Represents the Realities of War in a Whole New Way

James M. Loy, Miami University

Bob De Schutter, Miami University C. Michael Armstrong professor of applied game design, is the lead designer on an award-winning new digital game called Brukel, which explores the life of a World War II survivor.Bob De Schutter and his grandmother

Brukel is based on the memories of De Schutter’s grandmother, who found herself on the front lines while living at the family farmhouse in Belgium. By immersing players into an interactive environment that weaves together authentic audio recordings within a historical setting, Brukel shows how gaming technology can archive meaningful stories, while also providing a captivating counter-narrative to the way war is so often portrayed. 

It was also designed with the help of Miami students, who often work with De Schutter in Miami’s Engaging Technology Lab, where students and faculty can use a variety of state-of-the-art equipment to create tech-related projects of their own.

An extended version of this conversation appeared on the Reframe podcast. Since that recording Brukel has also won a gold medal at the 2019 Serious Play Awards. 

Congratulations on Brukel winning the best digital game runner-up award at Meaningful Play 2018. That’s exciting.

Bob De Schutter: Yeah, that was fun. I wasn't expecting that. But it worked out 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. And then you got me, making Brukel with the help of the students. It’s very different from working with a professional company. 

How were Miami students involved in the game’s creation and design?

Bob De Schutter with studentI worked with about 16 or 17 Miami students. Somewhere between 10% to 20% of the work that went into getting the game where it is today was done by students. It's a nice number, and it's definitely something that, as a university, we can be proud of.

The biggest student contribution was art. They were organized in leads and lower roles -- students that would just make an object versus students that actually decided on the general look and feel. I did the graphic design for it, but some of the interface work was also done by students. Three students made contributions to the code, and there were a couple of students that played the game and looked at quality assurance. With regards to music, the main theme is composed by a Miami student, and I think it sounds really good. It's orchestral music.

So that was the team at the time, and they did an exceptional job. Sometimes you just got to take a minute and realize how awesome some of the students that go here can be.

It’s interesting to learn how much goes into creating a game. The common perception is probably that it’s all about coding and graphic design. But it’s so much more.

Yeah. I think to make a game entirely by yourself is really hard, because it requires an interdisciplinary team. When I have taught game design, the first thing I begin with is, “Ok, you guys are all here to learn how to make games. What skills do you need?” And about 10 skills in they’re running out. So then I just start writing for a couple of minutes. Just so they realize what you actually need to make a quality game. For example, nobody ever says you need to know architecture. But of course you need to know architecture to create your environments and buildings. Likewise, nobody will write down that you need empathy or listening skills, but it’s so important to have those skills as a designer.

Some people say, “Digital games are the liberal arts of the 21st century.” I think that's a great quote. I really do. Because all the disciplines that we value in liberal arts education are very well represented in games.

That also speaks to the way games have evolved in recent years. Brukel not only has strong artistic qualities. It also has an authentic personal connection, and it shows a very different side of war. Was it your plan to use Brukel to push the envelope of what games can be?

As a pre-tenure professor, I was recommended to go on a research leave as it would allow me to hone in on just one thing. That's how Brukel came to fruition. But with it being in the context of a research leave, I also needed to validate it. So I wrote up a proposal where I had to validate Brukel: Yes, this is art. Yes, this is educational. And all of these criteria. So 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. 

Can you talk more about Brukel as an educational experience? Your research focuses on games in the lives of older adults. But you also study the gamification of learning. Can Brukel be used as an example of that?

Absolutely. I’ve shown it at a conference with a lot of teachers. I even had someone offer to create course materials for it, so people can just drop the game into their history class as a World War II historical experience. Brukel is actually designed pretty well for that purpose. You go through that game first just taking pictures of objects, and then my grandma starts talking about what the object was for and how it impacted her life. Which is interesting. Maybe a little overly educational. But at the same time, you have a camera that lets you do cool stuff like focus on depth of field, and you can mess with the exposure. You can take beautiful pictures, so it's fun and playful as well as an educational experience.scene from Brukel game

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. You might suffocate or you might burn alive. Because all these things almost happen to my grandmother.

So the first part is a fairly educational history experience. But the second part really puts you in this empathy space, where you are put in the shoes of an innocent family that doesn't really understand why things are happening. They don’t understand the geopolitical ramifications of what's going on in the world. They're simple farmers. And all of a sudden, there's Germans popping up everywhere. All the people that they know and love and all their friends are somehow involved. A lot of people that they know die. There are English soldiers and German soldiers in their backyard. Dying. Literally piles of dead bodies.

The Belgians -- my family -- they dug holes, little shelters, where they just put some wood on top. Because that was safer than being in the basement if the house collapsed. And in the game, at some point, you are in one of those trenches. You see dust fall from the wooden planks as the footsteps go over it, and my grandmother talks about where you are, so you have some reference of what happened. Then there's a big explosion, and all the woods gets scattered. And you end up in a scene where, for the first time, you’re confronted with a Nazi soldier.

As an educational experience, it's something else.

That’s another aspect of Brukel that makes it so different. It’s a combination of education and horror, which is very unique. But you also see it as a way to generate awareness and empathy for war refugees today, correct?

Yeah. This is experiencing World War II in a way that is very different from what you typically see in popular culture. I don't really do much in terms of jump scares, but I do psychological horror because this entire experience is all about being put into a position that you don't want to be in.

Then, if you combine that with what's happening worldwide right now, with war refugees being refused entry to countries because they are the “problem.” It breaks my heart if I then think back about my grandmother, as she was in that position when she was in her teenage years.

In fact, my grandmother stayed put because they didn't have any options. There was no internet that said if you do “this” you can escape the war, but the same things happened to them. And with that in mind, this game is very timely. This is a story about war refugees that stay put, and that managed to survive through it. But the fact that they stayed allows you to know what it's like. My generation never grew up having to worry about am I going to have food tomorrow? Am I going to have water tomorrow? Am I going to be able to breathe? My grandmother has been in situations where [she said], “We've been in this shelter for so long, we don't know if we're going to make it through the next bombing because the gas buildup from all the smoke is so bad.”

To me, that's genuine horror. So I think people should be very well aware of how lucky they are never having to go through something like that, and maybe be more supportive of people who aren't that lucky.

To learn more about Brukel, and to receive notifications about the game’s release, visit You can also add Brukel to your Steam wish list through the Steam store.