For most people, the word ‘game' immediately evokes memories of family and friends engaged in jovial, albeit cut-throat, competition. From Trivial Pursuit to Hungry Hungry Hippos and beyond, games equal fun.
But for veteran game designer and SCAD professor Brenda Brathwaite, after more than 20 years in the industry and dozens of games to her credit, that paradigm was getting tired, and failing to tap into the true potential of the game as an interactive medium.
This spring, she unveiled Train, the third in a series of six games she is designing to explore history and the human condition, with a goal to teach players a lesson rather than entertain them. It's a game where the winners actually lose, and the real winners are the one's who decide to never play. It's a game about the Holocaust, but the word ‘game' doesn't do justice to her creation.
"I think there are a number of people who could look at Train and say ‘you did what?' and be heavily offended by it," explains Brathwaite, "but they're largely offended by their pre-conception of what a game could possibly be."
She didn't wake up one day and set out to make an intentionally disturbing game. Like most works of art, its inspiration came from a mix of circumstance and happenstance.
It began when her daughter came home from school one day after learning about slavery. While she could recite the string of facts about the horrors of the Middle Passage, Brathwaite was disconcerted by the girl's lack of empathy for the suffering that took place, particularly when, as her daughter wrapped up her historical summary at the Emancipation Proclamation, she asked if she could play a game.
Brathwaite saw an opportunity and made up a game on the spot called The Middle Passage to help illustrate a deeper lesson for her daughter. The girl spent 30 minutes decorating tiny wooden characters and sorting them into families, and when she was finished, Brathwaite took half of them and put them on a large index card which represented a ship.
Her daughter immediately began trying to put the rest of the characters on the boat, an attempt at re-uniting the little wooden families, but that wasn't how the game worked, and about halfway across the ocean, as food supplies began to dwindle, the reality of the situation dawned on the young girl.
"She said to me ‘this happened mommy,' and it was just this amazing tear-jerking discussion that was provoked by this single experience," says Brathwaite. "Those characters mattered to her because she'd spent time with them. It was more powerful than any book, any movie, any lecture."
The second piece of inspiration came innocently enough from a dinner party with several colleagues who were photographers, and a discussion about the challenges inherent in documenting difficult situations.
"Could games capture and express difficult emotions?" Brathwaite asked herself. "I'd seen the power of it with my daughter, and when you're talking about difficult emotions and difficult situations, there are none more difficult than the Holocaust."
It took about a year to build and design Train, refining the rules and prototyping the game board, which features three railroad cars riding on tracks mounted across the top of a broken window, a symbolic nod to the Nazi's Kristallnacht.
Players load figurines into the train cars and then draw cards that decide the movement, but the rules are intentionally ambiguous, leaving it open for players to land trains at their final destination, a concentration camp, or to try to sabotage other players and liberate all the game pieces.
As the game was introduced at a series of conferences this spring, it drew a variety of responses from players and onlookers alike.
A rabbi in New York understood the symbolism immediately and said she didn't want to play, but was visibly moved by it. One player began to cry after realizing what she'd just been part of, and another woman compared the experience to the videogame Halo, and said she'd play again much to the shock of those around her. She later apologized and admitted she was terribly embarrassed.
"It was a really powerful educational moment, although one could view it as a backfire," Brathwaite says about the embarrassed woman. "I don't think anyone who was there would not say that they learned something incredible about the need to educate."
Abe Stein, a gaming industry professional with M.I.T. approached Train with a heavy dose of skepticism, "having already started crafting the clever ways I would politely tear this horrifying, and dangerous idea to proverbial shreds," he wrote on his blog Stein Sound.
But after several turns, having had a chance to better understand the game's complexities, his mind had been changed. "With every tiny forward lurch grinding wheels against tracks, my eyes and heart opened, I sank deeper into my chair...I found myself at a loss for words," he wrote in his review.
The depth and emotional complexity of Brathwaite's creation is truly unprecedented in the world of gaming.
"There is an art-game movement right now," she explains. "People are creating games for something other than just fun. They're using games as a form of art."
The ripples are still spreading out from the initial shock of her ‘dice roll heard round the world,' and the lone copy of the game will spend the rest of the year touring several cities, and will also be shown and discussed by Brathwaite here in Savannah sometime later in the Fall.
In the meantime, she is working on completing the final three games in the series, which will touch upon the subjects of immigration, poverty and the Trail of Tears.
"If we had this conversation last year...[and] you had said a year from now a reporter will be calling you about this, the answer would have been no," says Brathwaite, who has already been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek in the past month. "I just wanted to see if game mechanics could do what painters can do, and what photographers can do."
The answer is yes.