September 17, 2018

NOT ALL GAMES ARE FUN

Brenda Romero’s Train
Brenda Romero’s Train (Romero, 2009)


Who said games had to be fun?

Brenda Romero is a game designer who developed a board game about the Holocaust. That's right,.. A game...about the Holocaust. This happened back in 2009, and the reactions she received were quite predictable. Typically, these were the kinds of reactions a game designer wouldn't want their players to have, but in the case of her game Train, convictions were all too raw to keep suppressed. Those kinds of visceral feelings have homes in other media, such as in film and books, where audiences expect to have their beliefs challenged or their knowledge expanded episodically and concisely. If society allows for these acceptable explorative ruminations of deeper feelings through books and film, what blemishes prevent games from entering that space as well?

I could imagine a kind of game designed in that way - A kind of ’docugame’ which would take players and pit them into scenarios where the objective isn't to 'win', but instead to understand.  The 'winner' might be the one who makes the biggest sacrifice, decides to stop playing, or makes the worst decisions so others could prosper. None of these conditions should sound like a game focused on the winning outcome.  A docugame is about understanding.  Documentaries are about documenting facts regarding peoples, places, things, and ideas. A docugame would be about the same stuff, but with an added ingredient of interactivity which I argue, tends to lead to a deeper level of understanding.  You might be more knowledgeable about Japanese Kamikaze pilots after watching a documentary on Pearl Harbor, but after playing a docugame on Pearl Harbor a different and deeper understanding sets in. You will have just emerged from under the flight cap of a Kamikaze pilot wrestling with the odds of surviving the ensuing dog fight or attempting to destroy the critical target as another martyr for the glory of the Japanese Empire. The docugame offers the more visceral and memorable experience of feeling and contending with a Kamikaze pilot’s struggle and would leave the player more informed on the justifications Kamikaze pilots faced to make sense of the war. Interactivity is the catalyst to capture an audience’s imagination and the game drives the player’s process to understanding.   

Admittedly, I’d lose the bet expecting people to buy my docugame for their next Saturday night get-together. The markets aren’t aligned with ‘unfun’ games selling in their storefront windows. But what about ”edutainment”? Edutainment or entertaining educational games, a term reaching back to the early 1950’s, get’s a seat at the table when pointing out the slippery differences between unfun games and educational media. When I think of edutainment, I’m immediately confronted with memories of Schoolhouse Rock glowing from the classroom carted TV or Sesame Street segments from my childhood, but edutainment has excelled at its best when served through a game.  These edutainment games or “lessons-in-a-box” don’t exactly illicit the same attention as the blockbuster first-person shooter games might, but they still command a degree of attention when educators and leaders alike are looking for the perfect tool to ensure a captive audience. But is this the best application these games can strive to achieve? There’s a part of me dejected to realize this might be the most any edutainment game aspires to be. Would it be too much to ask for these kinds of games to percolate society in more assorted forms than a classroom or conference room setting?  What is there to say when the power that lies in arguably the most intellectually involved medium, cannot be activated for it’s most useful purpose? This is what Romero’s Train truly represents; it is a missing link of missing links between education and entertainment. 

Brenda Romero’s Train
Brenda Romero’s Train (Romero, 2009)

It wouldn’t be quite fair to call Train an edutainment product.  After all, it doesn’t translate very well without a guide.  Romero herself admits: “I have met everybody who has ever played my game” (Takahashi, 2013). The settings for Train’s presentation extends mostly to conventions and conferences. Train and Romero’s other experimental games behind her “The mechanic is the message” (McManus, 2014) game series, walks a line that treads over both being a game in the competitive sense but also in an educational “lesson-in-a-box” sense.  The game requires a bit of inductive reasoning as you play, and accomplishes this with intensifying duplicitous rules demanding clear but contradictory objectives be met. Each rule card may contradict the last one, leaving the player with an ambiguous destination for their train cars. Deciding which way to go appears to be commanded strictly by the cards until players choose not to obey.  This revelation towards the middle of the game arouses an air of rebellion against the indeterminate rules, shifting player ambitions towards schemes of mutiny against the game itself.  The crux of Train is the unobtrusive appearance of the game. Without any overt signals giving away the premise, Train draws you in with curiosity at the unconventional board: A real smashed-in glass window sash (see top image). One would be forgiven for confusing the game’s setting with a less erudite topic. The middle-game revelation becomes deeply meaningful when the mistrust of the rules erupts into rebellious opposition. Historic precedent chronicles the prisoner player’s preconceptions as they mutate from placid curiosity into rebellious prejudice with each pointless move against the repressive rules.  “Train is over when it ends,” Romero says (Takahashi, 2013).  Players walk away in frustration, or strike thoughtful discussions about their playing, leaving the player of Train in a state of disillusionment and distrust of future game rules.  The unwritten role player’s take in Train is not as the prisoners , but as a different kind of prisoner, a soldier taking questionable orders. Do you do as you’re told or save the wooden people from entering the train cars?  Tension with the game is tension with the subject, and the ’game’ of Train is to challenge audience’s beliefs exactly where they didn’t expect it. 

Cited Sources:

Romero, B. (2009). Train. Retrieved from https://brenda.games/train/

Takahashi, D. (2013). Brenda Romero’s Train board game will make you ponder. 
Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2013/05/11/brenda-romero-train-board-game-holocaust/

McManus, E. (2014). To understand inequality, let’s play a game. 
Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/lets-play-mexican-kitchen-workers/

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