TGC 2009: How a Board Game Can Make You Cry

TGC 2009: How a Board Game Can Make You Cry

Hint: Force players to act out some of the most horrifying moments in human history.

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I've known a few people that use non-traditional means to teach people about some of the world's horrors, and it's always interesting to see people's reactions to it.

I think they're so used to seeing the image that the history books present that when you get around it by introducing it into a medium that they don't expect, it really hits hard.

Hence the success of books like Watchmen (corporate scale murder), Maus (The Holocaust), Catch 22 (The Military), Animal Farm (Soviet Oppression) and Where The Wind Blows (Nuclear Armageddon).

Even games like Pandemic 2

Full praise to Brenda Braithwaite for her work and I'll be looking up her further work.

I think everyone is just plain used to violence and is totally desensitized.
Cool article.

-Nich

There's a place for personal webpage links in your profile - Mod

Oh, wow... Now there's a way to get people to understand why tragic events were just that, tragic.

It sounds a good idea, but anyone think it will actually be published? The slave trade one will provoke enough controversy as it is, but the holocaust would kick up a massive fuss, especially in germnay.
If it was a video game it would have no chance, just look at 6 days in Falleuja, but as a board game it stands a chance.

Now THAT is game design.

Although these are very simple games, they send a very powerful message, and can teach people so much more about history than what other mediums can.

I don't care how upset people are about these games. The fact is that these are based on real events, and we should learn from these horrors. Else we are doomed to repeat them.

Very interesting psychological concept, the affect of it would be lost the older you got however. I did once make someone cry while playing monopoly, but thats a different story.

I have to say it's a brilliant idea, and I for one can't see why it should be so controversial. I understand why it will be, but not why it has to be, since really we need more exposure to this sort of thing. People today need to remember what it was like for people who underwent all these experiences and traumas and need to realise that we can't become desensitised to all these events and feelings. Well done Brenda, and I wish you all the success in the future :)

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency just withdrew a coloring book about the September 11, 2001 attacks -- intended to help children learn to process bad news -- because people freaked out that the government was "trivializing" them.

"Train" is an interesting idea, but it's like one of those short stories with a shocker ending -- like "The Lottery" or "Ersatz." The message doesn't really come through the mechanics but through a detail that the game designer has withheld; I would call it more of a story than a game.

The game about the slave trade is more of a real game, although it also works in part by springing a new set of mechanics on the player after they have become emotionally involved with an old one.

The first game I played that really changed my feelings about something *without* pulling an emotional switcheroo in the middle was Chris Crawford's Balance of Power. Playing that from the Russian side really showed me how hopeless the Russian situation was during the Cold War.

johnman:
It sounds a good idea, but anyone think it will actually be published?

I don't think Brenda is expecting these kind of games to be picked up by Hasbro and sent to toy stores across the country. One thing about board games is that, other than the most incredibly complex, it is quite possible to self-publish a limited run of them, and niche targeted products can easily be sold independently online.

I could definitely see this as being something targeted to sale to schools and teachers - an activity like this can really be a powerful teaching aid, which I'm sure is exactly what she intended.

I don't intend to publish any of the games in the traditional sense. I'm making only one of each, and they are all non-digital. After this six that are in the core series (The Mechanic is the Message), I plan to make two more based on feedback, but those two are still tbd.

Ernest: I'm not sure I follow your logic. You might or might not say that Planetfall or Final Fantasy 7 was "more of a story than a game"... but would you say they were stories specifically *because* no one told you that Floyd/Aerith was going to die ahead of time? As if foreknowledge makes the difference between "game" and "not game"?

Having played Train myself, I have to say the mechanics are integral to the experience. It is very much a game and not a story, and if anything I think it is simply that it did not come across as such in the Escapist article. But that would be a flaw of journalism, not of game design.

If you want something like Balance of Power where it is all about the game systems explicitly simulating a horrendous situation without any hidden information, another game in Brenda's series ("Where My People Come From", referenced in the article) would likely appeal more to your sensibilities. But just as you say that games shouldn't have to pull an "emotional switcheroo" to make their point, I would say that games shouldn't have to avoid such a thing just to maintain legitimacy.

IanSchreiber:
Having played Train myself, I have to say the mechanics are integral to the experience. It is very much a game and not a story, and if anything I think it is simply that it did not come across as such in the Escapist article. But that would be a flaw of journalism, not of game design.

Hey Ian. Please keep in mind that I was only privy to a brief explanation of Train that included a few slides about the game - while I would certainly like to experience it myself, that was beyond the scope of the presentation. I did my best to explain Train with the information I had, which unfortunately didn't include much on the specifics of the game mechanics. Suggesting this is a "flaw in journalism" is a little shortsighted.

Jordan,
I apologize. I was trying to be diplomatic and failed my CHA die-roll. Let me try this again.

I should have said it is a flaw in the process, not in the reporter. I don't think there is any blame to be handed out here, and did not intend to imply such. I actually think it was an excellent article. It is simply that words can't easily get across the experience of play, especially not for a project like this and especially not when the writer is not allowed that experience himself.

Train sounds like a particularly shallow and (probably unintentionally) crass application of theme. I'm disappointed that people seem so impressed with it simply on the basis of its premise. I'd love to see its full rules published though; it's possible there's more to it.

Any game that purports to be "about" a serious real world subject should be subjected to a simple test: replace the pieces and board with neutral, simple shapes, and any designer-supplied backstory stripped out.

Give that game to a neutral, naive group of players. At the end of the game, ask them what it was "about". What did the rules express to them? What emotions came about during play? What did it feel like they were doing? How did they look at the world differently afterwards? What new insights do repeat plays give?

If they don't give you something in the direction of what you think your game is about, that's probably a sign that you've failed to depict your intended subject in the medium you chose.

Skin-deep theme is fine when Reiner Knizia brushes a light Egyptian mythological touch onto a fun auction-based board game (Ra). It's not okay when you take a basic "go round the track and draw cards" game and jazz it up with the greatest tragedy in recorded history. It's about as classy as taking a generic military shooter and setting it in Fallujah, in fact.

Train's emphasis on its "props" in particular - the little yellow figures in the little train cars, and the completely gratuitous dash of gallery exhibition pretension with the broken glass - speaks to its ultimate gimmicky hollowness. This is someone trying hard to convince themselves they are doing important work.

We can do better than this. We have done better than this. Braid is a reflection on time and consequences even if you totally ignore the melodramatic writing. On weighty subjects such as war and insurgency, these games seem like much more substantive treatments:

http://playthisthing.com/grey-ranks
http://playthisthing.com/carry-game-about-war

As a medium, we need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard. We need games that are truly and deeply about what they claim to be about. We cannot continue to clap ourselves on the back simply for using an unconventional and tragic theme. If you've ever designed a game before you will know how low the barriers to entry are for just this.

If we want to call ourselves a true art form and take on a subject like the Holocaust, we have to contribute something of real substance that could only have been done in our medium. That goes way beyond twist endings and making little cards on an old typewriter.

"The Mechanic is the Message". I couldn't agree less in this case.

JPL: You seem to be making an awful lot of assumptions without having actually seen the game yourself. Don't you think that if it were really as gimmicky as you say, perhaps more people who saw the presentation in person would have had that reaction (rather than the deep emotional reaction stated in the article)? You seem to assume that, because "OMG someone made a game about teh Holocaust", therefore it must be tasteless.

The point about things like the broken glass and typewriter was not to add gimmicks on top of gimmicks. The point is the extent of the choices that were made by the designer -- not just choices of the mechanics, but also of the aesthetics. With AAA video games, designers have the luxury of letting skilled digital artists take care of all that; with this game in particular, the designer had to make every decision about the game's final rules, look and feel, etc. and each choice had to be significant and deliberate.

I would not be convinced that the game, stripped of all "backstory", must get across the idea of the Holocaust. ESPECIALLY not with the Holocaust, given how the Nazis treated the Jews abstractly rather than as human individuals. The question here is: once you DO know the backstory, does that change the meaning of the mechanics? (If so, then you could say the mechanics have not only meaning, but in fact multiple layers of meaning.) This seems to me a direct analogy to the actual situation faced during the Holocaust: if you were a train conductor you might plead ignorance, you might just think your train was being loaded with abstract "cargo"... but once you DID know, would you keep going?

You come across as awfully defensive about other's assumptions about what is and isn't being represented here. No part of JPL's comment indicates that he's saying that it's tasteless BECAUSE it's the holocaust; he says that it's tasteless because it's manipulative. I agree with that.

I completely disagree with your second paragraph, and the AAA big-budget art comparison is 100% off. What aesthetic difference is there to having the rules typed on a regular typewriter rather than an actual SS one? None. There's no discernible difference *until* you drop the bomb that, you know, actual people were probably sent to their death on the typewriter this was written in. Now it's making rules for a boardgame! How is that not manipulative? Would "Call of Duty" have been more meaningful and profound if part of it was written on the same IBM machines that they used to census the Jews in Germany before the holocaust? No. Maybe "Modern Warfare 2" should include actual dog tags from dead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as a pre-order bonus: it'll give the game mechanics an extra level of gravitas!

The whole ploy with getting someone to cry at the end is so coy too. I'm sorry, but if you need to drop a surprise ending, changing the entire *context* of the game, to get an emotional response then your game isn't making people cry; your thematic surprise is. This is akin to getting a four year to play Tetris and, upon losing, telling them Santa Claus doesn't exist. Well, great, you now made someone cry. How profound! If there was no emotional response to the mechanics before the big reveal then nothing in the "game" resonates.

And no, I have not played to the game. I am responding to what was written here. Please start assuming my assumptions.

I would not be convinced that the game, stripped of all "backstory", must get across the idea of the Holocaust.

No, but it should be able to convey some of its intended themes without that. The act of herding humans like cattle, the administration of murder on a massive scale, the filtering of people on racial and cultural grounds, and the resources required to make it happen. Wielded confidently, game mechanics are surprisingly well-equipped to represent these sorts of things independent of any specific historical context.

From what was written about the game - and again if the game's complete rules tell otherwise I'd love to see them; only the props were given great emphasis in the article - those ideas only come across once you are told it's about the Holocaust. In fact, it was the author's intent to conceal that specific fact for the emotional gut-punch of the context switch at the end.

This is a parlor trick. The PS3 shooter Haze did it by lifting a drug fog from the player's eyes to reveal terrorists as freedom fighters, and no one thought it was particularly remarkable. Of course, people tend to pay more attention when you bring in the Holocaust. You get a lot of emotion out of people, almost automatically.

I'm saying we need to wield this power more responsibly. When an artist deals with the Holocaust, like it or not they are stepping into the territory of Elie Wiesel's "Night", Maus, Schindler's List, and Barber's Adagio for Strings. These are works of enduring depth that contribute greatly to our understanding of the tragedy. Train does not seem to sit well in their company.

I know games can do and have done much better than that, and I want us to continue to hold ourselves to that standard. If you think I'm offended simply because someone made a board game about the Holocaust, you could hardly have missed my point more completely.

"I completely disagree with your second paragraph, and the AAA big-budget art comparison is 100% off. What aesthetic difference is there to having the rules typed on a regular typewriter rather than an actual SS one? None."

Actually there is quite a difference, which is why I called out this particular example. The font on a German-made WWII-era typewriter is distinctive in the crispness of the letters. It's hard to describe, but if you hold two memos side-by-side (one on a contemporary typewriter and one from an SS typewriter) you would be able to tell which was which.

"The act of herding humans like cattle, the administration of murder on a massive scale, the filtering of people on racial and cultural grounds, and the resources required to make it happen. Wielded confidently, game mechanics are surprisingly well-equipped to represent these sorts of things independent of any specific historical context."

As far as herding humans like cattle, this is exactly what happens during the play of the game by those seeing it for the first time. This is not part of the mechanics, but rather the dynamics that arise from it. The rules do not say "herd people like cattle" but they do allow for the situation where people will cram as many pawns into a train car as possible, sometimes stacking them sideways or upside-down or any other way they can make them fit so that they can squeeze them in. The movement and rules in the game allow for exactly the cruel efficiency you suggest -- the players don't even have to know the implications of their actions in order to successfully deliver millions of people to their deaths, after all, and it doesn't take all that long to complete the first "shipment".

Yes, there is a difference between the mechanics accurately representing/simulating a system, and the mechanics setting up a system in which the play of the game lends itself to a representation/simulation of the actions that took place within a system. Must a game do both in order to be artistically valid?

"And no, I have not played to the game. I am responding to what was written here. Please start assuming my assumptions."

How about if I stop assuming that anyone is being deliberately combative and I try to be less defensive myself, and we move on from there and discuss the underlying ideas?

"How about if I stop assuming that anyone is being deliberately combative and I try to be less defensive myself, and we move on from there and discuss the underlying ideas?"

OK -- I'd love to hear how this game couldn't be made into a game about the Underground Railroad by simply removing the piece of broken glass and writing the rules with Harriet Tubman's pencil.

The idea to deliberately create a game that is not "fun" for the purposes of evoking an emotional response is very intriguing. It has the potential to create a type of game that very few would ever play more than once, but that most would value their single play greatly.

bbrathwaite I would like to encourage you to either self-publish these, or consider releasing these works using a creative commons license so that others can experience, and learn from your work.

Honestly, Ian, I don't think JPL's obviously trolling post deserved a response. He clearly has no clue about boardgame theme integration or design intent (or, at BEST, seems to be confusing it with video games), yet is vocal and rude about it anyway... moreover, he's vocal and rude about it -without even having played it or seen it played-. My first impulse was to pick apart the flaws in his post, until i realized i could do it for virtually every paragraph, and then classified him as a troll.

It started with a speech on maturity. That speech made me think differently about "Ubisoft Unveils a Sexy Wii Minigame Compilation for Adults". Which was curently in the headlines, where I read here on the escapist. After reading the story, I went back to the writers said speech, and asked them a question. Without answers, I continued, looking into what else had been said on Sex in games. From that, the name of Brenda Brathwaite was mentioned. She had a Wikipedia entry. I zeroed in. "Brathwaite delivered Train: How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design [16] at the 2010 Gamesauce Conference."

[16] http://gamesauce.org/news/2010/08/20/train-how-i-dumped-electricity-and-learned-to-love-design-brenda-brathwaite/

Several hours ago EA was being told grow up for the sake of games everywhere. It made me think of the humour in scaring mothers. A long time ago I saw shovelware as a stepping stone to the future. That was yesterday. I have changed. Simply because, a game that can make you cry - even exists.

 

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