Love & Barbed Wire

My next game project that I am working on is set further back in time, during the first world war - the Great War. The quotes in this blog are from real letters written at that time.

The playing card mechanism that I introduced in A Cool and Lonely Courage for guiding the emotional direction of stories worked very well there, and I think it probably has mileage in some other settings too.

My dear Cecil, I have come into that little wood and am sitting under a tree only about 10 yards away from where we sat together and you asked me to marry you. It was a very great surprise and even a shock when you told me you loved me and I had not the slightest idea you were going to tell me so then…

I’ve always been interested in the war poetry from WW1 and I recently found out something interesting about letter writing during that period. The static nature of the war meant that sending letters and parcels back and forth become not just practical but also essential for morale. The GPO (General Post Office) built what was the largest wooden structure in the world and employed thousands of people there to handle the mail to and fro the front. It delivered up to 12 million letters a week with letters typically being delivered with a day or two of posting. 1

My dear Dora, For a long time before asking you to marry me I had been thinking things over and I was and am quite certain of my own feelings. But I feel a rotter for asking you when I did. I ought to have waited, for one thing, until the war was over, and for another until I had more idea of your feelings. As it is I have given you a shock and have kindled feelings which should not have been aroused. I am sorry and yet I am glad.

What about a two-player role playing game which involved writing rather than speaking? The written word is quite different to the way we speak, and there is a reason why we often keep the letters we receive from loved ones. The Great War started with a spirit of optimism amongst the troops. Many of them thought they would be home for Christmas. The enlistment offered ‘Pals Battalions’ - if you signed up together, you would serve together. 2 Tragically this meant that when a battalion faced heavy casualties, whole families and communities were torn apart. At the battle of the Somme the 700 ‘Accrington Pals’ lost 585 dead and wounded in 20 minutes.

My Dear Jack, For the last month I have been endeavouring to pluck up sufficient courage to write and tell you that everything must be over between us. No doubt you will think me awfully unkind and perhaps fickle to write this while you are away, but this matter has worried me a great deal, and I have been halting between two opinions, as to whether it would be kinder to let you know now, and let myself be called unfaithful, or to wait until you come home, although knowing all the time in my heart that I was untrue.

As the war progressed it became clear that things were not going to be as quick as once hoped. Trench conditions were awful, and letters and parcels from home were often the only ray of light. But sometimes feelings from before the war faded with time and distance. The industrialised nature of warfare was brutal and many soldiers were crippled or killed. So many letters would tell stories of human tragedy.

Edith, My darling if this should ever reach you it will be a sure sign that I am gone under and what will become of you and the chicks I do not know but there is one above that will see to you and not let you starve. You have been the best of wives and I loved you deeply, how much you will never know.

How do I make a game when there were real life horrors such as that? Well, I’m using game mechanics to help a pair of people create an imagined relationship between two people from a century ago. I like games that create emotional experiences in the players, and which help us gain an appreciation of some of the details of history that can be forgotten - the human cost of conflicts.

Although the game could certainly be played by writing letters in real life using post, email, messaging software or forums, the main idea of the game is that two people are playing face to face across a table.

The letters should be short, something that can be written in five minutes on an index card or small piece of paper. There are five chapters in the game, as the background moves from the optimism at the start of the war, through to the horrors of Gallipoli, Passchendaele, Verdun or the Somme. Each chapter has a general theme to inform the letters, and variety is introduced by the use of playing cards. The soldier and their lover each draw a card for each chapter and the suit of the card informs some of the details they should be including in their letter. There is also an element of responding to the previous letter received.

Within each chapter the letters are written simultaneously, and then passed across and read (I am thinking ideally read out loud; I find this increases the emotional intensity). This simultaneity of production combined with the influences of the playing cards deliberately introduces the possibility of misunderstandings, crossed communications and ultimately tragedy. During the course of the game there can be hospitalisation, breaking of relationships and come the final tragic battle, death. Will the last communication the lover receives be a dreaded telegram from the war office?

The game will include information about the kinds of language and terms of endearment which were common at the time. I’ll include a reading list for more information about the history, and if I can, I will include examples from real life letters and war poems. I recently read “Love Letters of the Great War” edited by Mandy Kirkby3 and I found the window into peoples worlds very moving. I hope to produce a game which will encourage other people to find out more about this history and, perhaps, encourage us all to reach out more to those we love today.

If this sounds interesting, and you’d like to be involved with playtesting, please contact me by email or twitter @NAlexWhite

Cover background photo by British Library on Unsplash