Games, Play, and Atrocity

Yesterday, a particularly racially-insensitive game about the slave trade started catching the attention of @mdawriter and other people who care about race and education.  The clips passed around showed that the core gameplay used Tetris mechanics, but with black bodies being loaded onto a slave ship.  There were also shots of stereotypical dialog (“I pity the fool”? seriously?).

Melinda summarized some of the Twitter discussion from yesterday by RTing the back-and-forth between a number of educators.

For those who don’t know, I briefly worked in the game industry and have followed it from a distance since.  In my time working from home on contract, I worked on a small ‘serious game’ myself (although it wasn’t *that* serious), and I’ve continued to read up on serious games and game design as a study.

The reason I sum up my own history with this is that I don’t want to come across as flippant when I say: Yesterday’s dialog looks really, really familiar.

Now, I don’t really feel like playing this game myself to find out what value it has, or whether it has redeeming factors in the gameplay.  It might!  Although I don’t think those redeeming factors excuse things like racist dialog or the choice of using a very caricature-like visual style for the people involved.  But my point here isn’t to give an in-depth critique of this particular game.

Since day one, serious games have had to face the assumption that games are primarily meant to be fun, entertaining, and, well, not serious.  Unfortunately mediocre-at-best examples like this are not going to help a lot.  So I’d rather direct people to an actually good example that made the news in game design circles about six years ago.

Brenda Romero (then Braithwaite) is a game designer with decades of experience in the video game industry. In 2009 she presented on a series of board games that she created during a time when she was oversaturated and bored with typical video games.  The bit that reminded me of this initially was the game which got the most attention at the time, Train.  However I went back and found the video of her presentation at the 2009 Game Developers Conference, and I just can’t find a way to sum this up.

So here’s the deal: if you want to at least qualify as having “read” this post, bare minimum you have to go to the video, scroll on the sidebar to ‘Train’, and watch until at least the end of the Rabbi Belzer section.  (It requires Flash, I’m sorry. I can’t fix Old Internet, all I can do is ask you to get off your iPad and find a laptop or something.)

If Black American history is specifically important to you, you should watch ‘#3: obviously planned random tangent’ first.

If you really, really can’t listen to audio right now and you want to cheat, fine, you can read the first publicity that the game received.  (If you still feel like this is horrible and how dare she have done such a thing, you haven’t qualified as having read this whole post! Sorry, doesn’t count. Go watch the video.)

Probably the entire thing is worth watching.  I’m saying ‘probably’ because I’m totally lost in this, but I’m jumping around sections a bit and already 20min late on making lunch for my family and don’t want to put off posting this until tomorrow.

Other highlights to understand this all, from ‘The not-so-obvious obvious’:

“Frankly, the topics that i was covering, it made me feel a little … afraid.”

And from “It’s just like Halo.”:

“Train says the game is over when it ends. So a completely valid playing of Train is one that a rabbi in New York City had who walked up to the game and went, ‘Oh. I know what your game is about. I don’t want to play.’ And I said, ‘You just did.’ And she said, ‘You’re right.’ And we had a great conversation after that.”

Also ‘Treatment of tokens’ is a very short, very worth hearing section.


Okay. Don’t go on with reading this until you’ve heard enough.


Okay?  Okay.


So here’s what I want to add to this:

  • Games are an expressive medium, and they can represent ideas from nearly any area of life.
  • Making a game about atrocities is possible. But making a good game about atrocities is really, really friggin’ hard.  Brenda Romero is a professional game designer with over 30 years in the industry, and she made these games as a personal exercise of love with no desire to commercialize, no external publishing or funding constraints.  She thought about every single design decision really carefully and invested herself into it.
  • These games were not made lightly, nor were they made to be entertaining.  They weren’t the result of someone saying, “Hey, let’s take these social studies standards and make them into a game! Kids like games! That’ll make it more engaging!”
  • The designer either had a personal connection with the issues she was presenting, or she was very careful to run them by someone who did.
  • Every one of these games was run by the designer herself, and run carefully and thoughtfully.  These weren’t experiences that she could simply box up and mass produce.  That does not mean that something similar can’t happen in the classroom — it can.  But it does mean that we have to see ourselves in an active role, as a co-designer of the games that we bring into our classrooms.
  • None of these were digital, but there are thoughtful digital games that do a much, much better job than the example that started this all off.  (If you really want examples, nag me.  I tried googling something I remember from a while ago but it’s failing me, and I’ll probably remember more later.)  Here’s another random non-digital example that I want to share just because it looks great.

Hopefully you can see why I have a hard time getting into this discussion within 140-char posts.

Games can express and educate us about racism.  But games that give the issues a shallow or thoughtless treatment can be just as damaging as a shallow or thoughtless book / video / whatever.

1 thought on “Games, Play, and Atrocity

  1. Re:
    “(It requires Flash, I’m sorry. I can’t fix Old Internet, all I can do is ask you to get off your iPad and find a laptop or something.)”
    We iPad/iPhone users don’t have to — we can download Flash-capable iOS browsers, such as Photon. I wish more of us knew that.

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