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Persuasive Games: Gestures as Meaning
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Persuasive Games: Gestures as Meaning

June 30, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Making Gestures Matter

One game that implements gestures in this way is Manhunt 2 for Wii. Recall the controversy this game spurred at its release in 2007: it was nearly banned in several countries partly because it asked players to act out heinous acts of torture through physical actions.

Yet, the game's coupling of gestures to violent acts makes them more, not less repugnant by implicating the player in their commitment.

In Manhunt 2, we are meant to feel the power of Daniel Lamb's psychopathy alongside our own disgust at it. It is a game that helps us see how thin the line can be between madness and reason by making us perform abuse.

But gestures in Manhunt 2 are still descended from direct manipulation, swings and thrusts of a controller mapped roughly to torture. For a subtler, richer example of player gestures that imbue meaning through representation and evocation rather than direct manipulation, we must consult a more unusual sort of game.

Brenda Brathwaite's Train is a tabletop game, one of six that the veteran designer is pursuing in a series on difficult subjects.

Train's game surface is a window, some panes broken, with additional broken glass scattered atop the surface of the play area. Three railway tracks extend at oblique angles across the width of the window.

The object of the game is to load yellow people tokens into boxcars and to move them from one end of the track to the other. Players roll dice to add passengers and move trains forward, and they draw cards to execute other actions, such as switching tracks, damaging a train, and derailing. Terminus cards on each track reveal each train's destination at the end of the game: Auschwitz, or another Nazi concentration camp.

Because it exists in one edition only, far fewer people have played Train than have discussed it. When The Escapist published coverage of Brathwaite's discussion of her series at the Triangle Games Conference, a number of readers (among them industry veterans Ernest Adams and Greg Costikyan) wondered if the game mostly offered a "shocker ending," to use Adams's words.

On first blush, the dread and disgust and horror Train dispatches may seem like a trick of implementation, not an experience delivered through the playing of the game itself.

Yet, when one actually plays Train or watches others play it, its emotional power shifts from the epiphany of its ending to the individual gestures that construct its play session -- gestures that must necessarily be enacted in order to reach that finale.

Photo by Geoff Long. Used with permission.

For example, players may add people to their boxcars. It is a simple act, one that might entail pointing and clicking in a PC or console game. But to do so in Train, players must insert the wooden tokens into the narrow doorway of the boxcar.

How to accomplish this feat is entirely up to the player -- he might leave the train on the track and attempt to insert the token into the side. Or he might pick up the entire car, godlike, and drop the token as if it were an insect.

Adding additional tokens requires tilting or otherwise upsetting the car to make it possible to cram more people in. This is a disturbing experience, and players seem to alter their gestures of passenger loading and unloading as they better understand their implications.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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