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'The Little Ones' Is Breaking Video Game Taboos by Showing Kids in War Zones

This War of Mine very carefully inches towards the reality of children in war zones.

by Emanuel Maiberg
Sep 30 2015, 10:00am

Image: 11 bit studios

You can play Call of Duty, Battlefield, and many other games without ever seeing a kid in harm's way, despite horrific examples from the ongoing crisis in Syria demonstrating that children are very much impacted by war. In video games, even insinuating that the same conflicts that inspire first-person shooters cause this kind of collateral damage is still a taboo.

This War of Mine, a game that portrays the reality of war from a civilian perspective, wants to change that with a new console version of the game, This War of Mine: The Little Ones.

"If you're showing war and talking about the real impact of war—sadness, depression, suffering, the consequences of it all—you have to bring kids into it to make a coherent, comprehensive experience," Pawel Miechowski, senior writer at This War of Mine developer 11 bit studios, told Motherboard.

This War of Mine, which was released last year, lets players manage a group of civilians in a war zone modeled mainly after the Siege of Sarajevo. You build a shelter, go out on dangerous scavenging night missions to gather materials, and use them to craft useful items. Every action changes how each of the characters feels and behaves, and when you come across another group of survivors or have less food than there are mouths to feed, you're forced to make difficult decisions that ripple throughout the game world.

Adding children to that equation only complicates things further.

Kids have their own unique perspective, Miechowski said, and "despite war all around them, they still need to play with toys, they need to laugh. This is what they do in the game and you need to care about it."

Players can address these new needs in the console version of the game within the game's existing systems. For example, the same components that you can use to make a stove can now be used to make toys, which you'll see the kids play with inside your shelter. If you take good care of them, they'll grow to like you. If you neglect to feed them or otherwise address their needs, the relationship will sour.

Miechowski said that 11 bit studios had too many doubts about This War of Mine to include kids in the game at launch.

"We knew we did the work well, with respect to the topic, with the proper research, but we were already breaking a taboo about war games," he said. "The feedback was fantastic. We got a lot of support, word of mouth helped the game, a lot of feedback from war veterans who thought it was great we were showing this perspective. When we knew the boundary was crossed, we knew we can take it even further."

After release, 11 bit studios partnered with War Child, a charity that tries to help children affected by war, and donated the proceeds from sales of its downloadable content. Miechowski said that an ad produced by the charity, which imagines what a video game about war would look like from a child's perspective, helped inspire them to move ahead with The Little Ones, despite the taboo.

There is, however, one reality about war and children that even This War of Mine is not willing to recreate: death. While other characters in the game can fight to the death or die from other causes, children will simple be removed from your group if you screw up enough, either by the Red Cross, or another survivor.

"We're focusing on the good side," Miechowski said. "On taking care of and supporting them. I believe that's the complete spectrum of emotion we want to show from the perspective of civilians."

Miechowski said there are two reasons 11 bit studios didn't want to cross that line. The first is personal. The kids in the game are modeled after their own—the daughter of a graphic artist, the son of one of the managers—and they didn't want to see them harmed, not even in digital form. The second is that it's a subject that Miechowski said is still too "subtle" for games.

"In the future when games as a form of storytelling evolve and be subtle enough to treat that," he said. "I hope it'll be possible to present every topic with proper respect—even kids dying—if the intent is to touch your heart and let you know about what's going on in the world."

This War of Mine: The Little Ones releases on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on January 29. Miechowski said it's likely to release on PC as well at a later date.