Am I a bad person?
I like tying up loose ends, being efficient and exploring new ways to get things done.
This can translate to I like killing people, with as little effort as possible in a variety of glorified ways … in Fallout 3.
Or it can mean I like collecting every animal, growing my plants to perfection and trying to find all of the different animal varieties in Viva Piñata. The difference, well there is no difference in the mechanics. The skills that it takes to make an efficient garden can be put to use when deciding how to efficiently dispatch an enemy. However, the framing is different, the context and perception that is given to the mechanics, which makes these two types of scenarios unlike each other.
Yesterday, Simon over at Chungking Espresso tweeted about the relationship between Brenda Brathwaite’s game Train and Gonzalo Frasca “one-session game of narration” (OSGON) format. I’m late to the game, as usual, seeing as Train was introduced two months ago and Frasca’s article was published in 2000, but I want to discuss what it means for games to be one shot experiences and how Train’s serious subject is portrayed.
Frasca’s OSGON format describes games that are played once: every decision is final, if you die the game ends, and once means the game never begins again. As an example, he makes mention of William Gibson’s poem Agrippa which would encrypt itself after the user read it. Unless the reader was a hacker they could never read it again. Obviously today you can read the poem whenever you like because the encryption method did not hold up.
Frasca notes that a way to get around someone “hacking” a one-shot game would be to treat it like a happening, occurring during a set period of time over a fixed duration (or perhaps episodically). I would compare this to what ARG games have evolved into today, especially ones that are used to promote products that have fixed release dates. I Love Bees (for Halo 2) or the ARG surrounding The Dark Knight are games that cannot be played again because those games were for specific products. You were either a participant in the game when it was running or not. You can’t go back to the bakery and find the cake that had the tape inside with a recording from the Joker (which did happen for the Dark Knight ARG). Some other player did though and they can tell you the tale.
Games that can be replayed discourage portraying serious subject matter in games, as Frasca writes. Replayable games promote sadistic actions, for instance for my second time playing through Fallout 3 I am killing everyone I meet, and force players along a “correct” path, where if the player fails they can always start over or load a saved game. Creating OSGEN games allow designers to invoke more emotion from serious subjects, placing games at a higher artistic level and cultural status in general.
I would agree that OSGEN can be one potential way of exploring serious subjects in games but it is not be the only way. Frasca’s argument is similar to the arguments made for behaviorism in games, where the player is a passive interacter who reflects little on how they are performing in the game. Only through absolute death or irreversible decisions would a game be able to break this behaviorist notion and allow players to truly reflect on their actions. I don’t believe this is true and think time is a big factor in how players perceive their actions.
While it may not seem as sophisticated as definite concepts like death or irreversible decisions, the amount of time a player spends in a game can have a profound effect on that player. I remember one instance while I was playing Ultima Online. By the time I started playing UO the game developer had already introduced the policy that if a player is killed that player can loot their body before anyone else (within a limited amount of time but it was enough time). Rarely did I run into a situation where if I died I could not get my items back, except for this one time up in the town of Yew when the town was being overrun by monsters. I was grinding monsters for seeds that had been introduced in the game that week, but that is not important. Some monsters ending up backing me into a house and killed me. I respawned and after four or five attempts could not get anywhere near my body to retrieve my belongings.
Now UO was not like WoW where every item was special, so everything on my avatar was replaceable … except they were not. I had items on me, like my hat and cloak, that I had on my character for months. Since an avatar’s skills in UO were the main attributes that gave each avatar their power, items could be kept around for longer periods of time. Given that you could dye your items different colors to make them more personal and your name was placed on any items you created, those items could have a lot of sentimental value. In WoW it’s hard to become attached to items because the purpose of the game is to find the next tiered item. When I lost all of my items, the ones I had been playing with for so long, I was devastated.
Now some 6-7 years later that episode has stuck with me. Sure I found other items to replace my old ones and was able to fashion my avatar exactly as it was before the incident but I had LOST MY ITEMS, the ones I had spent so much time with. The fact that it was only a game made it worse, I know that with a flick of a few bits a game master could have restored those items to my avatar. Yet, the game rules discouraged that scenario and my items were lost to the UO void (or to who ever came along and picked them up later).
If we didn’t believe that games had the power right now to evoke emotional responses I don’t see why there would be movements like games for change, health, training, etc. While games about serious subject matter can be made compelling using the one-shot format that should not rule out how games can be compelling at this very moment.
On the Train
Brenda Brathwaite’s Train is like a one shot game but not for the exact reasons that Frasca discusses.
Train gives players control over railroad cars and tells them to use those railroad cars to transport people from one destination to another. Each player has a car to place little people figures within. Cards are drawn to see how far a train moves, which can move a train forward or back, and how many people are placed in a player’s car. The object is to transport all of the people to the final destination as quickly as possible.
When a train reaches the final destination and must return to pick up more people that player receives a destination card for where they dropped those people off. Those destinations are Nazi concentration camps. Players are transporting Jews using trains to deliver them to places like Auschwitz.
Obviously this information only becomes immediately apparent once the first destination card is handed out. Then the ambiance objects gain their meaning, the broken window that supports the board symbolizing Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass” and the SS typewriter that was used to type out the rules. Other reviews have stated that people started to cry when everything clicked in there heads and they realized that they were helping transport Jews to concentration camps.
In this way Train is like Frasca’s one shot games as a happening. Players think they are sitting down and going to play a board game like Ticket to Ride and they end up committing genocide. Actually, breaking the window glass and the SS typewriter adds to game as a physical event that is truly occurring right this instant. True, the game can be replayed but once the players know what they are doing their play changes for good, like an irreversible decision.
Mechanics or Frame
Train is part of Brenda Brathwaite’s game series “The Mechanic is the Message,” where focusing on simple mechanics can produce strong reactions from the players. However, while I am jaded on more than one front (I now know the game’s twist, I’m an academic gamer steeped in serious games and I am just an experienced gamer in general) I find some of the aspects of Train needs further discussion beyond the common rhetoric of “games can change the world” which academics are embracing everywhere.
For one thing I did not like the twist in the gameplay. It seems more like a gimmick than an epiphany type moment. A review over at Game Culture said that others had made the comparisons to a Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” In the episode aliens visit Earth and cure all of man’s woes, but come to find out the aliens are just fattening earthlings up so that they can cook or “serve” them as food. Planet of the Apes is another example, except earthlings are the culprits in that one (maybe a little more egotistical in that sense).
However, in the same review it was said that the brilliance behind Train was in the player’s complicity about the action they were taking. Since everyone was helping the trains get to the final destination they were all at fault. Games are supposed to be fun, safe experiences as the reviewer says (though it can be said that those are assumptions that the general populace believes in, not designers working on games for change) and the complicity of the situation is the big draw of the game. But that is not the case, it is the complacency that players feel as they are moving the people to their final destination. Up until the true destination revelation, players are just playing a game, playing the mechanics. Once the destination is revealed the mechanics don’t matter anymore because the framing becomes more important.
Players begin the meta-game once they discover what is going on, where they try to find ways to subvert the rules and wish to save the Jews from being transported. In that way there is no complicity about it, the players become part of the resistance movement trying to stop the Nazis from carrying out there plans. They are now playing against the game because the framing is different.
For example, take a look at Calabouço Tétrico. It is a Tetris clone but you stack tortured bodies instead of blocks. A gruesome game to say the least. Same mechanics, different frames. Framing matters.
I’m wondering if the revealing of Train’s hidden information, that the trains are heading to concentration camps, could be handled differently?
This type of revelation is similar to jumping out and scaring the audience in a horror film. Yes it induces an emotional response but it is easy to shock someone out of complacency, or during a quiet period in a movie. But for players who have learned to separate games from reality this would fall on its face for the same reasons that Frasca said were the bane of replayable games. Those players know that they are not really transporting Jews to their death, they can always just stop playing and it may even turn sadistic where players try even harder to finish the game quicker.
Now inducing paranoia would be totally different, it is not a one shot emotion at all but a continuous feeling of dread. Have a look at Peter Tscherkassky short film Outer space. As a viewer you are seeing the film through the eyes of, potentially, a being from outer space that has descended on a suburban home. In the film the viewer never gets a clear camera shot of what they are looking at, the entire time the visuals and sounds are extremely distorted and the whole film is shot in a voyeuristic fashion. The film itself is very unsettling: you are looking through the alien’s eyes, you have no real connections with the humans in the film and your senses are continually bombarded with disorienting effects.
How could we introduce this into a game? Would it have to be a digital game?
Trying to Beat the System
Paranoia is one aspect of the Battlestar Galatica Boardgame. Actually, it is just a dreadful game in general. The point is not to lose, the entire game is about stopping horrible events from occurring and killing the fleet of human star-ships. Additionally, there is the possibility that some of the players are Cylons, the enemy. The game itself is supposed to be cooperative, where everyone helps the humans in the game. If someone is a Cylon though, they only win if the humans lose. For the entire game there are human players trying to protect themselves while going on a witch hunt for the players who are Cylons. The accusations fly like crazy.
BSG also adds a kink in the game by having a sympathizer card in the game, allowing a Cylon player to be part of the human team. Though adding this card just makes things more complicated, now Cylons can be helpful. This also brings a human’s loyalty into question as they may wish to screw the humans over for the fun of it. Thus, nothing stops any player from declaring (openly or not) that they do not want to help their team any more. I could be a human but try to hinder my team has much as possible. Luckily there is a brig (jail) where players have little effect once they are placed there, so any traitor can be handled. In that way the problem with players being sadistic, or trying to kill everyone, is something that the game can deal with. Plus there is never a “correct” way to play, again focusing on Frasca’s attributes of replayable games, because the game excepts paranoia and treachery, all of which the mechanics provided for. A great marriage of mechanics and framing.
In a Wall Street Journal Article about Train, Brenda Brathwaite makes mention that players did end up turning on the game in the same fashion. They would ask if there was a way to stop the trains, subvert the trains or rescue the Jews aboard. Some cards would derail a train and the player would say they are taking them to a new location. But I’m wondering if the game has any mechanics that attempts to stop this subversive behavior like in BSG. If the player does help some Jews to safety will they themselves be captured and sent away, can other players snitch on those helpful players and remove them from the game?
OH! It’s the Holocaust
With all this talk about subversion, framing and mechanics it is easy to miss the fact that we are talking about a subject that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. While I have no problem with the Holocaust being portrayed in a game (see my other post about the Iraq war and WWII Kamikaze bombers in games) I do feel it is another instance of a gimmick being used.
Just like the 911 attacks and the Kennedy assassination it is hard to not feel moved by those events as an American. Those events bring up strong emotions in some people or at least bring a surrounding context with them. So again I ask are Train’s mechanics the compelling part of the game or is the event, the Holocaust, the bigger factor? What would it be like to frame it in lesser known massacres (in the American psyche that is), like Darfur or Saddam’s gas attacks on the Kurds? (yet, even those are sort of in our psyche because I just pulled those off the top of my head) Is it the Holocaust that is so striking or the game itself?
Hush was brought up in a review as another example compared with Train. Hush is a rhythm game where you have to press the keyboard characters h-u-s-h as the letters fall on the screen. The opening premise is that the player is a mother who is trying to calm her baby by pressing the keys in time. As the game progresses they learn that the mother is in Rwanda in 1994 trying to keep her baby quiet while her village is being raided by the Hutu who will come for her if the baby is crying.
Not having as much knowledge about the genocide in Rwanda as I do about the Holocaust makes me feel Hush is more compelling to myself even though it used the same type of hidden information as Train. So does that type of shock revelation only work on people who know little about the subject? If that is the case then fine, it’s a method that can be used with school children learning about the subject or adults who do not have knowledge of such events. But choosing a topic such as the transportation of Jews to concentration camps will automatically bring up emotions that were already present in many American’s minds because we know so much about it.
Simon suggested that there should be a game about the S.S. St. Louis which was a refugee ship carrying almost a thousand Jews fleeing Germany after Kristallnacht had occurred. Except this transportation story is just as heartbreaking as the one portrayed in Train. When the St. Louis arrived at Cuba thinking their refugee passengers would disembark, their final destination was the US, they were turned away. Negotiations kept the ship anchored off of Cuba for days as the fate of the passengers was decided. Eventually the ship had to return to Europe because their food was running low and no one would help them. Suicides and an attempted mutiny occurred during the voyage back. Once back in Europe, some countries ended up taking smaller groups of the refugees however, each of those countries, except Great Britain, were eventually taken over by the Nazis and those refugees ended up in concentration camps.
The story of the S.S. St. Louis is a story about American isolationism before the war, and as Simon also said, does not show “how righteous and heroic the US was during WWII.” It’s easy for us today to see a movie about the Holocaust, read a book about the Holocaust or play a game about the Holocaust and not feel that sense of regret that such a horrible event occurred but also know that we as a country helped liberate those camps. Except when we did not.
But we have grown complacent again. We as a country make the assumption that the Holocaust is bad and we know we will never do that again. Next I put forth a new game design based on Train’s model to see if I can evoke something different from players who think they know everything about the Holocaust.
Think about this game. Players sit down in front of a board with three runways on it. Off to the side there are three cargo airplanes, a box with little people figures in it, a stack of cards and a pda. To start the game a person picks up the pda and read out the text that displays on the screen. The text says that the players are military personnel and they have been order to move the Abu Ghraib prisoners to new prisons around the world. This needs to be done as efficiently and securely as possible and the one that can transport the most prisoners will be promoted. Each player runs one of the three cargo planes and it is to be used to move the prisoners which start in the box. The cards are either event or movement cards, events can either help or hinder players (or be used against other players such as “delays in flight time”) and movement cards allow players to either pick up more prisoners or, once the plane has left the prison, to get to their new destination (ex. move three spaces or add one prisoner to your plane). When they reach their destination a player gets a destination card for the prison (like Zichsutwa in northern Africa) and those act toward a player’s promotion, along with the number of prisoners transferred.
Once all the prisoners are transferred then the winner is determined by the number of prisoners they transferred divided by the number of prisons (greater than two) where they arrived. The reason they are divided is if the player took prisoners to too many prisons they spent a lot of money on fuel and increased the overhead for using other prisons, which would work against their promotion. Whoever transported the most prisoners get the promotion.
After a winner is declared the airplane and landing strip covers are taken off to reveal that the players were actually using trains and rail tracks to transport prisoners. The prison names are anagrams for places such as Auschwitz and the prisoners were actually Jewish citizens. The players had just participated in a façade that represented the Kristallnacht, becoming knowing participants in the operation to transport prisoners who they believed would oppress and hurt them if they were free to live their lives.
How is this different from Train? Well, this would get at the heart of the feelings of what it would feel like to be in Germany during the Kristallnacht. Instead of just looking at the logistics of the game (or the mechanics) it would tap very relevant events surround terrorism and the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal that are around today. (It’s always powerful when you can combine some new with something old)
Some players wouldn’t feel any remorse for sending “terrorist” prisoners to other prisons, stacking them as high as they could into their planes. Other players would feel horrible about transporting these prisoners, trying to make their progress safe or as slow as possible, not caring about the promotion awarded for winning. Not every German citizen felt that rounding up Jews was the right thing to do, but what could they do against the Third Reich who were making all the decisions in Germany? They couldn’t voice their opinions, just like voicing your opinion in the game would not change the winning conditions, but they could try to hinder the Nazis, as you could do by stopping the planes from reaching new prisons.
But the fact that the façade would not be revealed until the very end would help show how we as American’s can fall into the same traps as the German citizen’s fell into when they wanted to help protect their country and followed the Third Riche.
I understand what Brathwaite is trying to do with her “The Mechanics are the Message” game series but I believe that The Frame is the Message. Sure mechanics play a role in this type of game, but people are not mindless robots. If you hide a key fact that would make a player play drastically different I do not see that as potent enough. Where allowing them to play exactly how you would expect them to play and then tearing away the façade that surrounds their play to reveal how they actions and thoughts can be compared to another situation, that’s when true reflection can occur.
Wrap it up
Brathwaite says the most important thing about games like Train is that it starts discussions. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work for me. The game makes me wonder about what does inspire me, moves me, and how I would create a game to evoke those emotions. Discussion and providing game options are the key points to take away from this. Games like Train, World of Warcraft and The Kill Everyone project can co-exist in this crazy mixed up world of games.
We as academics, and game designers in general, should continue to produce games based on new assumptions about what games are and look past the common assumptions that are still held by the general populace. Only through a continued dialog and giving players options will we be able to finally defeat those sacred, dogmatic assumptions about games. Fun and safe work for some games … other games, well … they will rip your heart out.
Edit: Just as I pushed this out Gamasutra put up a Featured Column by Ian Bogost, talking about gesture game interfaces and linking it with the gestures that Train players perform. So Brathwaite says the mechanics matter, Bogost the gestures and I say the frame. See we have options