Grandmother's Stories Lead To Award-Winning Video Game

Jul 17, 2019

A 93-year-old grandmother is not the typical hero for a World War II-based digital game. But Brukel isn't a typical game either. Players are shooting, but only with a camera.

"You visit a farmhouse in Belgium. It happens to be that my grandmother grew up there between the 1920s and the 1950s," says Bob De Schutter. He's a Miami University professor of applied game design and the creator of Brukel.

His grandmother is Bie Verlinden, and her narration forms the basis for the game. De Schutter says as the player walks through the farmhouse and uses the camera, memories come to life on the screen. He says it's an emotional journey. "Video games have that capability that other media don't always do. In Brukel, you can make your own decisions and that makes things a little bit closer, a little more engaging."

The game was created after numerous interviews with his grandmother about growing up in the real-life Brukel farmhouse. "My grandmother has been telling me these stories all her life," De Schutter says. "That doesn't mean it didn't get emotional at certain times. As my grandmother puts it herself, whenever she talks about these stories she sees everything happening again, so her voice cracks up."

Verlinden watched another grandson play the game on a desktop computer and approves of what she saw. "It worked really well for her. We took her through the house and she was like 'Oh wow, that's exactly how it was,' " De Schutter says. "When we walked her through the digital version, she got really excited. She's really proud of me, let's put it that way."

The Smithsonian was also impressed. Brukel was selected for a display on underrepresentation in video games. That starts in August. Brukel also won a gold medal at the International Serious Play Awards in June in the "Games for Good" category, which covers those games designed for educational settings.

De Schutter says Brukel will be released through the online Steam platform at first. He'd like to bring it to the Nintendo Switch, and to develop a mobile version. He says technical limitations prevent a virtual reality version. "This is not a game for me where I'm really trying to make a lot of money off of it. The goal is to share the story as much as I can. It influenced my life so much that I want to share that experience with other people as well."

He says the game has taught him the value of sitting down with loved ones and going over their stories. "Having that experience of sitting down and interviewing and seeing all these things that happened is extremely valuable," De Schutter says.

A former student is working on a watercolor-based game because his grandmother was a painter. "We have the technology these days to do these kinds of things," De Schutter says. 

He sees a shift coming in video games; a movement away from so-called first-person shooters, which De Schutter says hold no interest for him. Instead, he prefers games with an emotional journey and payoff. "I'm happy to carry on that tradition of game design through Brukel."