Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Game That Matters

One of the members of the Alliterates pointed me towards this great editorial on The Escapist: How A Board Game Can Make You Cry. It's a really great look at what Brenda Brathwaite has been doing recently in terms of designing games that make you think - starting with a game about the Middle Passage she made to illustrate how horrific the slave trade was, so that her ten-year-old daughter could make an emotional (and logical) connection to the facts taught in her school.

The article then cites a game called Train:

    The object of Train is to get a collection of people from Point A to Point B by placing them in a boxcar and sending them on their merry way. Played among a group of three people, players draw cards from a pile that can impede other players or free them from existing obstacles. The first player to reach the end of the line wins.

    The destination? Auschwitz.

    The "game" didn't stop there, however. The game board ... is an allusion to Kristallnacht - Brathwaite explained that she needed to break a fresh piece of glass each time she "installed" her work in a new location to properly evoke the violence of the experience. She even typed the game's instructions on an actual SS typewriter, which she purchased solely for that purpose.
Nazis have featured prominently in games for a long time, typically as the enemy, whether it was Wolfenstein's chaingun-wielding Hitler or the recent flood of World War II shooters on the market. Nazis are kind of like zombies in that they've become sort of an abstract enemy, relentlessly evil and fodder for headshots.

Very few, if any, games featuring Nazis ever touch on the Holocaust, and if they do it's usually some muscle-bound mook with guns liberating a death camp where you don't actually see the victims.

What makes Train - and, I would argue, any game whose mechanics make the audience think (Braid, I'm looking at you) - so interesting is that the connection it creates to its subject matter is both rawly emotional and rationally engaging. In the example about the African slave trade, a game mechanic involves the players arranging groups of slaves by tribe and family, and then picking up slaves by the fistful, so that the full impact of separation is both observed and felt. All that hard work - to work of building a life and a family - is laid to waste, and then the true 'game' begins.

There is an argument about whether games can be art. Things like Train and designers like Brenda Brathwaite prove beyond a doubt they can.

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