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Reflections on Train
by Sande Chen on 07/14/09 11:02:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This blog entry originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month for July 2009's topic, Mature Games.  To participate, simply submit articles and topic suggestions to me.  August 2009's topic will be Single-Play Sessions.]

[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses aspects of Train that you may want to experience on your own.]

As I write this and think about Train, I am a passenger on a train. As a modern-day commuter, I have nothing in common with those train passengers of the Holocaust but I can imagine their anguish and fear. I can feel an overwhelming sadness, so much that it makes me sick in the stomach. I share no cultural background with these people, and yet, I felt an immense empathetic response when Brenda Brathwaite explained the design decisions behind her Holocaust game, Train.

I was at the 2009 Game Education Summit, where I had co-presented with Dr. Ricardo Rademacher on the topic of Creativity, Constraints, and Compromises. The program had mentioned that Brathwaite's board games were on display in a nearby room. Curious, I went to see them on the last day of the conference.

I had just picked up the typewritten rules for Train when Brathwaite walked in with some conference attendees and proceeded to talk about Train. Here, in this intimate setting, we were given a detailed look at the game by the game designer herself.

Brathwaite explained that every detail behind Train had symbolic meaning, from the number of cards to the actions. She demonstrated to us how the pawns were purposely too large for the boxcar openings so that the player would have to really jam them in there. As more and more pawns were placed in the boxcar, they were no longer standing but crammed in every which way. Then, at the end of the game, the players needed to shake the boxcars to get the pawns out. It was this level of detail that made me admire Brathwaite as an artist.

At the beginning of the game, players may not have felt that these little yellow pawns represented real people. But when Brathwaite turns over the destination card and it says, “Auschwitz,” the realization sinks in. Some players, noted Brathwaite, do figure it out early and actively try to sabotage the trains, including their own.

My line of questioning begins: What if the destination card was for a lesser-known concentration camp? Do players, blissfully unaware, continue playing? After all, Train, taken out of context, might be a fun game. What if the players were from another culture? What if the event was something not as well-known or explosive? Or something outside of the culture? The Trail of Tears, maybe? The Cultural Revolution? I mentioned Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, and how audiences sometimes don’t feel the tragedy in the recitation of the names of the dead.

If we say that the game developer contributes 50% and the game player contributes 50% to the interactive experience, is it a lesser experience when the numbers don't add up? What if the player has nothing to contribute, meaning 0%? At what point is the authorial intent or meaning of a game lost?

For certain, if Brathwaite had not mentioned it, I would not have caught that the typewriter was a Nazi-era machine. At times, I felt that there ought to be a plaque on the wall explaining all of these nuances. This further cemented the notion in my mind that Train was really more of an art game.

Furthermore, even though the game could be played repeatedly, most people did not want to once they learned that they were sending their train passengers to concentration camps. Rather, Train is an interactive experience you undergo and the epiphany is part of the process.

There was a woman who did reset the board to play another round, Brathwaite recalled. The other players were aghast. The woman exclaimed, “What? It’s just a train station.” Whether the woman understood the game’s meaning or misunderstood it, we’ll never know.

I’m also not sure how children would react to this game. That’s why I think of it as a game for grown-ups. I know that as a youngster in elementary school, I knew nothing of the Holocaust. I had a playmate whose mother was German and one day, another playmate whispered to me, "You know what the Germans did, right? They made lampshades out of the Jews." I thought this statement was baffling. It really wasn’t until I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night that I began to understand about the Holocaust.

But my questions were answered in a way. As Brathwaite packed away Train, two people were trying out Siochan Leat (aka The Irish Game). When Brathwaite had spoken about this game, I could tell that she felt very strongly about it. All I knew about Siochan Leat was that it depicted an event in Irish history when the British invaded Ireland.

I could see this very clearly as the game progressed because the British pieces were slowly displacing the Irish pawns. But since I knew next to nothing about Irish history, I found that I didn’t feel anything like I had with Train. Moreover, I thought that Siochan Leat might be a fun strategy game to play over and over. I didn’t know the historical context behind Siochan Leat and therefore, I only saw the game.

Photographs courtesy of Kristan J. Wheaton.

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Michael Rivera
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Is there any place the general public can actually play this game? There's a spoiler warning at the top, but i don't really know that it's needed since most people will only experience the game through articles like this.

Anyway, I don't think that a knowledge of the Holocaust is necessary to feel the impact of the game so long as the players know that the final destination of the train is a death camp. I don't know much about Siochan Leat, but I'd imagine it'd be pretty similar. Give players the basic context and then let the game play speak for itself.

Sande Chen
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Hi Michael,

Thanks for replying! From what I heard, Brenda Brathwaite brought her games on request to MIT and the 2009 Games for Change Conference. They were at CMU by request too. So, I guess you can write her directly and see if they will be on exhibit anywhere else.

After briefly scanning the Wikipedia article, I gather there were atrocities committed during that invasion, that Cromwell is still a hated historical figure in Ireland, and reports say that half of the population was killed. These two people didn't read the rules or instructions to the game before playing, so I don't know if any of this was mentioned.

I think some of the impact is lost in Train if you don't understand the details, such as why glass is smashed or why the pawns are yellow.

Alexander Jhin
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Do the instructions state or hint that the player's goal is to get to the end of the track? Often an explicit or implict goal encouraged by the designer can undermine the emotional content of game (explicit: "Rescue the Princess" or implicit: "Sure, you can choose not to kill the enemy but you'll die and won't be able to play anymore.")

From what I've heard, "Train" seems to manage to avoid both implicit or explicit goals, which adds to the moral ambiguity while also bringing to question if "Train" is even a game at all.

Michael Rivera
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Thanks for the info! Are any of the exhibitions that you mentioned permanent? People often joke about art games being "displayed" in museums, but in this case I think it would actually work (provided there are no velvet ropes preventing people from actually playing the game, of course!).

Your experience with Siochan Leat is very interesting actually. The biggest criticism I've heard about Brathwaite's games is that they lose all of their impact if you take away context, and your comments seem to support that. Personally though, I think context is important to any medium. Expecting games to tell the entire story through their rules is a bit like expecting a movie to do the same through only camera filters. Art cannot live in a vacuum.

Jamie Mann
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Train does sound interesting. However, as Sande has pointed out, the fact that the games rely so heavily on players having prior knowledge to drive their emotional impact is a significant weakness. They're effectively preaching to the converted - i.e. people who already know and understand the scale of the tragedy. People who aren't aware don't appear to be able to take anything away from playing. Also, a lot of the subtleties are likely to be missed: the need to force pawns in and out of the boxcar is liable to be dismissed as poor quality control, and I personally don't associate the typewriter with the Nazi era: it was invented in the 1870s and only really fell out of widespread use in the 1990s (in the first world at least - I'd assume there's still some use of typewriter technology in the rest of the world) - my main associations are journalists, pulp fiction and beauracracy, in that order.

Without having seen the game, it's difficult to know how to provide more context within the framework of the rules and actual play. One possibility would be to have checkpoints which detail the impact of the players obeying the rules - this would work quite well for something like the battle of the Somme or Stalin's Road of Bones.

Sande Chen
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@Alexander Jhin

I believe the rules are not explicit, on purpose. Brathwaite explained that in board games, players often change the rules, something which does not happen in digital games (unless players mod). For instance, when a boxcar is derailed, the players loses some of the passengers. Do the passengers return home to be put into another boxcar? Do they escape? One woman, Brathwaite said, decided that all those passengers went to Switzerland.

Also, I'm not sure if the instructions do state a goal. That may be part of the twist -- that as a player, you think your goal is to get your passengers to the train depot.

@juice uk

You bring up some good points. The people that know the least about the context are the least likely to be informed by the game.

@Michael Rivera

AFAIK, there's only one copy of each of these games, so there are no permanent exhibitions.

Philip Minchin
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Even art which relies on prior knowledge can be transformative, and not preach to the choir. Reading a comprehensive history of human rights abuses and visiting the Red Cross museum in Geneva are two completely different experiences. Knowledge and understanding are not the same thing; understanding is knowledge driven home.

And even if something does preach to the choir, that can have its own value (provided it is understood that's what it's achieving). It's not like a community of conscience should only be concerned with the people outside it. Motivation can flag. Short-sighted self-interest can distract. And nobody's omniscient. That visceral, emotional experience of a historical injustice like the Holocaust or the Irish dispossession (or slavery, as in the P&P RPG Steal Away Jordan) has lessons and benefits for those who are already working to oppose such things. I've given substantial chunks of the last ten years to human rights work, but I'd never argue that that means I couldn't benefit from games like these.

Thanks for your thoughts, Sande, and for bringing the games to a wider audience than they can reach otherwise.

Daniel Boy
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@juice uk

1. You would associate the typewriter in question with the nazi era: It has a SS-rune key.

2. Context makes games breath, imagine playing civ without knowing anything about history or technical progress. Imagine playing this game in a classroom with children with small prior knowledge of the Holocaust. Then you ask them to start to think about the gameplay elements. They may educate themselves, puzzle things together. And then the whole concept of the industrial extermination of the jews begins to dawn on them.

Sande Chen
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Altug Isigan has written a response to this blog entry:

Isik Baris Fidaner
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Here is an “art” game I developed on April 18-19th, which also came to be about Holocaust for entirely different reasons (gas simulation etc).

Unlike Train, it approaches the scene from a different point of view, that of the eyes of a prisoner.