Syrious Games (part 1)

As Kathryn and I were driving down to Kentucky last Friday, it was looking increasingly more likely that the United States would soon be responding militarily to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, so I suppose it was inevitable that we would end up discussing the issue during our 5+ hours in the car. After a few minutes, the conversation stopped focusing specifically on Syria, and started questioning why some people feel that it’s acceptable to kill, torture, and suppress in order to secure land, money, or power.

As the political scientist of the family (Kathryn, the biologist, would later be answering my questions about what’s so special about saturated fats), I thought this was a perfect opportunity for a little philosophizing. Though I believe that people are inherently good, I also believe that we all face (and often cede to) the temptation to abuse other people for personal gain; while my being a jerk to a co-worker to make myself look good is clearly not the same as using chemical weapons to hold on to political power, it’s still immoral behavior that’s designed to move me up a few places on whatever scoreboard I subscribe to.

I thought that this was a pretty good answer, but Kathryn’s follow-up question was better: “Yeah, but why?” After all the episodes of Sesame Street, the school lessons, the personal wrongs, and worldwide tragedies, why are people still willing to justify actions that they should know (and, I believe, do know) are wrong?

In 2009, game designer Brenda Romero designed Train, a game/exhibit that helps me understand this problem. Players are presented with all the materials for Train, including a copy of the rules, and invited to play. The rules state that the object of the game is to be the first player to load all of his or her wooden “passengers” onto a train and then deliver them to their destination; as with most games, all the players are eager to win, so they do their best to reach that goal while preventing their opponents from doing so. However, at some point during the game, the players discover the destination of these trains and their passengers: the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Needless to say, the game experience changes a little bit after that.

I don’t know if there’s a clear consensus on what Train *means* — whether or not a game can *mean* something is one of the ideas that Romero was trying to explore — but Romero has talked about the game exploring concepts such as complicity and blindly following rules.

That last concept is the one that interests me the most and is the reason that I think Train helps us understand Bashar al-Assad and our jerk co-workers. Based on what I’ve read, the typical player of Train accepts a definition of success given to them by someone else, acts on that definition, and ultimately realizes that he or she has been doing something completely immoral in the name of achieving that success. Rather than asking moral questions (How should I treat my co-workers? Is killing unarmed civilians an appropriate response to protests?) we often ask ourselves how we can achieve success – success as defined by others as money, power, or position.

Romero designed Train so that people could reject the win conditions that the rules initially impose on the players and develop their own. Are we willing to reject the definition of success that imposed on us because it makes us cross moral “red lines”?

I could keep going on the importance of moral introspection, but that’s not really why I’m keeping this blog. Here are the points that I really want to make:

  1. A good education should invite and encourage this kind of moral introspection. I’m a huge proponent of a humanities/liberal arts education, partly because I think that studying history, literature, and foreign cultures promotes moral introspection in a way that STEM education cannot.
  2. In the case of Train, a game showed the ability to promote moral introspection; by making players active participants in a simulation of the Holocaust, I believe that Train promoted an understanding and discussion of the Holocaust that other media (especially textbooks by themselves) may not have been able to do. Could games play an educational role in helping students explore ethical and moral dilemmas?

Rather than elaborate on those points now, I’d like to leave this post as an introduction of some of my research interests and as a springboard that I’ll come back to so that I can further explore these ideas. Let me know if you have any thoughts, and I’ll see if I can work them into part 2!

3 thoughts on “Syrious Games (part 1)

  1. As always, compelling and well-said. As for queries 1 and 2: and AMEN! I considered most of “education” gaming, as both a student and “guide on the side.” Thanks for the challenges. These opportunities can open our hearts and minds in ways a page or a lecture cannot, teaching us much about ourselves. A question about Romero’s game. Would it be just as satisfying/challenging to play it more than once? The end status could never change?

    1. I know that a lot of people have played or watched the game even though they knew what was going on, and they say that it’s still pretty interesting.

      I think the win conditions are actually a little looser than what I made them out to be, which I didn’t realize at the time I wrote this, so the players have the option to end the game before anyone delivers their passengers or to try to subvert the implied purpose of the game in some other way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *