Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013: Train

Last year, we looked at the Nazi-era board game Juden Raus, so it seemed appropriate this year to look at Brenda Brathwaite's unconventional game, Train.

The Wall Street Journal gives a very good introduction with its 2009 video and interview, "The Board Game No One Wants to Play More Than Once":

The entire interview is short and worth reading in its entirety, but here are some key sections:

Not all players have the same experiences. I understand that someone who played the game compared it to “Halo”?

Yes, that has happened only once, and it was incredibly surprising to me, to the other players and to the people watching. It is not a common experience. The woman later told me she felt guilty about it, though. I think her callousness was an incredible learning opportunity for all of us. Some people approach the game and see it for what it is immediately, and their reaction is no less visceral than those who play the game. There are those who play all the way until the end and then realize where the trains were going – and it is such a steep drop. People become nauseated. Their faces flush. People have cried. There is always a one-hour period of discussion after (or two hours at MIT).

With that singular “Halo” exception, no one has ever wanted to play again. There is then the second experience, one of watching the game being played. I have watched it dozens of times now, and it still nauseates me when people put the passengers in the cars. I am fascinated when one player figures it out – puts it together – and suddenly stops his or her progression toward the end and instead works diligently to thwart everyone else. This player will often immediately request the rules wondering how he or she can subvert the system to save everyone. The dynamics of the experience are fascinating, moving and emotional for everyone, me included.


Why do you think games are a good medium for approaching difficult periods of history such as the Holocaust? I’d imagine some could argue that making a game trivializes the subject matter.

They could and have argued that, but it doesn’t. It makes it extremely powerful, and I haven’t shown the subject any disrespect. I’ve created an experience through interactivity, much like museums have created an experience through the use of image and sound and space. I think games are a good medium for approaching any subject, particularly difficult ones, because by their very nature, they are abstract, invite interaction and allow us to confront and question things… particularly rules that we may blindly follow.

A game is all I know. I don’t work in another medium. I saw the power that it had when I used a game to teach my daughter about the Middle Passage. So I don’t see it as something that trivializes. Rather, I see it as the medium finally reaching a new potential.

Do you think the public has a narrow definition for the term “game”? I’d assume most people associate the term with having fun.

We’ve learned that game = fun. So, yes, we have a narrow definition for it, but I believe that definition is expanding. As an artist working in this medium, I want it to expand. Imagine if someone said all books or movies or paintings had to be fun? A game is an interactive experience which has goals, a clear end and a set of rules. I think anyone who considers the systems that are presented in my series will see the full potential of games to explore the human experience. If you consider something like Risk seriously, how fun is that? It’s only fun because we’re able to abstract the domination and destruction. In Train, that’s nearly impossible.

As a note, I never once refer to Train as a game in the rules, and I also never refer to the participants as players.

This TED video doesn't have much on Train itself, but explains a great deal about its genesis and Brathwaite's mindset:

She also discusses Train starting about 27 minutes into this hour-long talk at the Game Designers Conference, including her conversations with a rabbi, and the positive and negative reactions to Train. (The whole talk relates to the game, though, and is worth watching.) As she mentions, Train is intentionally designed to allow "rules-lawyering," so that the players have choices, and can also become complicit.

The Board Game Geek entry has a little more, Sande Chen shares her interesting reflections on the game, and Ben Crair at The Daily Beast also wrote on it. Brathwaite has presented her work at the Games for Change Festival, among other venues.

It's very important that the board game component is always followed by a discussion (usually up to an hour, although the MIT session was two hours). The discussion is an essential part of the experience. "Playing the game" can stir up some uncomfortable feelings (some participants cry), and it would be irresponsible not to allow the participants a chance to process and reflect on it all. (In several ways, Train reminds me of the Milgram experiments.)

I've read a few criticisms of the game, for instance that it doesn't capture the mindset of Germans sending Jews and other Holocaust victims (political opponents, homosexuals, gypsies/Roma, etc.) to the death camps, in that key Germans weren't unaware of what was going on. That's true, but I'd also suggest that that reaction misreads the intent of the game. I haven't "played" Train, and if I did, couldn't do so from a point of innocence. Still, I can imagine one's natural competitive instincts turning to horror. Given the iconography of the game, I suspect I'd guess the references; Brathwaite has recounted that some people get it at first glance, and furthermore, that even an explicit refusal to "play" on that basis actually does constitute "playing" the game. The object of certain artists is to jar the audience out of their everyday thinking (Beckett and Brecht come to mind). Train is aiming to do just that, and has apparently been fairly successful at it.

Consider the genesis of the game, and Brathwaite's story about her young daughter talking about the Middle Passage without really understanding it. The point of it all isn't about capturing the German mindset; it's about jarring the participants out of theirs, to shock them out of blithely recounting events without really thinking or feeling about them. If during the debriefing, a group of participants and observers choose to discuss (among other things), the mindset of Germans, they're perfectly free to do so. The explicit rules of Train and its game mechanics are intentionally simple, but how the participants actually play the game, and what they choose to discuss afterward, both allow for a great deal of freedom (again, intentionally).

The Middle Passage game improvised by Brathwaite made her daughter personalize the playing pieces and families; similarly, the excellent Holocaust museum in D.C. asks each visitor to the permanent exhibit to take a card that contains a name, photo, and biography of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. Visitors carry the card throughout the exhibit, and can research more about their person afterward. Meanwhile, Art Spiegelman's Maus uses both a distancing effect and meta-narrative techniques in recounting the tale of his father, a Holocaust survivor. At one point, Spiegelman prints a photo of his father in his concentration camp uniform, and it's intentionally and effectively jarring to see this photo of a real human being who has been heretofore presented to us as a cartoon mouse. It makes us think, it makes us reconsider all we've read with a greater weight. It's probably pointless to try to "rank" Train against other Holocaust art and pedagogical materials, but it seems to be in very good company in being thought-provoking in an beneficial way.

(Thanks to reader Ursus for the initial tip.)


Syrbal/Labrys said...

Frankly, if "games" are our last best chance to understand history and atrocity? We are already fucked.

Batocchio said...

Syrbal/Labrys, I don't think that games are our best chance, just another chance. Brathwaite designed the Middle Passage game because her daughter wasn't understanding her school lesson (too young, probably). As I noted, Maus and the D.C. Holocaust Museum, both widely acclaimed, try to achieve a similar effect (probably more successfully, but still). I've written in past years about good pedagogical materials for teaching the Holocaust, and a great deal depends on age and maturity. Anyway, Train would not be on my short list, but if it affects some people in a beneficial way, and reaches people who would not otherwise be reached, great. ("By any means necessary" and all that.) Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I always stop by; I guess another of my issues with this is the very idea that only game play of some sort will render large segments of the population "reachable" at all. That very suggestion of disconnect reminds me of depressing sci fi dystopias I read about in the '70's.

Of course, that outlook is not brightened by the sensation of now LIVING in those same dystopias to a disturbing degree!