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Brenda Brathwaite’s ‘Train’: When Knowing the Game Changes the Game

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Brenda Brathwaite's Train

Brenda Brathwaite's "Train." (Photo by John McKinnon)

This weekend, for the first time, I got so fed up with a game I was playing that I gave up on it and just watched the final cutscene on YouTube.  Unfortunately, this didn’t really give me the closure I was looking for. Afterward, all I wanted to do was to start playing the game again from the beginning to see if knowing how it ended would change how I played or perceived what was going on.

Oddly enough, I had a similar experience, though for entirely different reasons, during February’s Art History of Games symposium. But there, it wasn’t a video game that led me to stop playing and to think about my game play in terms of the ending. It was Brenda Brathwaite’s nondigital game, “Train.”

Of all the games discussed during the symposium, “Train” is the one that most clearly demonstrates the intersection between art and games to me. The same is true of the other games in her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. These are noncommercial games Brathwaite started making in part as a design exercise, to explore how games could express difficult concepts.  The series got its start after her daughter came home from school describing the Middle Passage as though it were a cruise. As a game designer, Brathwaite’s response was to make a game to help her daughter comprehend the slave trade: 2008′s “The New World.”

In her presentation at the symposium, Brathwaite described her process of making these games as one of research and waiting, watching for the game’s system to reveal itself to her. Each game has a deliberate, elegant visual simplicity, and it’s hard to see it as anything other than a work of art. But it’s art that takes on a whole new meaning once people start interacting with it.

Brathwaite’s presentation was my favorite one of the symposium, but of all the games I played during and after the event, hers was the most difficult. And to explain why, I have to spoil the game — so if you think you might ever have the opportunity to play “Train,” which there’s only one copy of in the world, you may want to stop reading.

In “Train,” there are three train cars on tracks. The tracks rest on a broken window. Players roll dice, adding figures to their train cars or moving the trains that many spaces on the track. Or, players can use action cards to speed up or stop the trains. When a train gets to the end of the track, a player gets a destination card, which reveals where the train has ended up.

I knew from reading articles at Gamasutra and The Escapist that the trains are delivering their passengers to concentration camps. It’s something that perceptive players might catch on to without the background reading, from clues like the yellow figures, the trains, the broken glass, the game instructions typed out on an SS typewriter. The other two people who played “Train” with me knew its outcome as well, since we played the game after Brathwaite’s presentation.

What followed at Kia Lin Art, where the game was installed, was both awkward and surreal. All three of us knew where the trains were going. None of us managed to figure out how to stop it from happening. I derailed other players’ trains and loaded up my boxcars without moving them from the starting line, then used my turns to draw cards instead of move. And I couldn’t help focusing on how the other two players handled their game pieces — whether they tossed them into boxcars haphazardly or moved them from place to place with a sense of compassion.

Eventually, with two trains at the end and their pieces unloaded and placed on destination cards, I declared that the game had ended and quit playing with my train still at the beginning of the track. We put everything back the way it was when we found it so another group could play.

I can think of plenty of games that have helped me learn, made me think or affected me on an emotional level.  But I hadn’t ever played a game that really forced me to focus on the ethics of play from beginning to end.

Have you? Tell me what it is so I can play it.

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