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Monday
Nov232009

MIGS: Brenda Brathwaite

Brenda Brathwaite

EDIT: Brenda contacted me and I posted some corrections to this article here.

I don't know what to make of Brenda; I was kind of dumbfounded and speechless after her presentation. Brenda probably would (and should) take that as a compliment because that is the reaction that a true artist hopes to achieve with a work of art. (Does that make her a true artist or does it make her a work of art?) I will explain the big praise I have for her work, the big criticism, the reason my criticism isn't valid, and the nagging feeling that it somehow must be valid. Or I don't know anymore.

First some background on her. She is a professor of game development and interactive design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. At 15 years old, she got a job where she played games in order to know enough about them to answer phones at a gaming hint-line. She said she was going to get a "real job" after that, but it just never happened. She went on to work on Wizardry and several other story-based video games.

A Game That Meant Something

Now let's cover what I consider to be her awesomeness. It starts with a story about her daughter and then half-way includes what she did next. Her daughter came home from school one day and when Brenda asked what she did, her daughter said she learned about the Middle Passage. I think the students were learning about slavery for a whole month, and this was one part of it. The daughter then recited in detached textbook voice how Africans were taken from their homes, put on boats, taken to America, made to work, but then Abraham Lincoln freed them with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Brenda was horrified. Her daughter just DIDN'T GET IT. It was not some vacation cruise. It was not something you even talk about in the tone of voice the daughter had. That's understandable though because the daughter is only 7 years old, so it's hard to grasp a topic like this. Still, Brenda felt extremely uncomfortable that after a month of school about this sort of thing, the message wasn't getting through.

She decided to do something about it. She devised a simple (non-computer) game for her daughter. First she got a bunch of wooden pawns of various sizes (she has things like this laying around for prototyping things) and pained them different colors with her daughter. A big green pawn and two small green pawns. Two big blue pawns and two small blue pawns, and so on. When she had several sets of these (that obviously represented families), she took some at random and put them on a piece of wood she called "the boat." Her daughter thought her mother was doing it wrong already because she didn't take all the green ones, but just one or two. The colors were now all mixed up and there sets weren't complete anymore because some were on the boat and some weren't. She told her daughter that that's how it was. You didn't have a choice to go on the boat and you didn't get to be with who you wanted. "Will the green one see the other green ones again?" the daughter asked. "Probably not," Brenda said.

Brenda devised some simple rules about making the ocean journey. It takes 10 turns to get to the other side, there are some certain number of food-units, each person needs X food units or they die, there was some dice mechanic somewhere in there to make it less deterministic and a bit harder to figure out.

Half-way through, the daughter said, "Mom, we aren't going to make it." Brenda said that maybe it would be possible to make if farther if we "put some of them in the water" (so there's more food for the rest). Brenda reports that her daughter had a look of understanding on her face, the same look she should have had when talking about the Middle Passage earlier. Her daughter cried, and Brenda did not continue the game any further. Brenda cried too.

It's a powerful thing. A simple game design was able to illustrate a tragedy, to make the player feel at least a small part of that tragedy in her bones. Just reading about it can't measure up to taking part in it the way a game allows.

So far, I'm completely on board with Brenda. She understood the power that a game can have. She understood a need for a game and she had the skill to make it, and she got the result she wanted, which in this case is not "fun." That's fine. A lot of us are still miles behind her, asking stupid questions like "Do games have to be fun?" No they don't, that is just one thing they can be. They can be uplifting or tragic or challenging or a lot of other things.

Designing Tragedy

I'm not sure if that game crystallized an idea for a kind of game to her, or if she was already far along that road, but for story's sake, we'll say that this was a defining moment for her because that would be more dramatic. Brenda realized that there is kind of a formula here that could be applied to make other games. First, she says that in any large-scale human tragedy, there is a system. There is a system that had the forces that made that tragedy happen. Games *are* systems, so if you can identify the system responsible for a tragedy, you can try to make rules that capture the system. Next, the emotional power comes when the players become complicit in the system. As soon as they are letting it happen, perpetuating it, are a cog in its machine--they are invested in it and they will feel all the more terrible about its tragic consequences. (I'm still with you Brenda, all of this is certainly true.)

Doing It All Yourself

Somewhere in here, she decided that she wanted to "have all the Legos back." When you're a kid, you can use Legos to build whatever you want. But when she was on big design teams, she only got to design a small part of a game--with just a few Legos. She wanted now to build an entire game on her own, and for it to be a small, non-computer game so that this is even possible. She would design a tragic game.

Next she talked about the kinds of things you have to do when making a game yourself. It's kind of a shock when you have no art department and have to actually make everything yourself. For the first time ever, she had to care about painting something exactly the right shade of green. This whole section of her talk was extremely familiar to me, as I also decided to "play with all the Legos" by making card games. (Yomi, Flash Duel, and Puzzle-Strike (info coming soon), all still in development.)

The Game of Train

Anyway, Brenda made Train. You might have heard about it, as it got an enormous amount of press. More press than, uh, "actual games." (There's a hint as we slowly transition from praise to criticism.) Train is a simulation of the Holocaust. It has to do with transporting yellow pawns on model trains from one end of a set of three tracks to the other end. You become complicit in exterminating the Jews by taking part in it. It's important to note that the game does not actually say "this is the Holocaust" until you're already a fair way into it, when you turn over cards that say the names of the destinations (and they are various real-world extermination camps).

The game(?) of Train

Brenda explained the emotional power this had on people who played it. Some are horrified, some are conflicted, some cry, some are numb, and so on. She also said that in the over 50 sessions she's seen played, no one ever, ever said "oh, this is the Holocaust." People reach that silent realization at different times, and communicate that they know non-verbally. It's a different experience playing when you don't know what it's really about, playing when you do know, watching people play when you don't know, and watching people play when you do. So there's several sides to the experience. She also notes that if you stop playing in disgust or something that that is "a successful play experience of Train." I will go so far as to say that I'm STILL with you Brenda, even though you probably lost about 99% of game designers by now.

Let me say a few things about the physical construction of Train. It uses train tracks, but Brenda didn't feel comfortable buying model train tracks. She made them herself, which took over 100 versions or something. The tracks would normally be put down on a board of some sort, but she put everything (diagonally oriented) on a giant wooden window pane with broken glass everywhere. For the rule sheet, she couldn't imagine printing out a plain page with Helvetica font or something, so she tracked down a real Nazi typewriter and typed the rules on that. The press was all over that one.

The Nazi Typewriter

Why is that typewriter such a big deal? There's something about it, isn't there? I think this marks the beginning of where just maybe I'm not on board anymore. To me, making a game is about ending up with a thing that is "good," whatever that means to the designer (or to the player?). But it's not about any particular backend production process. If I made a game about a modern tragedy and I told you I typed the rules on a real Bush Administration computer, would that matter? I think mostly it doesn't. If anything, using a real Nazi typewriter goes against the ability to actually make copies of this game and put into players hands. But making copies of this game isn't the goal either, says Brenda. She made only one and said she wouldn't make any more. The whole deal about the typewriter signals to us that the piece of art here INCLUDES the development process. That's kind of out-of-bounds to me, in that we're only supposed to consider the game as a final piece of work. I don't really care how Halo was made, only Halo is good. But Brenda isn't really making a game, is she? She's making a piece of art. I think Train is supposed to be about not only the final product, but how it was made. By the way, games can be art, but not all pieces of art are games.

Then there's the rule design. First, there's only 1 copy of the rules in existence, the rule sheet she typed on the Nazi typewriter. Even though it would be extremely easy to create a digital version (by typing it again or scanning it) and to put it online, she purposely has not. This is another signal that this is not really a game, but more of a statement. Actual games would not be shy about their rules and wouldn't hide them behind a shroud of artiness. Next, the rules themselves intentionally don't fully specify how to play the game. They don't create a complete system on purpose so that the players will debate about little edge cases here and there and that debate makes them more involved. Maybe it does make them more involved, but it's extremely bad game design to intentionally make a game that doesn't actually have a fully working system. If there were bugs or unintended edge cases, that's totally understandable. We all have those as game developers. But these loopholes and unspecified cases are ON PURPOSE and that signals to me that this is not really a game.

Next, there's the replayability. In the kind of games I'm working on, if you can replay a game 10,000 times and find it interesting still, that's a good sign. That's a measurement of game quality. To Brenda, that's not even a metric she has thought about. When asked about replayability, she mentioned that people like to experience the game again from various perspectives (now I "know" it's about the Holocaust but this new person doesn't so let's play with her, etc). But we're talking about replayability of 0 to maybe 3 times max. Not 10,000 times. The system is almost certainly not interesting enough to support even 10 or 100 plays (though how would I know, as the (ill-specified) rules are secret, apparently). And it's not designed to be hugely replayable, because that wasn't her goal at all.

Her goal was to make an emotional impact on people by designing a system that captures a tragedy and making players complicit in that system so they feel some responsibility for the tragedy. That is a great goal, I just don't know what to make of how she did it. I am not saying games have to be fun, that's silly. I'm extremely happy that someone, anyone, is making a game that is trying to actually say something. We're surrounded by games too afraid to say anything and as Chris Hecker's lecture at MIGS pointed out, that will lead the game industry as a whole into a cultural ghetto. I'm not scandalized that Brenda's subject matter is the Holocaust or that she got people to feel emotions. I'm scandalized that I don't know if we should put this under the banner of a game or not.

Just to be clear, it's worth repeating that my logic ISN'T "it got people to feel an emotion, therefore it must not be a game." My logic ISN'T "it's a serious subject matter, therefore it isn't a game." It's more about that ill-specified, secret rules for a game not interesting enough to play more than 1 or 2 times...is on the borderline of being a game at all. And Brenda's actions all line up perfectly with "this is a piece of art" as opposed to a game. Again, games can be art, but not all art is a game. By making only 1 copy, by going out of your way to keep it in-person exhibition only, by telling us that if more copies existed that it would devalue the work, and so on, it all signals that this is closer to a painting than a game. Although I love goal raising real-world, serious issues in a game, this feels more like a non-game wearing a Halloween costume of a game, so I'm very hesitant to point to Train when the world asks whether games can say anything or not. Games can say things. Train says something. But when someone asks if a game can say something, maybe we should point to games with excellent rules that everyone can actually read, instead. Games that are good regardless of which typewriter their rules are typed on. (Cheap shot?)

My Bad Logic?

Is my criticism invalid because there can't possibly be a game about a serious issue like that that is replayable 1,000 times? When you make the game about the statement, rather than the GAME, does it even make sense to talk about replayability? Maybe you wouldn't want to have that emotional experience 1,000 times, so there's no point in making a game deep enough to support that many plays if it has a tragic message? You might also say that Uno isn't deep enough to play thousands of times, and it's a game. Yeah it is, but Uno is mostly a simple waste of time that you play with kids or that you play because the Xbox Live implementation is so incredibly awesome, production-value-wise. Is the dichotomy really between pointless games you can play a lot and meaningful games you can play just once or twice? Can you make a game that's meaningful, even one about tragedy, that isn't of the trick-shot, play-once variety? And if such games could be made (or already have been made), does that diminish what Train is? Maybe Train is disappointing to me because it comes so close to doing what our industry needs to do, but kind of sacrifices things I feel are critical to the medium.

It's hard to condemn Brenda's work when she has done so many things right. She recognizes the power games can have, that they can be judged by standards other than pure fun, that they can have important messages. She has the courage and skill to make things by herself and complete them. All very admirable. She's already so far ahead of the curve on pushing the medium, I sort of don't want to say anything bad. I sort of want to hang out with her and discuss how to build on her ideas (at the mysterious invite-only Horseshoe meeting of game designers she mentioned, perhaps? The one I'm not invited to.). But I also long for a game whose system is there not JUST to make a point, but to be deeply interesting in its own right AND make a point.

Brenda Brathwaite is currently working on Mexican Kitchen Workers, a board game whose system implies that a restaurant can't be profitable without hiring illegal Mexican workers.

Again, some corrections posted here.

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Reader Comments (3)

I think the best term for it would be Performance Art that happens to use a game. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Performance_art .

June 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCyclops

Brathwaite's idea here reminds me of Braid in many ways.

The thing about Braid though is that the message is hidden under the guise of platforming puzzle solving goodness which reminds so much of Super Mario Brothers that it's hard to view this game as anything but a Mario clone. This makes the game seem so innocent in many ways...which makes the big reveal all that more effective.

But again, after getting the secret ending, which seems nigh impossible to me without the use of online guides, the weight of the subject makes the game seem much more daunting which somehow deters me from replaying it.

I believe that a lot of the enjoyment of a game that is so "plot driven" (I think I can say that) is derived from discovering the plot. It's very difficult to create replayability in such circumstances and honestly the only reason I replay such games is to refresh the plot in my mind after a period of time. And refreshing the idea of the Holocaust is not something I would consider appealing.

Great read sir, glad to see a site concerning games with some depth.

July 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I disagree with your criticism.
I am curious about your definition of a game. I think that needs to be declared before you can convince us that qualities like dissemination and replayability are inherent qualities of games. I agree that they may be qualities of certain types of games - namely games produced by the 'game industry' you mentioned.
When children make up their own games on the playground, I'd wager that they often fall short of 'a complete system' and prior resolution of all 'edge cases'. However, I'd strongly disagree if someone made the case that those games have some inferior participation in game-hood.
I think you're using too-narrow a definition of 'game' to criticize Train.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMB
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