March 19, 2010

Train the Holocaust game

The Board Game No One Wants to Play More Than Once

By Jamin Brophy-WarrenThe phrase “board game” usually connotes the likes of ”Monopoly” or “Yahtzee”--fun pastimes for the beach or family outings. But Savannah College of Art and Design professor Brenda Brathwaite has created a game which is far from a trivial pursuit.

Brathwaite created “Train” to explore the tragedy and devastation of the Holocaust. It made its debut last month at the Games for Change conference in New York City. Players load boxcars with tiny yellow figurines and are asked to move the trains from one end of the course to the other. They pull cards that either impede their progress or free some of the characters. Once a train reaches the “finish line,” the game is completed and it is revealed that the destination of the trains is Auschwitz. Nobody “wins.”
How people react to the game: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.
Comment:  This is a great rejoinder to the designer who developed the King Philip's War game. His game is full of factual historical content. It tells you the war happened and shows how it was fought. You apparently get a great sense of the military strategies.

What it doesn't seem to have is an emotional or moral content. People don't feel bad if the colonists massacre the Indians or win the war. A horrible tragedy is reduced to an academic exercise.

The Train game is the opposite. Apparently you don't get a lot of factual or historical information about the Holocaust. In fact, many people don't realize they're playing a Holocaust game until the end. But the game makes the harm of genocide clear. People have intense emotional reactions that are undoubtedly more profound than any intellectual game could impart.

Brathwaite said she invented Train after her daughter learned about the Middle Passage in school and treated it like a vacation cruise. That's kind of how I imagine people will react to King Philip's War. If it's a smart and engaging game, as it seems to be, people will say, "Gee, that was fun. Let's play again!" Which isn't exactly the reaction you want from a game like this.

Brathwaite says she's also making a Trail of Tears game. It would be interesting to compare that to the King Philip's War game. I suspect they'll impart rather different lessons about the rightness or wrongness of America's war against Indians.

For more on the subject, see Protesting King Philip's War Game and Reactions to King Philip's War Game.

1 comment:

Green Gal said...

This is really interesting. I hadn't heard about this, so thanks for sharing.