Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where's this train going, again?

In this space, I've once before questioned how serious, genuinely educational gaming could be tackled.

So far, the answer seems to be: not online, not with jazzy graphics, and not with a digital piece at all, but with serious, thoughtful hands-on games.  Art pieces, as it were.

The Daily Beast has a profile of Brenda Brathwaite and her Holocaust game:

Train ... is not a videogame. It unfolds atop a shattered window. Three model train tracks run diagonally across the broken glass. Game pieces include two stacks of cards, a black typewriter holding the rules, 60 yellow wooden pawns, and six gray model boxcars.
Each turn, players can roll a die and choose to advance their boxcar or load it with pawns; alternatively, they can use a card to speed or slow a boxcar’s progress. Brathwaite’s goal, she says, was to make a game about complicity, and so the rules drop the player not in the shoes of a Holocaust victim but a train conductor who helped make the Nazi system run.
 Brathwaite describes what brought her to create Train and the other five historical, moral pieces in the art series.  She needed a way to make history accessible to her daughter, and used simple tools -- dice, pawns, and an index card -- to make the Middle Passage come to life.  Her ultimate point is a great insight:

“I wanted to do a design exercise to see if you could use game mechanics to express difficult subjects,” Braithwaite says. “Every single atrocity, every single migration of people—there was a system behind it. If you can find that system, you can make a game about it. All games are, is systems.”

We've got this problem with "serious games" because, in part, of the words we've got to work with in English.  "Game," by default, means to us something unserious -- "What is this, some kind of game to you?"  We've created a whole image, a whole term, and a number of industries around the concept that game = entertainment.  Football, Call of Duty, Monopoly -- we don't expect a level of seriousness and depth in anything we call a game, and to do so seems only to diminish the gravity of the topic.

But Brathwaite is right: history's worst days, and mankind's darkest hours, have all been surrounded by systems, either ones put in place deliberately or cultural ones that grew over time.  The better we can understand a game as a system of rules, that participants then use to manipulate slices of reality, and the less we consider game as "pointless pastime," the better a tool gaming will be.


  1. 1. I have a feeling the number of glass breakers is going to jump up after that article.
    2. She worked the Wizardy I tip line!! I remember that... I remember wanting to be able to call it! Boy was that game frustrating (although, IIRC, 2 & 3 were much worse for me frustration wise). That has got to be one of the coolest jobs for a 15 year old ever. As far as geek cred goes at least.

  2. Hey, but it's "just a game".