Earlier this month, Electronic Arts announced one of the most anticipated games of the year: Battlefield 5, a shooter that, at least in its trailer, focuses on the glory and adrenaline of World War II. My Child Lebensborn, out now for Android and iOS, is more interested in the consequences. It’s the tale of a child, born during the war, and suffering from the pain of its legacy.
Set in Norway in the early 1950s, the game tells the story of seven-year-old Karin and their adoptive parent. Gender is optional for both characters, but I played as mother and daughter. As Karin’s mom, it’s my job to make sure the child is fed, clothed, entertained and protected. This takes place through a simple budget management system, in which I balance my meager post-war income and my time as a single parent, against Karin’s needs.
There’s a good deal of serving up meals, bath-time, fun trips outdoors, clothes mending and patching up cuts and bruises. Each day, I’m allotted a limited number of task slots, so I need to be smart about my choices.
Karin begins the game in a state of high excitement. She’s about to attend her local school for the first time. She and her best friend are looking forward to meeting new kids and learning about the world.
But her schooling experience turns out to be much tougher than she’d anticipated. The kids turn on Karin, bullying her because of her parentage. Although Karin herself is hazy about her biological parents, it’s common knowledge in town that her father was a German soldier.
Germany invaded Norway in 1940, garrisoning the country heavily. During the country’s five-year occupation, it’s estimated that one German soldier was stationed in Norway for every eight Norwegians. As the Norwegian economy collapsed, hunger and want were common.
During this time, a few thousand children were born to Norwegian women, fathered by occupying soldiers. The Nazi regime viewed these children as, essentially, German, and launched a program called “Lebensborn” (Fount of Life) to raise and indoctrinate them, often in Germany. After the liberation of Norway and the defeat of the Nazis, the children were sent back to Norway, where they, and their mothers, were ostracized.
In My Child Lebensborn, I struggled with Karin’s emotional turmoil, as she faces bullying from children, adults and even teachers. She transforms from a happy girl, brimming with curiosity, to a sullen, distrustful child. She asked difficult questions, which I negotiated through dialogue options.
It became a sort of bullying-management simulation, which offered useful tips for any parent who has to deal with their child being bullied. The main difference between My Child Lebensborn and a game set in, say, modern times, is that the apparatus of the state and the world of adults are indifferent to the problem. And so, I sought out alliances among those few adults who are sympathetic to Karin’s innocence. Most people are hostile, even Karin’s own blood relatives.
Running at about five hours, the game follows a troubling arc, in which it’s all too easy to make parenting mistakes. A tough-it-out attitude won’t work, but the game is also sensitive to its time and place, and to the trauma suffered by Norwegians during the war.
Karin is confused, frightened and lonely. Her happiness is a hard-won prize.
At times, My Child Lebensborn feels like a dreary affair, especially when the story arc dips between budget management rigamarole. But new story beats soon come along to offer more absorbing challenges.
Although its set in post-war Norway, My Child Lebensborn manages to capture the damage wrought by bullying, and how adults are often just as culpable as children. This is a game rooted in the real life experiences of people born in wartime Norway. Its developers interviewed Lebensborn adults about their childhood. But it offers some comfort and guidance to anyone who is experiencing (or has experienced) bullying, which is to say, it’s a game for everyone.