Saturday, March 20, 2010

Train, and games with controversial subjects

There's this "game" called Train that's been in the news recently. I put the word game in quotes because designer Brenda Brathwaite declines to describe it as a game herself in the rules. The premise of the game is that players are trying to load yellow pawns onto small model trains and then move the trains along a track. There are choices to make while playing - cards to play, whether to add more people or move the train, etc. - and there are some cards that can hinder or interrupt the progress of the trains (a "derail" card). When a train reaches the end of the track, the player draws a card to reveal where the train was going, and the destinations all turn out to be concentration camps. The goal of the game has been to play the role of Nazi war criminal - to stuff as many Jews and other victims as possible onto the train and convey them to their doom in the camps.

My initial response to hearing about this was the same as Anthony Burch describes his here on Destructoid. The game sounded emotionally manipulative, like an excuse for a "gotcha" moment. This was compounded by the fact that in the media descriptions, participants are apparently judged by onlookers (and by journalists) on how they respond to the big revelation, with participants who fail to be sufficiently troubled held up for scorn, and those who, upon realizing the game's goal, quit in disgust or try to hinder the movement of the trains within the rules, seen as moral.

Reading Burch's column further, in which he relates that Brathwaite's talk at GDC was a good one, and particularly moving, I'm more inclined to give the game experience the benefit of the doubt. I haven't played the game or had the experience of finding out the secret, so it's a bit difficult to imagine what that must be like, in the same way that it would be hard to imagine or describe the experience of watching The Sixth Sense to somebody - when the secret is so fundamental to the experience, and so shocking, there's no substitute for first-hand experience. I can guess that I'd feel betrayed and pretty horrible about myself, and I'm pretty sure I'd feel manipulated by the whole thing. It still feels like a stunt to me, although Brathwaite frames it in terms of teaching about the Holocaust and forcing people to think about choices of actions. 

Maybe the value here is supposed to be in showing people how they're willing to focus on following rules without thinking about the moral framework in which they're operating. But those who loaded Jews onto trains in the real world could not have been ignorant of the inhumanity they were perpetrating, even if they might in some cases have been ignorant of the full extent of the consequences of their actions. Those playing this abtract game, with toys, don't have that moral framework at all, unless they're able to discern the metaphor through the clues Brathwaite provided - broken glass in the decorations, era-appropriate trains, the color yellow, and a somber, typewriter fonts. If not, they're just playing a game, and can hardly be faulted for what they do. 

And passing harsh judgment on what actions people take when the metaphor is revealed is hardly fair. What is the right response? If I were offered a chance to play the game knowing the metaphor, I'd certainly refuse, and condemn the whole concept of the game - I'm enough of a student of history to know what the Nazis did, and I just visited Dachau for the second time last fall. If it were revealed to me, I think I'd either quit playing or try to stop the trains. But I don't think it's fair to condemn those who don't make those choices. The strength and nature of players' responses would depend on all kinds of things - how well they know the history, how well the metaphor works for them, what they perceive the expectation of the other players and of the hosts of the game to be - it's really hard to figure that out. Some might continue to play so as to continue to learn - to use the simulation as a teaching tool, or food for thought about the evil committed. Other than condemning the real Holocaust, I don't know that there is a definite best response to the game or to the trickery.

It's interesting to me, too, that the fact that the evil the Nazis did here is so direct and so palpable that people feel justified in criticizing those who play on after knowing what they're doing. Just a couple weeks ago, I watched people playing a card game called Let's Kill where they were all serial killers trying to kill the most victims in the most gruesome ways. I found it distasteful, and wouldn't likely be inclined to play it myself, but these people all had decided to play it (and enjoyed it) knowing full well what it was about. And there are hundreds of games I've played in which I kill people, or steal things, or lie - why are those actions not judged, while those in Train are? I've played the Germans in Axis and Allies many times without feeling guilty. Should I be? Are Quakers not allowed to play chess? 

There seems to be an interesting and inconsistent boundary between games that are OK and games that go too far. A board game focused on rape or suicide bombing or abortion or the Holocaust would be condemned, likely rightfully so, but Train gets by that by hiding its true meaning and being framed as experimental art or as a teaching tool. Other topics, like homicide, war, theft, and organized crime all seem perfectly OK - Mafia Wars has over 25 million players on Facebook, and the actions you take in that game are often pretty horrendous, yet it has generated not nearly the outrage that Grand Theft Auto has. So much of this is situationally dependent, inconsistent, and ambiguous.

My nature has always been to play it safe, so I'm not likely to head anywhere this controversial in my designs.  But the temptation is there for many designers.  Dipping into violence and sin is as common in games as it is in prime time TV - it's a real market draw. The Let's Kill card game and Mafia Wars are published and making money (providing a guilty pleasure, maybe), yet those players who finish a game of Train are apparently often contemptible. The Holocaust, perhaps because of the scale of its evil, has a special power that other events do not, and maybe that's how it should be. But it's an odd and deeply unsettling choice of topic for a game.

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