Exploring Korea’s long-lasting conflict through a game allegory

Daesung-dong village entranceDaesung-dong village entrance

 

For half a century Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has been a dividing line that affects millions of people on the peninsula. Explaining its importance to new generations is challenging. But imagine making a video game about it that is both complex and culturally sensitive.

Suzanna Samstag Oh was up for the challenge. After doing a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea in 1980-1, Suzanna decided to stay. Since then, she’s spent the last 30 years in the country where she is working for a large Korean energy company. After a chance encounter with Games for Change co-Founder Suzanne Seggerman, Suzanna’s boss suggested that his company start the Korean Games for Change chapter. Three years later, a landmark game called “Nanu Planet” was released that explores the DMZ’s history. (“Nanu” is the Korean word for “divided”.)

To learn more about how Nanu Planet uses allegory and historical information, where the inspiration came from, and some of the amazing developments in the past few weeks, we spoke with Suzanna…

UNDERSTANDING THE DMZ

Korea's Demilitarized Zone
Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

 

The demilitarized zone occupies the 38th parallel, forming a border that separates Korea into two halves: North and South. Created near the end of the 2nd World War, and further solidified during the Korea war, this section of land and its existence is deeply rooted in Korean history. Its creation and permanence has left an indelible mark on Korean life. Media surrounding the DMZ is somewhat uncommon, despite how important it is. Since the North and South are still technically at war with one another, both have very strict security laws. In fact, it’s against the law in South Korea to refer to the North in a “sympathetic” manner. However, that hasn’t stopped the creation of art that explores the demilitarized zone.

Since 2009, The DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival has tried to deconstruct and understand the issue. According to Suzanna Samstag, “in the last decade or so, the DMZ has undergone an image transformation – from a place of danger, possible terror, incursions and land mines to the image of a place of untouched natural beauty (it’s been 50+ years since anyone really has set foot there). [It's] even a tourist destination!”

Visitors are allowed to set foot in areas surrounding the DMZ and can even enter some of the North Korean incursion tunnels. In August of 2011, to express their connection and understanding, an Israeli/Palestinian orchestra conducted a performance at one of the many public parks near the DMZ. It’s this shift in cultural perception that has made a game like Nanu Planet possible.

CREATING NANU PLANET

Suzanna Samstag Oh

 

Suzanna Samstag Oh admits that after seeing Peacemaker at the Games for Change Festival in 2008, she was convinced that Korea needed their own version. She felt that “so many Koreans didn’t really seem to be thinking about the future of the peninsula and I thought a game would be the perfect tool to spark discussion.” She then went and convinced the government to fund it and identified a successful commercial company, Joy City Entertainment, to lead the development.

Even with strong conviction and a powerful team to create the project, they simply couldn’t make a game as direct as Peacemaker, which uses real-world footage and doesn’t pull any punches. Considering the strict laws in Korea, Suzanna knew that creating a fantasy world that served as an allegory would be the best option. Fictional characters exploring an alien planet were the perfect backdrop to discuss Korea’s history without being too direct. In fact, many of the locales and situations in the game were inspired by Korean history and cities. Tying historical roots to the game’s story allows players who are familiar with the DMZ’s history to fully appreciate the message while encouraging players who aren’t to explore the story and indulge in the references that are included at the end of each level.

CAMPS, EDUCATION, AWARDS, AND THE FUTURE

Nanu Planet game camp
Nanu Planet game camp

 

Not content to let her inspiration stay limited to one game, Suzanna wanted to start game making camps, similar to the ones she’s seen at the New York Games for Change Festivals. Taking her professional experience in the energy industry, Suzanna created her first camp for over fifty 5th and 6th graders and taught them about renewable energy, climate change, and energy conservation through game design. Last year, she created a camp to tackle heath concerns. But the lucky students of this year’s camp got to see how Nanu Planet was created first hand by the game developers. On the second day, the students received a personal tour of the DMZ and on their last day, they created paper prototypes of their own games that explored the environment and peace.

In the realm of education, Nanu Planet is embarking on its next journey. Along with the government-funded Gyeonggi Digital Contents Agency, Suzanna and her team will be creating educational materials that will bring the game to the classroom. This pioneering project will launch in March 2012.

G-Star Korea Game Conference
G-Star Korea Game Conference

 

And while Suzanna is doing her best to raise the profile of games in Korean education, the commercial industry seems to be catching on. Recently, Nanu Planet received one of the Korean gaming industry’s highest honors at the G-Star gaming conference. This is one of the first times a social impact game has been recognized at this event, let alone won an award. “This was quite a thrill. We were up against educational games and health games mainly, and these are quite successful commercially. So it was a real event that a social issue game had won. It was a vindication of the almost two years of work went into the project.”

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Nanu Planet's main characters Puchi and Parchi

Nanu Planet’s main characters, Puchi and Parchi

 

Games for change are powerful tools that allow complex topics to be explored in a safe and culturally sensitive fashion. Since the demilitarized zone’s history is one filled with much bloodshed and strife, it’s often difficult for young Koreans to openly study or discuss their country’s roots. Nanu Planet is an example of how games can allow young players to indirectly understand a complicated issue through gameplay that is engaging, subtle, and thoughtful.

We’ll be following Nanu Planet over the next few months and we’ll keep you up to date on our Twitter and Facebook accounts.

To learn more about Nanu Planet and to begin playing, visit our
Nanu Planet game profile.

To learn more about Games for Change Korea, visit their website.

COMMENTS

2 Responses to Exploring Korea’s long-lasting conflict through a game allegory

  1. David Maurice says:

    The artical embodies hope. As a youth minister in the early 80’s we learned about “iniatives” or experiences/games used for purposes of various growth potentials. Later the Association for Experiencial Education influenced myself as well as others across the USA. I am deducting that parto of “Gaming” has many similarities of adventure based and experiential education. Based on my experience, the challenge or obstical opens the mind to an unknown that results in mastering that unknown and “growing the mind.”

  2. Moeez says:

    NANU PLANET is awesome with a very charming art direction and a cool world, very clever choice of using an allegory to explain the Korea’s DMZ rather than being on the nose.

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