Making play of a civil conflict

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Videogame based on war sparks outrage, but report defends interactive learning. Fernando Morales reports.

MADRID - A videogame released this month based on the Spanish Civil War has sparked anger among relatives of those lost during the conflict. However, a recently published report on the effect of videogames has defended their educational qualities, echoing the creators of Sombras de guerra: la Guerra Civil española (Shadows of War: the Spanish Civil War), who claim it will educate a generation about the events of the war.

Sombras de guerra is the second release from Málaga-based Legend Studios, and is a real-time strategy game that derives its action from the true-life events of the war. The choice of the game's creators to call the victors "Nationalists," a term with Francoist connotations, rather than "rebels" is just one detail which has provoked protest.

Paco Pérez, who created the game, defends the decision by saying that "internationally, the term 'rebels' would not be understood. The term Nationalists was used by the Franco troops themselves." But Carlota Leret, the daughter of the first man executed during the war, has criticised the choice of name, saying that they "were actually falangists, armed volunteers and monarchists from the extreme right..."

For €30, anyone can live out 25 missions from the war, played in the first person. "When we finished our first project, War Times, we started to look for themes for our second strategy title - but practically all of the conflicts already had their game," explains Pérez. "We then realised that the Spanish Civil War had not yet been exploited as interactive entertainment." The company is planning this release as the first part of a trilogy.

Pérez, is shocked by the often insulting, violent and extreme tone that pervades internet discussions about the game, which he suggest is "perhaps a result of the current political climate of confrontation between the two Spains." There are those who, without having seen the game, consider it "terrible" that someone could put themselves in the shoes of a fascist, or even of Franco himself, as part of a game. Others see the chance to defeat Franco's Right as a positive thing. Then there are those who, taking into account the number of games based on the two world wars, see it as normal to have one about the Spanish Civil War.

Pérez believes that the "best way to tell the story of the war is by playing games. Few young people will pick up a book to find out what happened - what's more, it's really hard to find a book that isn't biased toward one side or the other. But with the game, they'll see real videos from the BBC and the National Film Institute before they go on their missions."

The educational aspect of the game is something that a report by Alcalá de Henares University, carried out with funding from software company Electronic Arts, would agree with. Pilar Lacasa, the coordinator of the study, believes that they have proved that "with videogames we can learn in a different way, and overcome some of the difficulties associated with learning in the classroom. Through gaming, we can connect schooling with the context of play, creating a lot of motivation as well as innovative learning strategies."

But any such educational benefits that might come from playing Shadows of War are irrelevant to Carlota Leret. The real-life execution of her father, the first person to be killed in the war, is played out on the screen in the game.

"I am surprised that someone has been capable of creating a videogame about such a tragic event as the Spanish Civil War," says Carlota. "This isn't a historical fact that's been buried in the past. It's something that is very fresh in the mind of all Spaniards. At a time when we still haven't come to terms with our past, trivialising the murders and the pain and suffering of the victims has no justification," she explains, clearly hurt by the game's content. "This game doesn't rebuild our historical memory, but instead makes death, tyranny and violence into something banal."

"The game does have a touch of controversy about it," admits Pérez. "But I don't think that overshadows its overall quality. It's a question of culture: for young people there won't be a problem, but I suppose those who lived through this era, and find out about it now, will criticise us - some without even having seen the game."

The creators have, at least, stopped short of letting the player actually carry out many of the mass executions that marked the conflict - but they do appear in the game. "They have to be there because they formed part of the war," says Pérez. "After you take the Atalayón at Melilla, there is an execution. You only see the shots being fired, and not the dead man fall to the ground - but the text tells you that it is Virgilio Leret. If we didn't give the names, it would be a decaffeinated war."

While that may be true, it is evident that for relatives of those killed in the conflict, such as Carlota Leret, a game free of caffeine would be preferable to the one currently on the shelves.

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL./ Fernando Morales 2007]

[December 2007]

Subject: Spanish news