Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Brenda Brathwaite Is Amazing (Game Education Summit -- Part 4)

Everyone has played a game that was enormously engrossing; that became the focus of their lives for at least a short period.

Everyone has had at least one great class in their lives, where, at the end, they "got it"; where they learned the lesson deeply on both an intellectual and emotional level.

Everyone, finally, has seen a work of art that communicated, through its attention to detail, a broad, deep message.

Brenda Brathwaite, a professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design has accomplished all three of these goals in a single "installation" -- and she has done it not once, but twice.

I used the word installation above because I cannot think of a better term for what Brathwaite has done. It is not a good word because it conveys no sense of the dynamic quality inherent in her work. Artists would call it art and educators would no doubt see it as an incredibly effective way to teach a lesson.

Brathwaite is a professional game designer, however, with scads of popular video games to her credit and she proudly refers to these as games. I say "proudly" because one of her explicit goals was to show that games could educate, be seen as art and still be good games. She seemed to me to want to push her understanding of the limits of her discipline in ways that few within the discipline would recognize.

The first game is called Ni ceart go cur le cheile (Where my people come from in Gaelic) though it is invariably referred to as "The Irish Game". It is a game that explores the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the 1600's. In it, the players participate as Irish factions trying to manage the displacement of their people in the face of a relentless British invasion. Failure to find room in a country that is rapidly running out of space results in some of the Irish inevitably getting sent to Barbados as slaves -- a fate that befell many at this time. The faction that loses the least wins.

At some trivial level, this game is like lifeboat (you get thrown off the boat; you get thrown off the island) or, as I clumsily suggested, the zombie level in Call of Duty 5 (relentless assault where you cannot win, only lose the the least).

A single second imagining the playing pieces as members of a family displaced, dispersed or abandoned to the fate of slaves brings a different lesson crashing home. People -- it becomes hard to think of them as game pieces -- had to decide where to go, had to uproot their lives, abandon their property, increasingly move to areas where there were more and more people and fewer and fewer resources.

The game design doesn't allow for momentary pangs of discomfort, however. Each turn, the toll increases; each turn the lesson becomes less of a historical artifact and more real for the student.

The game board (the photo at the right does not do it justice) and associated pieces are filled with the kind of detail that it is hard not to appreciate. The Irish pieces are the "right" color of green, the British pieces the right color of orange. The smooth, sleek beveled glass separating the playing pieces from the ground below is a stark contrast to the burlap "board" that drives much of the game play.

Brathwaite's ability to explore historic and tragic events through the medium of the game is not limited to her own Irish heritage. Her other game/installation on display here at the Game Education Summit is, if anything, more powerfully rendered.

In this game, called Train (see the photo to the right), Brathwaite asks the players to move 60 yellow playing pieces -- "people" -- down one of three tracks to their destination as quickly as possible. Along the way, the players draw cards that result in delays or events which accelerate the trains. To overcome these obstacles, players are encouraged to exhibit an almost ruthless efficiency, to carefully balance the risks and rewards of various strategies to accomplish the goal in the most rapid way possible.

There is a strong physical component to the play as well. The playing pieces do not fit nicely into the toy trains so filling the train cars to the maximum capacity requires players to jam the pieces in. The payoff is obvious. The more pieces jammed into the cars the fewer trips the cars will have to make.

Each time a car arrives at the end of the line, the player draws a card that tells them where the train ended up. In stark black and white the game reveals itself on each card turned over -- Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz...

Then back to the beginning to fill another car.

Again, the attention to detail in the game itself puts the game in the realm of art as well. The three pages of rules were typed on an old SS typewriter purchased specifically for the purpose. The rules themselves help reveal the story (players are required to take a hammer and break a piece of glass before each game). There are few other games that I can think of (Hush is one) that can begin to generate this type of emotion.

Finally, what makes Brathwaite truly amazing is her ability to explain what it is she has done. She is clearly able to communicate to artists on the level of art, gamers on the level of the game and educators on the hidden power of her medium to teach at depth few other techniques can match.

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