Game talkBrenda’s games

 Posted by (Visited 8550 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Apr 302009
 

Brenda Brathwaite is one of my many brilliant friends from the game industry, and this is some of her recent work:

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, pictured above, 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.

There were audible gasps in the audience when Brathwaite revealed Train‘s shocking conclusion; one attendee was so moved by the experience that she left the conference room in tears.

– The Escapist : TGC 2009: How a Board Game Can Make You Cry

You should read the whole article. I could add commentary, but I am sure you can guess the sort of thing I would say.

  77 Responses to “Brenda’s games”

  1. Thank you, Raph. It was a profoundly moving experience. I didn’t see the woman leave, but several people came up to my after, and I could see people crying from where I was speaking.

    Train is the game that Rabbi Belzer of Mickve Israel called a work of Torah. It remains the single greatest thing anyone has ever said about a game I worked on (including those that had awards attached to them).

  2. The slave trade game sounds like a work of inspired genius, especially with how the message of the game is conveyed by the rules and mechanics. That’s very much the sort of thing I’d like to create myself.

    I suspect that the description of Train doesn’t do it justice. The article makes it sound like the mechanics are irrelevant and the reactions come from the trappings. To my mind that’s not an example of what games can do as it is an example of how people react to and engage with something when you tell them it’s a game. That has value, but of a different sort.

    The biggest difference is how well they’d work as teaching tools once you get past the shock of the subject matter. I think I would learn something from playing the slave trade game. I’m not so sure I would learn from Train because I already know what the destination is.

    I should stress that I’ve only read the linked article, and I doubt my opinion can qualify as informed. If there’s more information available I’d love to see it.

  3. I agree the article is probably missing something crucial. “The first player to get to the end of the line wins.”

    Wins? That seems to pervert the notion of winning. That’s interesting, but I wonder if there is a point at which it’s no longer a ‘game’ (because it isn’t fun; it’s sad), but rather something more like an interactive teaching experience. I’m sure I would be edified by seeing this thing, but I doubt if I would want to -play-.

  4. I think the point was that the player didn’t know the destination until they arrived. They just spent their energy trying to get there first or before other players, then they find out what they had just done.

    It’s a marvelous example of how people are manipulated in life into participating in things they otherwise wouldn’t.

  5. And I just finished writing about a trip to Poland, too, where I tried to learn a little about what it must’ve felt like to be my Jewish ancestors. Of course, I failed, but you have to try, I guess.

    Perhaps if that board game was commercially available I could’ve taken it with me, and actually played from the dilapidated train station that once departed to Auschwitz.

  6. Look. I’m a Jew. And a classically trained studio artist. And someone who has visited multiple “camps.” And someone who is absolutely jaded, cynical, and more often than not, tasteless. Finally, I’m someone who can find the art in nearly anything and I’ve made a holocaust joke here or there, not because I’m the self-empowering type, but because they’re funny.

    This, however, was not art and will not ever be art. It is beyond tasteless, the people involved should be ashamed.

    Not to mention, it takes NO effort to shock people. You don’t need design skills and you don’t need to be a clever artist. It is quite literally “something a child can do.”

    I’m sorry, but when things like this get made, respect goes straight out the window.

    What next? A game where you put a bunch of hangers in a closet and then reveal later that the closet is a vagina? YEA, that took effort to come up with. Please, Raph, tell your brilliant friend to stop making games. Also, the Rabbi should be ashamed – this isn’t a work of Torah, it’s the work of someone starved for attention.

    Shocking people for emotion is old hat and is a tool of the bad artist. In fact, it largely invalidates anyone as being any sort of artist. This little “demonstration” has now been thrown into the same pile as people who use the ashes of the cremated in sculpture and menstrual blood as paint. Oh, and that Britney Spears sculpture. Yea, this is like that. You know: this one.

    In closing: Brenda, when you do things like this, you HURT the games as art argument. Talentless hackery doesn’t help people realize things like Passage, Don’t Look Back, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. exist. When things like this are created, all you do is produce counterpoints and help the other side’s argument.

    tl;dr – STOP HURTING THE INDUSTRY.

  7. I think the point was that the player didn’t know the destination until they arrived. They just spent their energy trying to get there first or before other players, then they find out what they had just done.

    It’s a marvelous example of how people are manipulated in life into participating in things they otherwise wouldn’t.

    It’s not a marvelous example of anything like your example. It’s not a game in the sense of it would ever be a real game. The message was in the presentation of the “game”.

    If you tried to make it into a real game, it wouldn’t work as it was presented. Looking at the game pieces, only the most historically ignorant would not know what this game was about. So, any person with a shred of a soul would play to lose. If you make the pieces less symbolically relevant to increase the chance of hoodwinking players, then the end message seems more arbitrary.

    Teacher: Aha! You won, but these blank chits really mean you just sent 300K people to a Khmer Rouge death camp!
    Students: *mumbles* WTF is she smoking?

    What would the title be? “Train: A game not about the Holocaust, really!”

    I know some people are going to jump on the wagon and say what a great edutainment game this would be. However, they forget just how cruel school children can be.

    Bobby: I bet I can beat your high score of sending more Jews to the camps than you, Billy!

    People running those trains and the people herded like cattle onto to those trains – who sometimes died where they stood – had few illusions about their fate. They may not have known they were going to their certain deaths, but they knew they were not going to the Alps for a couple of weeks on the slopes.

    If it was mass produced as a game, may God have mercy on the souls of the persons involved.

  8. Hmm… Eric: first, I don’t think you can make the judgment that the game is exploitative shock without actually experiencing it. Note, I have not experienced it myself, either. But I know Brenda, and that’s not her style. So I wouldn’t prejudge here.

  9. Raph, I think it might be her style. The last talk she gave that I saw was the talk about sex in gaming at AGC 2006. She likes doing and discussing what is typically taboo in settings she can get away with it.

    Also, it doesn’t really sound like much of a game. The Kristallnacht bit was going too far. The SS typewriter. Way over the top. The whole thing just reeks of “I want attention and if I have to godwin gaming, I will. Sex just isn’t taboo enough these days.”

  10. Well, it sounds like she has stepped over the line from ‘games as art’ to ‘art that might be games, ish’.

    Like Damien Hirst, or the guy that fed all of his worldly belongings into a machine that turned it into feces.

    Still, from either angle, it’s still art. One is more aesthetically pleasing, one is more mentally stimulating. ‘Train’ is a long way from truly banal modern ‘art’.

  11. This kind of thing does not work as an off-the-shelf game that you go, buy, and play for fun.

    It works if you agree to participate in it as an exercise with someone you respect as more knowledgeable. They handhold you through the important bits and dole out information selectively. Done right, it can be more intense than a movie, because you recognize that you’re making the same choices as others you may have felt no association with, but other than that, it’s really still passive consumption.

  12. Inhuman acts almost invariably are enabled by the dehumanization of the victim. Millions have died because of the ability of their murderers to abstract them as “savages”, “vermin” or “cargo”.

    If a piece can start with abstract tokens and then twist perception so the audience identifies with those tokens as human beings on a very visceral level, that’s a powerful reversal of the historic pattern. It may not be a great game, but it’s good art.

    And once we understand the processes of tokenizing “the Other”, we become more resistant to the murderous monsters who seek to use the dynamic to their own ends.

    Well done.

  13. If a piece can start with abstract tokens and then twist perception so the audience identifies with those tokens as human beings on a very visceral level, that’s a powerful reversal of the historic pattern. It may not be a great game, but it’s good art.

    Oh, come on. Come on.

    “Get on the train. HAHAH YOU’RE IN THE OVEN.” is not good art. It’s an explicit attempt to tug on the weak emotional fortitude people have in the face of holocaust discussion/presentation. It’s not even a little bit art.

    I thought I made that perfectly clear with my abortion example. Perhaps not.

  14. @ Eric: It doesn’t sound like you know Brenda very well from your perceptions of her work. I have talked with her over the last six months or so about Train and the other games in her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. Originally, she had no intention whatsoever to exhibit or even talk about the games outside a small circle of friends and colleagues. It was at the encouragement of others that she decided to speak publicly and to exhibit the games.

    In Train, the player is not one of the passengers on the trains, they are the person tasked with putting passengers into the boxcars and then transporting them to the station. That is of course a detail that can’t be gleaned from the IGN article. Hopefully you will have an opportunity to see the game in person so you can more fully understand it.

    The games in Brenda’s series do mostly have “punch lines,” it is true, but as Yukon Sam points out, the combination of the punch line with the player’s own very abstracted experience has the potential to get people to think about very difficult and dark moments in human behavior in a new way. I believe this is the spirit in which Brenda created these games. Not to be sensationalizing and attention-grabbing.

  15. I think this thread begins to illustrate an idea Ive had for some time, but never expressed publicly before.

    These “type” of posts- blog fodders- terra novian dilemenas – seem to arise as the new meme (due to sales numbers finally reached) that “games- more specifically – computerized games- are ART has come to light. The “game” replacing the “movie” or even the “film” as a media to be the “ART” and “business” of the 21st century has basically gone unchallenged by he “games or tech press”. Today even the “media-pop” press believes this true and the ” game to make you cry” has been the rally call for the “Artiste gamemaker” for a decade now.

    I think this all may be a false belief. Simply “games” in this context are not the “films” of the 21st century but the “TOYS”. They are the objects we’ll project our values into, but not from. The Games industry has wrongly been thought of as a new “Hollywood” when its actual products are much more in line with those of Hasbro or Mattel. This is not a BAD thing , I think it just puts this “industry” in a more correct attitude to grow successfully as an entertainment industry. Ive in the past joked that the SF games industry always took the worse from LA- Hollywood. and never learned enough from the TOY biz from the ancient east coast past.- Now it seems I see more truth in the joke than I saw a decade ago when i think i first made it.;)

    “interactive” art – has always had a hard time beyond its niche “audience” as an ART. While painting, sculpture, even architecture has had centuries of one way expressive ideologies to feed them as a medium of ART.

    Imagine the creator of “barbie dolls” and the creator of GIJOE – “jews btw-” up on a stage in front of toy designers, setting up the toys-dolls- into trains… all 1/6 scale.. to finally make the same point.–One CANT even imagine it.. because NO ONE in the toy business would ever do this..They know who and what their place was and what their products were. Yes we become attached to our toys, and all sorts of ART becomes made from those images by 30 year old Artists in today’s culture..

    BUT- Toys aren’t considered ART or except for a very small niche an art form.. They can make as much money as a Movie ..but as a culture we didnt give then ART status for the same 70 years that motion picture media did reach that acclaim.

    Some blog fodder to think about.. Not very pretty in its writing, but maybe accurate to why this Story, and the previous one about CIVIC Game worlds.. all seem very hollow to any thinking person. IMO

    c3

  16. btw- i just read the referring article.
    i also wiki brendas name/bio- i had heard name etc. never met her.

    “board games” -images of “kids games”– a kid as the primary audience, the toy train cars used…..
    it does seem to be a “shock object”, the term ART becomes as bastardized as one needs to justify its staging/reporting/ and use for an audience draw…

    Nothing really new here.:) as a Kostabi or Koons showing suggests…juxtapose imagery, of play pieces and train cars….and holocaust….put smiley faces on the pieces and you have a fisher price “family town toy” lawsuit:)

    Again i think i chalk it up the article as “news” to the the pop meme in the media /net? press that “games have -gods-, and that games are -serious-, and are an -art-.”

    all of which is a lessening of our cultural ability to distinguish intent/execution and value. Which will make any computerized interactive experience or media that “could” be a art form, just harder to actually see or find.

    maybe the reporting/ article is the real banality today…showing the lessening that even Koons and Kostabi helped foster 2 decades ago.
    it questioned nothing.

  17. “Get on the train. HAHAH YOU’RE IN THE OVEN.”

    My take on this was much deeper, and I got no “haha” sense from it, at all.

    I tend to think of the whole “is it art or isn’t it” issue this way: Does it provoke an emotional response from you?

    Clearly, this one seems to be clearing that hurdle. That you are moved, upon even hearing about it, to such a strong position of righteous indignation surrounding the subject matter is a rather positive thing, overall, wouldn’t you say? So putting people in the position to personally touch on and experience the concept of working towards a goal that you only realize is horrifying at the end might instill in your mind to question things when you see them happening around you.

    To condemn this piece of work is the “stick fingers in ears and sing la-la-la” response to “those who don’t study and learn from history are doomed to repeat it” phenomena.

  18. My initial reaction to the game as described in the article was much the same as Eric’s. But the article talks about all manner of people having exactly the opposite reaction. Hence my belief that the article’s description isn’t all that good.

    If the article is accurate, then Brenda Brathwraite’s is saying that it really doesn’t matter what a game’s rules actually are; you just have something that gets people to engage with the subject matter. This is in direct conflict with Raph’s argument that players will see through the trappings to the system underneath. If the system doesn’t reinforce the message then that undermines the whole experience.

    If I took Chess, did up the board to look like a southern plantation, and then pointed to the white and black pieces and called it a game about slavery, nobody should take me seriously. In contrast I can set up an ordinary game of Fox and Geese and make a legitimate (albeit simple) statement about class struggles.

  19. @ cube3: Somewhere around 500 years ago, painting was considered to be a craft, a form of decoration, not an art. Not a means for exploring ideas like, say, religion, humanity’s relationship with nature, etc. But by the time of Michelangelo, painting was accepted as Art, as a liberal art even, and no longer on par with brick-making or other pursuits that simply required hands.

    Games as well can make a transition from being the toy industry, as you aptly note, to a means by which we can explore ideas. I don’t see the point in boxing games in to a single cultural role.

    Is there something about games that simply defies the possibility of them being more than toys? Or is this just perception?

  20. Perhaps I should qualify my post by saying, “in my opinion”. The interpretation of art is highly subjective, and you are certainly welcome to your own view. I’ll stand by my assessment.

  21. @Vargen:

    If the article is accurate, then Brenda Brathwraite’s is saying that it really doesn’t matter what a game’s rules actually are; you just have something that gets people to engage with the subject matter.

    Having played Train, I’d have to say that if you got that from the article, then the article did not express it correctly. The rules of Train matter a great deal; remove or change them and you have removed maybe 90% of the impact of the experience.

  22. This is in direct conflict with Raph’s argument that players will see through the trappings to the system underneath.

    If I remember correctly, Raph’s argument was that players will eventually “grok” the game, lose interest, and see the game for the system. Play Brenda’s game 100 times and then let me know what you think. ;)

  23. john,
    i dont think you understood my meaning or intent. Toys are not a “just” they are as IMPORTANT as FILMs or Paintings. etc. But they create a different relationship with their user, vs viewer. or viewser, than the medias we commonly associate with being capable of becoming “ART”.

    the BARBIE DOLL has had as much of a cultural affect on us as CINDERELLA- written and animated/filmed- but its by its mediums nature— its a interactive device, its not per say ART by todays most commmon meaning as another suggested in the post above….

    Art may be what moves one but it may also be only the outcome of a specific process, these are all the semantics of the definition of art, a different conversation….

    but

    ” Somewhere around 500 years ago, painting was considered to be a craft, a form of decoration, not an art. Not a means for exploring ideas like, say, religion, humanity’s relationship with nature, etc.”

    this is possibly incorrect, i suggest you read up on the latest theories about some of the oldest “human made images”- the cave paintings at Lascaux http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_paintings.

    i tend to believe they were not decorative craft, but religious items used for totems for mans position in the universe around him..aka nature.)

    So Im really just trying to put forth an idea that the popular “web-geek tech-?” meme – that is now surrounding “games” as they are networked/computerized /virtualized that has them as MORE than “models” or simulations to inform our real lives -such as many believe HOLLYWOOD’s products do- is possibly a flawed idea that doesnt hold with the reality of their usage.

    c3

  24. cube3:
    Perhaps I did misunderstand your intent, but you seemed to be using toys in a pejorative sense, and suggesting there is something about games that keeps us them from being “art.”

    I do know about Lascaux, and much of the history of art between Lascaux and the Renaissance to the present. My point is not that people just started making images 500 years ago that they used for specific intentions like religion or accounting or whatever is going on in those caves. I’m also not talking about what we think about them today. What I was trying to say is people started thinking of painted images as art during the Renaissance. It took a concerted effort of a number of critics, artists and patrons to change the general perception of painting, regardless of what other functions it had in the culture.

  25. If I remember correctly, Raph’s argument was that players will eventually “grok” the game, lose interest, and see the game for the system. Play Brenda’s game 100 times and then let me know what you think.

    It was a little more nuanced than that (I’m not trying to argue that you’re wrong there though Morgan, it was just more complicated than that), but Raph has never said trapping doesn’t matter, quite the contrary. The whole section on turning tetris into a game about throwing people into a pit clearly highlighted that it did matter.

    The original point wasn’t really wrong either though; mechanics should reflect and strength the subject material as much as possible. We just don’t have any details on the actual rules other than that cards are involved.

  26. Oh, also, Eric, I think when dealing with matters involving people that you only know second hand through one seminar that they’ve given, and on the topic of a second hand report that’s vague about details, you’re better off taking the word of people that know them personally or actually have something approaching all the details, yeah?

    You’re arguing from a position of ignorance, it’s not a good place to be arguing from.

  27. It was a little more nuanced than that

    “Games that fail to exercise the brain become boring.” (A Theory of Fun, p. 38)

  28. @Kerri Knight

    I tend to think of the whole “is it art or isn’t it” issue this way: Does it provoke an emotional response from you?

    That’s not how art works. That is in fact an ageless cop-out in explaining how art works. The only time people say that is when a work gets called for what it is, Not Art.

    To condemn this piece of work is the “stick fingers in ears and sing la-la-la” response to “those who don’t study and learn from history are doomed to repeat it” phenomena.

    No, it’s really not.

    @Eolirin

    Oh, also, Eric, I think when dealing with matters involving people that you only know second hand through one seminar that they’ve given, and on the topic of a second hand report that’s vague about details, you’re better off taking the word of people that know them personally or actually have something approaching all the details, yeah?

    You’re arguing from a position of ignorance, it’s not a good place to be arguing from.

    Yea, it’s a shame the majority of reality is made up by your perception of it. When you start giving speeches with the intention of compelling people in a certain way, how you act on your personal time goes out the window. Everyone that has spent time with me can largely validate that I’m far different in person than I am on my own website. But I fully accept the frankenstein’s monster I’ve created for myself on my website and I don’t particularly expect people to believe folks who know me when they say “No, he’s really NOT that much of an asshole.

    Just like I don’t believe you when I say something like “it might be her style” and thereabouts. It’s my perception of her. It’s not ignorance, it’s merely how she has presented herself. Twice now. I’ve actually met Brenda and spoke to her at length after one of her talks, she’s pleasant and charming. That doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not she intended to shock, which is what we’re talking about here.

    @Ian

    Having played Train, I’d have to say that if you got that from the article, then the article did not express it correctly. The rules of Train matter a great deal; remove or change them and you have removed maybe 90% of the impact of the experience.

    If the rules matter a great deal, is the Holocaust tie-in even important? If you removed that, would it have changed the game or would it have removed the shock-value. I’m pretty confident the game would’ve remained the same, just as if you removed the ending from every video game ever, including things like Portal. If you got to the end and and instead of going absolutely berserk, you still got cake – well, sure, the emotional response would be different, but the game itself remains unscathed.

    It really doesn’t matter either way since Holocaust tie-ins of any sort have been relegated to the trash bin as something classy on the internet. Or anywhere really. Like I said, she godwinned gaming. That’s just bad taste.

  29. Sure, but the seeing behind the dressing bit is more complicated than simple boredom. Raph points out that the system shines through even before that point, even though he never tries to claim that the dressing is irrelevant either.

  30. Eolirin,

    I’ll be perfectly honest, I asked 4 people now what you were trying to say in that post, but no one can figure it out. Can you restate it and clear it up a bit?

  31. @Eric,
    Meh, I’m sorry, reality isn’t made up of our perceptions of it, not even a little bit. Our perceptions are made up incomplete information sure, and they color how we view things, but they’re not reality. They’re just the parts we’re currently seeing, but nothing prevents us from trying to see more, or, failing that, understanding that our view of things is not complete. If someone who knows her better than you do says she doesn’t act in a particular way, or someone who’s actually seen the game in full detail is saying that it’s not there as a simple attempt to shock the audience, it behooves you to accept that until you’ve seen a similar level of detail.

    Otherwise you are acting from a position of ignorance, and any opinion that you may form is invalid. To use a completely contrived comparison (call it reduction to absurdity if you will), if someone sets up a garden hose outside my window and it’s making sounds like rain, and I say “it’s raining outside” without checking, and someone points out that it’s in fact a garden hose, if I continue to insist that it’s in fact raining without checking I’m in the wrong. It isn’t raining. It’s a garden hose. The fact that the garden hose gave me the sense of there being rain doesn’t mean it actually is rain. If I checked, I’d know that. It’s no different here; if you play the game and have the same sense about it, then that’s fair. But almost no info has been provided, and you’re reacting to a few lines without a great deal of context.

    As an aside: If people who know you personally say that you’re a nicer person than you present online, I’d have to believe them. They’d know, I wouldn’t. A case could be made that your online persona is less nice, and that could still be true even if you’re a saint out in the physical world, but an online persona is not a person anyway (it’s just part of a person). I’m sure you have your reasons if there’s such a significant difference between the two, and you’re allowed that. But it’d still be rather wrong of me to contradict people that actually know you though.

  32. Eric, Wait, which post? The one about dressing was directed toward Morgan and has to do with stuff in Koster’s book.

  33. @Morgan

    Play Brenda’s game 100 times and then let me know what you think.

    Someone with an eye for design will see through it after playing once. A gamer would see through it in two or three plays. Anyone of 100+ IQ, five times. Tops. :P

    @Eric Schild

    If the rules matter a great deal, is the Holocaust tie-in even important? If you removed that, would it have changed the game or would it have removed the shock-value.

    So how are Passage, Don’t Look Back, or Shadow of the Colossus different from Train?

  34. Meh, I’m sorry, reality isn’t made up of our perceptions of it, not even a little bit.

    On a theoretical level, I agree. But when we put it into practice, particularly in this age of instant information (or in many cases, misinformation), perception really is reality. This is the internet. This isn’t some absurd situation like you described with the hose. Brenda hasn’t shown up to explain what’s missing from the article and the article itself may be misleading, but it’s all we have. It is, in fact, the unfortunate reality of the situation.

    There’s a lot of art theory that fumbles around with the tangible versus intangible and perception versus reality, but I’m not going to go into it. Why? Frankly, it’s boring and you can read that crap if you want. It makes sense in the long run, but for the most part, it’s just dense bullshit.

    In short though, perception is reality. Can more information change that? Sure. Is it going to without someone else offering up more information? No, not really. Sorry.

    As an aside: If people who know you personally say that you’re a nicer person than you present online, I’d have to believe them. They’d know, I wouldn’t.

    Now on this, I fully disagree and as Chancellor of Online Behavior Readjustment, I’m proud to relieve you of your duties of having to believe people about such things. I’m fully aware of my online persona, as is everyone. I’ve made myself very publically available and have never really argued to the teeth with how people judge me online. To do so would be a fallacy on my part and for you to not judge people based on what they say online until that person proves otherwise must make it really, really hard to get a point across on the internet.

  35. So how are Passage, Don’t Look Back, or Shadow of the Colossus different from Train?

    They’re about the journey, not the destination. Don’t Look Back even hits you over the head with that as you end where you start and start where you end.

    Brenda made a game where the journey was a game, and the end was a big GOTCHA. Maybe it wasn’t but like I just said to Eolirin, that’s what I’ve been presented with and as such, it’s just how things are. If anyone who saw it actually wants to prove otherwise, I’m cool with that. But until that happens, all I see is how a woman punk’d an audience with the holocaust.

  36. Eric, cept, it’s not all we have, because people in the thread who are in a better position to know than we are are saying otherwise (and my comment was precipitated by you telling Raph that your view of someone he knows pretty well was more accurate than his, so again, there’s way more information than you’re allowing to be parsed). Brenda isn’t here filling things in, but someone who actually played the game did:

    Having played Train, I’d have to say that if you got that from the article, then the article did not express it correctly. The rules of Train matter a great deal; remove or change them and you have removed maybe 90% of the impact of the experience.

    And your reaction was incredibly vitriolic, given the relatively little information that was given. Did you pause to consider what the rules were like, or that it could be more nuanced than the article seemed to lay out? Did you consider asking? That would have allowed you to form a more valid opinion of whether such a game was exploitive shock or not.

    As to the last, why would it be hard to do that? I don’t really care if you’re nice or not, as that has little impact on the validity of your arguments. If someone says you’re really nice in real life, why should I doubt that? I know very well that people do not always act the same online and off. And I’d still be right if I said a particular comment of yours wasn’t nice, because I’m talking about something that I can possess actual knowledge of. If you’re mean online, then I can say you’re mean online (though, I’d need to spend more time around you before I could say even that, one data point doesn’t make a pattern, and there can be mitigating circumstances for behavior. Right now I’m just taking your word for it), but I don’t know you offline, so I can’t talk about that. But it’s not like it impacts much, so I’m confused as to how that somehow makes it harder to have a conversation or make a point.

    Why do I need to care about behavior when there’s actual reasoning underlying conversations? Why do I need to overstep the realm of my knowledge and experience to make a point? If I could be wrong, why would I assume that I’m not without checking first?

    And why should I judge you, especially in contexts that I don’t interact with you in? I can point out a flaw in reasoning, but I can’t really talk about you as a person. I don’t know you. Not knowing you, I only care about what you’re saying, in the context that you’re saying it in, and nothing else.

    At least as far as I’m concerned the point of communication is to broaden and deepen the reach of our perception, to make us think about things harder and in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. Doing any of the above makes it all that much harder to accomplish that goal. And that’s all I care about, learning more about the world, myself, and the others in it. If something is outside my current range of experience I have to rely on other people better in the know, at least until I can confirm things for myself, because otherwise I start authoring my own reality instead of better understanding the one that’s, you know, real.

  37. Sure, but the seeing behind the dressing bit is more complicated than simple boredom.

    Okay, but I don’t see why you decided to argue this point. I’m not a game designer. I don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car. I only restated three of the stages Raph talked about in his book. I think you just wanted to argue. ;)

  38. Oh, and Eric (other stuff is in moderation, and this may go through first, but to extend one point), ignoring the whole nature of reality thing, as I have even less desire to get into that than you do… What you’re basically doing is filling in gaps in your perception with what is essentially fiction (and whether that fiction manages to actually line up pretty well with the reality of the situation isn’t really relevant, you haven’t actually checked, and you don’t actually know, so you’re just making it up). You don’t know all the details about the game so in order to have an opinion you need to fill in those details with something. Otherwise it’s very hard to say much about it at all. That you’ve chosen to go with your own writing of reality rather than trying to legitimately fill in that void of information before deciding how things are is what I’m objecting to. It’s an invalid form of reasoning. In the end, even with all the details, you might come to the same conclusion, and that’d be fine. You’d actually have the information you need to form a valid, reasoned, argument. But this is not that; you’ve not really made such an attempt.

    Hiding behind the “perception = reality” mantra is basically putting your fingers in your ears and refusing to examine the situation as it is rather than as you’ve decided it to be.

  39. Morgan, I wasn’t trying to argue! I said so explicitly! I was just trying to make sure nuance didn’t get lost. :)

  40. Or more accurately Morgan, seeing the system rather than the dressing isn’t part of a progression that comes after boredom, but rather something that exists through the whole process to varying levels as the player delves into the game. It’s most clearly seen at the end, granted, because the system has been mastered and it’s fully known, but it’s there even at the beginning too.

    I was basically being somewhat pendantic, as I’m sure you know by now, I’m wont to be.

  41. They’re about the journey, not the destination. Don’t Look Back even hits you over the head with that as you end where you start and start where you end.

    If it’s about the journey, then why are you so fixated on the end? What about the middle bits? Aren’t those important? Why didn’t you describe them? Your grand summary of this apparently Artistic Game is… its ending?

    Oh… hey, maybe that’s what the article writer did.

    (By the way: serious cop-out. I think the article was poorly written, myself, especially since it clearly doesn’t convey anything useful, even about the slave trade game. But your attempt at explaining the artsy-ness of these lofty games, at explaining the points they hit that Train misses, was a tired, meaningless cliche? Give me a break. Unreal Tournament is about the journey, rather than the destination, too. All MMORPGs are about the journey, rather than the destination. There is no destination! It’s persistent; it’s forever; it’s the gaping maw of eternity! They’re not art. They’re frou frou feel good vein injectors, dressed up as epic battles for shiny shoulder plates.

    Focus on the journey, not the destination. Right. Choose your own adventure: Hamlet Redux. To stab the tapestry, go to page 14. To kiss your mother, go to page 32. To recite monologue #4, go to page 83. To recite monologue #5, go to page 93.)

  42. [quote]If it’s about the journey, then why are you so fixated on the end? [/quote]
    Seriously?

    The only reason we’re having this conversation is because the train ended up at Auschwitz.

    [quote]All MMORPGs are about the journey[/quote]

    I wish.

  43. Oh god. damn. bbcode.

  44. The only reason we’re having this conversation is because the train ended up at Auschwitz.

    According to the article, that’s not the end of the game, though.

  45. According to the article, it’s not the end of the “game” – in quotes. Then they ramble on a bit about Kristallnacht and an SS Typewriter. We’ve already established that the article is poorly written though. At this point, the only person that can clear up what may or may not be AFTER the reveal is Brenda. But she’s MIA atm, I’m sure she’ll be back though.

  46. Some more thoughts:

    Their “Utility” is what hampers “Games” from becoming “Art” IMO. Toys and Games can be great “design’s”, while some who make them can work as “artists” via an “artists process” but the majority of “games” by their nature, have a functional utility inheret in the medium. This is what i suggest the “industry” promote for its future, as opposed to the “Art of the Film” arguments. Even hollowed out by Hollywood processes, “Motion Pictures Media” have a narrative emotive mechanism, though while copied in immersive “games” media, is not the full description of the mediums feature set. Films can have no point or rules- but succeed as “art”. Can a game with no point or rules be played-if not how can it succeed-and does that then leave it finally as only “art”?

    The MOMA places “chairs” on pedestals, it dosent consider them “art” only “great designs”. If they were chairs one couldnt sit in, then would that enter the objects into the realm of only “art”?

    Presentation creates a context as well…

    Bad Blog Journalism creates one as well: What if it was hayfever that caused the “women to leave the room crying?” the “reporter never followed up” only assumed.

    just sayin…

  47. It sounds like coverage of the game falls far short of its real value.

    That said, the problem with this game (from what I can tell — I’ve only read about it) seems to be that jumps quickly from an abstract participation in a mundane exercise (directing passengers on a train) to a blatant evil (sending people to their deaths) without any insights into that character progression. Ultimately, it’s not useful because it doesn’t enlighten the audience as to how German individuals got to the point in their lives that they were facilitating the murder of Jews.

    The key to a good warning against evil is to show the sympathetic roots of that evil. The audience must see the good that’s being twisted. For example, patriotism and a sense a duty/responsibility are goods which can be manipulated to set up evil actions.

    It’s easy to say boarding passengers on those Nazi trains was evil. What people need to understand is how everyday people who were not monsters became so through gradual conditioning, so that we may recognize and resist such conditioning when it reoccurs. This is a case in which stick figures don’t help.

  48. Ultimately, it’s not useful because it doesn’t enlighten the audience as to how German individuals got to the point in their lives that they were facilitating the murder of Jews.

    First, Jewish people weren’t the only victims of the Holocaust. Second, there’s already an “alternate reality game” that does what you’d like: Dr. Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. Dr. Milgram’s experiments at Yale also shed light on the fact that everyone is capable of “evil.”

    Does Brenda’s game provide a Milgram-Zimbardoan context? Maybe not. Was that the point? Maybe not. I think the point was to demonstrate that games have the capacity to immerse players in an emotional experience. Based on the coverage of the actual players’ reactions, I think she succeeded.

  49. This is a derail, but,

    patriotism … [is a good thing]

    Requesting logic behind this claim. Dump it as a comment on any post of my Livejournal: raccaldin36: and I’ll get it. Or post it here if you don’t think Raph would mind.

  50. I think he said patriotism is a goods, as in goods or services.

  51. Ultimately, it’s not useful because it doesn’t enlighten the audience as to how German individuals got to the point in their lives that they were facilitating the murder of Jews.

    I think the point is addressed in the reduction of people to tokens. It’s an abstraction of the process of abstraction.

    But if you want to see the mechanism in action, call a radio talk show and speak of illegal immigrants as real people with the much the same individual hopes, dream and aspirations as you and me. You’ll get an earful of instruction on how to dehumanize people to the point where certain individuals will seriously propose, without batting an eye, that illegals be hunted for sport. A game, if you will.

  52. Aaron:
    The key to a good warning against evil is to show the sympathetic roots of that evil. The audience must see the good that’s being twisted. For example, patriotism and a sense a duty/responsibility are goods which can be manipulated to set up evil actions.

    Yes, yes, yes! This is something so many people don’t get. Patriotism is a mechanic that can be twisted the wrong way. In it’s right form, it’s natural form, it’s a belief in the common good and in participation for the whole of a society. A good thing! “Hey, lets work together to make things better.”

    Patriotism is one of three major social mechanics that are formed by our nature to promote the good things people can do together. Also are Ethnicity and Religion. A degree of Pride (ironically one of the Seven Deadly Sins) in each, when used the right way, is very good for that social sphere. But Pride taken too far, or any of the other sins, can be used to twist these mechanics to be used in wrong and terrible ways. Pride without Humility to balance it out and keep it grounded.

    There is a fine line between these things, one that very often is almost impossible to see. One that sometimes we blind ourselves to (maybe a survival mechanism), and other times is hidden from us by others. And when that fine line becomes more visible, and we become more aware of how far we’ve crossed that line, then we may berate ourselves and ask “My God, what did we do?”

    And this is where the majority of German people found themselves.

  53. Yukon Sam:
    I think the point is addressed in the reduction of people to tokens. It’s an abstraction of the process of abstraction.

    But if you want to see the mechanism in action, call a radio talk show and speak of illegal immigrants as real people with the much the same individual hopes, dream and aspirations as you and me. You’ll get an earful of instruction on how to dehumanize people to the point where certain individuals will seriously propose, without batting an eye, that illegals be hunted for sport. A game, if you will.

    Well said, and two points of major importance.
    1) Reducing people to tokens. This is the first step in a process. In the days of slavery, an entire class of people were judged to have no rights (or less rights, depending on the instances around the world). Bad things follow.

    2) Illegal immigrants. You’ll notice that the US government has been very reluctant to close the border off to these people. You know, that big, bad US government. Forget what they say as politicians. Politicians lie. As people, they are much more aware of their heavy responsibility. This is the same thing as NAFTA and the other trade agreements in the Americas. As Candidates, they all say they are against it. As Presidents, they all sign these agreements into law. There is a reason for this evident conflict. They know the importance of it all, not only for the people involved, but for the future of our part of the world as a whole.

    Obviously, there’s some major problems that go with this. The fact that the US government, that big bad US government, has accepted the impact on our own people for the sake of a bigger thing, shows something. Something important. But things are being done about it. The war on the drug cartels in Mexico has started. Until that war is won, things are going to be very dicey. And it won’t be won overnight. I hope the American people have the stomach for it. This is a case where, damnit, ya better stand up and fight for what’s right. The alternative, trying to close the border and failing, allowing Mexico to fall to brutality as a rule of law and justice slain by bullets, has no future for any of us.

  54. See this is what happens when you Godwin your own game from the start. ;)

  55. I was at the presentation this article is about. And the article does a poor job of describing Brenda’s game. Brenda described the mechanics of the game in some detail, and it was clear that the mechanics – both physical and rules – enhance the game and the end experience. Yes, the ending is a ‘gotcha’, but that doesn’t reduce the emotional impact, even of the telling of the game. To say that an emotional impact doesn’t equal a learning experience (and hence, this is not a learning game) is to show a lack of understanding of learning. To say this is not a game because of a lack of replayability is to not understand games fully. It betrays a bias towards the current themes in video game design and critique. My background is in designing learning games for corporate clients – not for kids, but for adults. Brenda’s series of boardgames fit in precisely with the kind of mechanics and implementation that I use (although a different message, to be sure.)

    @ Eric -Dude, you are not listening to people. How do you warrant a greater opinion of this game than a Rabbi who spent hours with Brenda going over every detail of the game (a fact that was part of her presentation, but not presented in the article.) You neither know the game (because of decidedly limited experience with it) nor what is Torah (unless you, too, are a rabbi) better than the rabbi. Instead of condemning him, you should ask yourself “what does this rabbi know that I don’t that gives him such a different impression of this game than I have?” And try to learn more yourself. Your expressed belief that ‘perception is reality’ shortchanges your possibility of learning beyond your opinion here.

  56. I’m reminded of a Monty Python skit where a man is looking for the office where he can have an argument, but ended up in the office where you get contradictions, instead.

    “No it isn’t!”

    “Yes, it is!”

  57. Reducing people to tokens. This is the first step in a process. In the days of slavery, an entire class of people were judged to have no rights (or less rights, depending on the instances around the world). Bad things follow.

    Tokens can take on any meaning, positive or negative, depending on how they are used. Dungeon Masters, game designers, filmmakers, and storytellers all use tokens to communicate a variety of ideas. Businesses, including charities, use tokens to communicate as well as to measure performance. The use of tokens is not an inherently malicious or harmful act.

  58. It is very difficult to make an artwork based off 2ww/holocaust without it coming through as somewhat cheesy, cheap and too-late. I agree with Eric: too easy, not original, not good art, not very interesting. Tasteless? Not tasteless enough.

  59. Reducing people to tokens. This is the first step in a process. In the days of slavery, an entire class of people were judged to have no rights (or less rights, depending on the instances around the world). Bad things follow.

    Tokens can take on any meaning, positive or negative, depending on how they are used. Dungeon Masters, game designers, filmmakers, and storytellers all use tokens to communicate a variety of ideas. Businesses, including charities, use tokens to communicate as well as to measure performance. The use of tokens is not an inherently malicious or harmful act.

    And therefore the process I was talking about that begins with reducing people to tokens has little to do with representing people as tokens in the manner you are.

  60. I was the young woman described in the article as, “The one left the room in tears.” And I can tell you right now that the gentleman who wrote it missed the reason behind my tears ENTIRELY.

    When I first left the room to compose myself before I spoke with Brenda personally, those tears were for the subject matter of the games she’s created. That much is true. I wept because so many people refuse to confront horrible, terrifying, unbelievably evil acts from history as well as from every day life because they are “just too hard to deal with.” Avoidance is a powerful tool for self-preservation, but do we really do ourselves many favors by avoiding something just because it is difficult? We are distanced from the true scope of many of the atrocities committed throughout history that we learn about in school by statistics and numbers and subjective (rather than objective) teaching.

    The point of Train in particular was to bring the subject of complicity to the forefront. “If you had known the destination, would you still have done what you did?” In the lecture, Brenda explained that she had made the little yellow people just a hair too tall to fit through the boxcar sliding doors, and as a result, some players opened the end of the boxcar and started “stuffing” the little avatars inside to fit as many as possible in one “trip.” Once the destination was revealed, the players who did this realized the implication of their actions and actually became nauseous at the idea that they were capable of such things, knowingly or not.

    As I reentered the lecture hall to speak to Brenda, I started crying anew for a very different reason. I understood one of the underlying messages she was trying to convey, which was (and I’m probably going to butcher the heck out of this) that hardware and software are not the be-all, end-all of a designer’s tools-of-trade. Wood, paint, clay, heck, even bottlecaps and an index card are all you need to make the core of a good game.

    First and foremost, I am a writer. I currently have no programming knowledge under my belt, and as such I had begun to feel that I would never my place in the industry because all I have in my designing arsenal at the moment is the written word. When I told her all that, Brenda looked me in the eye and said, “And that’s really all you need.” If I carry nothing else with me throughout my life, I will ALWAYS remember that moment as one of the most enlightening moments ever.

    And for those of you who need such things. . .TL;DR You had to be there to understand.

  61. Note #1: Holy typos and missing words, Batman! I apparently should not type when I’m sleepy. Good thing I have beta readers for my actual writing work. . .

    Note #2: I’m being presumptuous; let me amend one of my statements. I should probably have said, “I believe that one of the points Brenda was trying to get across with Train was the question of complicity.” Dictating what the creator was or was not “going for” with his/her work without his/her confirmation is pretty rude. My bad.

  62. Thanks for posting, Amanda.

  63. Yes. Thanks for posting, JOE and Amanda.

  64. Thanks, Amanda.

    I get what y’all mean about the viewing of the game characters as tokens being similar to dehumanizing people. But there is only a topical connection. In reality, the German soldiers and civilians who boarded people on death trains knew full well that these were not normal train rides. Most likely did dehumanize the passengers, but that dehumanization takes on a far greater significance in this context. This is not to say Brenda’s game has no value at all, though.

    On a side note, Rik and Numbed, patriotism is merely loyalty to a community. Patriotism in regard to a political state is not different in kind from loyalty to one’s family, one’s church community, one’s neighborhood or region. It’s all basically “these are my people, the ones like me, from whom I was taught and nurtured; they share my ways, and I will stand up for them”. It is a form of love, and love is good. But like any form of love, it can be corrupted into something dark and dangerous.

  65. Thanks, Joe. The purpose of emotion is primarily to inspire — to motivate one to action and ensure memory retention. If a gotcha moment inspires people to reflect on the game’s theme, then I agree that there’s value in that.

  66. The slave game sounds interesting; the train game doesn’t, IMO (actually, the part about the little people being slightly too big for the door they’re supposed to go into is somewhat interesting. It all comes down to whether there is something intrinsic to the mechanics of the game that makes you think/connects you to the experience. If at the end of ‘Train’ the conclusion is that you opened up the doors of the trains and all the people had arrived at summer camp (and as a result got to get the best campsites or something), then would we see anything even close to the reaction?

    If we’re talking about design, then narrative context becomes less relevant. There’s nothing that I can see in the gameplay mechanics for Train (again, excepting the people-too-big-for-the-door item; I’d have to hear more about that) that seems particularly interesting, or that would make me question what I was doing. The slave game sounds a good deal different – even if you take it out of the context of the slave trade, you still end up halfway through the game needing to leave people behind. That makes you stop and think. I just don’t see the train game doing the same thing.

  67. Charles: I suppose I can see what you mean in terms of the narrative context becoming irrelevant, except that another thing I took away from the presentation is that game mechanics and plot/narrative shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. As a game tester, I have seen many a mechanic that didn’t fit within the context of a game. They seemed to be added arbitrarily and that took away from the overall experience. (For example, the current trend of adding in quick-time events just for the sake of being “cutting edge,” rather than them actually adding anything of value.)

    The saying goes, “God is in the details.” Details are very important in games. A lot of designers have become so detached from the process as a whole due to “design by committee,” (not saying that this is necessarily bad, just calling it what it is) many a time a game feels disjointed and “off” because what the player is doing (via the controller) and what they see in the big picture do not add up. This causes the player to pull back from the game, either from confusion or frustration, and diminishes the experience overall.

    Does any of that make sense?

  68. Although the game sounds like a thought-provoking and possibly educational experience, I find the act of tricking people into playing an uncomfortable role that they would rather not play quite distasteful and unethical. I believe certain lessons are best learned passively.

  69. Amanda:

    Yes, I’d say that all makes sense. :)

    I agree that game mechanics and plot/narrative shouldn’t be mutually exclusive (and indeed, I think that the best games I’ve played – the ones that I consider to be legitimate works of art (whatever that means!) – but based on what was presented in these comments and the article linked in the main post, I’m not sure that that’s the case with “Train.” Granted, I wasn’t there, haven’t seen the presentation, and haven’t played the game, so take everything I say with a grain of salt….

    With that proviso in place, though, what the game appears to be is a ‘standard’ transport your people here, put obstacles up in front of other players, and try to get to your destination first (almost Mille Bornes played with train-cars), with no narrative context built into the game up until the trick-ending when somebody finally ‘wins.’ This does not seem to me to be particularly innovative. Many games that already exist have ‘trick’ endings in them where you think you’re playing the good guy, but then oops, you were blinded/tricked/etc and were actually carrying out despicable acts. This is all well and good in many cases, but I think the impact of such games doesn’t actually come from the gameplay, but from the narrative around it.

    Games seem to be in some ways unique, because the actual mechanics of gameplay – and not just the story around it – can be used to express complex ideas, and when used in concert with a solid narrative they can really cause us to question ourselves and how we play these games (and possibly, by extension, make us question how we generally operate in everyday life). The Slave-passage game sounds like it has mechanics that have built these things in – a unique gameplay mechanism that forces a player into an interactive and legitimate moral dilemma. I just don’t see ‘Train’ as doing anything similar, based on what was presented (like I said; it seems like a game of Mille Bornes where instead of winning and going ‘Yay! I won the race!!’ you lose and go ‘Oh…. I was tricked.’

    Maybe Train does offer some context or interesting mechanics that haven’t been clearly expressed that could lead a player to examine what he’s doing during the actual gameplay and the ethical and moral implications of his actions. But from the narrow window I can see the game through, all I see is a trick ending coming out of left field that doesn’t bear any intrinsic relation to the game that preceded it.

  70. Hrm. Missed all these comments. (Note to self: Come up with a way to track old posts with active comments.)

    The problem, really, is the same reason Brenda isn’t going to publish Train. The message is in its delivery mechanism–her–and everything else is supporting it.

    What that means to me, though, is that listening to Brenda present the game is one of the game mechanics.

  71. Michael, that’s why there is a “Recent Comments” area on the sidebar. ;)

  72. I think this trivializes horror and it’s wrong. I have to read more about it, but that’s what it sounds like.

    I wondered if the person cried at the tragedy of the trivializing of such a serious matter.

    Iag Bogost always annoys the hell out of me with his political correctness and intrusiveness. The worst thing going would be if we suddenly had to endure a wash of PC instructional flash games on news stories. The only good thing is that they’d likely engender a backlash of brutal parodies that are likely to be hilariously funny because they’ll be totally un PC. Well, I can dream, can’t I.

  73. For myself — as I’ve said elsewhere — I don’t have a problem with it trivializing the Holocaust (because I don’t think games are trivial to begin with) and I don’t think it’s intrinsically offensive.

    I also like Brenda very much and I have a great deal of confidence in both her sensitivity and intentions.

    But I personally dislike having emotional switcheroos foisted upon me as a player. That’s the game designer toying with me. If you ask me to spend time and effort to achieve a goal, and I duly work hard at it and become invested in it, then telling me partway through that I was an idiot for trying is going to piss me off.

    I think that feeling of pissed-off-ness at having been lied to, or at least misled, is what Eric Schild is referring to, although I feel that his personal condemnation of Brenda is over the top.

    Brenda is not a bad person. But her game would annoy the hell out of me and I certainly wouldn’t take anything more than annoyance away from it.

  74. When speaking of ancient painting…

    i tend to believe they were not decorative craft, but religious items used for totems for mans position in the universe around him..aka nature.)

    Games have an equally long standing as religious rituals used to represent man’s position in the universe around him. Ie, the Mesoamerican ballgame.

    Our present language is rich with game-metaphors to explain our world. Consider the “three strikes laws” – an interesting example of one of these “toys” affecting the legal system.

    We tend to be hyperfocused on the recent computer games and lose the larger context of “games”.

  75. Michael, that’s why there is a “Recent Comments” area on the sidebar. ;)

    Useful in theory, but only if I check your website obsessively and slip inside the 10-post mark. I stopped doing that after some periods of low activity. :P I would go back to RSS, but sometimes I only want to track certain threads and not others.

    The main takeaway from this thread seems to be, “You can’t write about emotion.” Maybe the article should have been a poem instead.

  76. [...] przez niektórych negatywnie – jako tani chwyt mający na celu zaszokowanie gracza. Obrazowo ujął to Ernest Adams, twórca i znany teoretyk gier: (…) I personally dislike having emotional [...]

  77. [...] big debate raged in the comments over on Raph Koster's blog between the "cheap stunt" and the "meaningful mechanics" schools of thought. But as I said about [...]

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