Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Comment on Sande Chen’s “Reflections on Train

In this article, scholar Altug Isigan points to a potential weakness in the game, Train: that by its very structure, it allows players to believe that contributors to the Holocaust were innocents or somehow manipulated or betrayed into committing these acts.

[Spoiler Alert: This article reveals information about the game Train (Brenda Brathwaite, 2009) that will alter the game's intended gameplay experience.]

In this brief article I share the thoughts that surfaced after I read Sande Chen’s article on the game Train (Brenda Brathwaite, 2009). Before I continue, let me say that I haven’t played the game and that my whole knowledge and the resulting imagination about it stem from what I read in articles like the one Sande wrote. I can add to this that my understanding of the role of trains (or transportation in general) during the Holocaust was heavily influenced by Lars von Trier’s impressive feature film Europe (1991; also known as Zentropa in other parts of the world).

Moving People

I found the details that Sande mentions about the game very striking, especially the way in which the “passengers” are treated during the placement into the train wagons and after their arrival at the final destination. I think these are details that gain a very strong meaning and importance together with the revelation of the name of that final destination: Auschwitz. Achieving this effect seems to be the result of very careful consideration. I fully agree with Sande that these are the kind of details that make one appreciate Brenda Brathwaite as an artist.

I understand that the way in which the plot is structured, causes most of the players to be shocked at the end of the game through the revelation of the historical context of the game: that during their “innocent” play they were actually deporting people to death camps. Players realize that they were assisting in one of the biggest crimes in human history, the Holocaust during the Nazi era. Through this sudden move, the “game” turns bitterly serious. This move is a very strong invitation to reconsider the things in life that we don’t really give a thorough thought to and then find out in the most painful way that they were in support of terrible things.

To achieve this level of reflection, the designer utilizes techniques of limited exposure: the knowledge economy of the game is constructed so that at the end of the game a deliberately placed information gap is exploited. The moment in which this gap is filled becomes for the player an emotionally striking turning point that serves as a climax to the game: a climax that is aimed at causing a shift in the player’s perception of the world. The utilization of the element of surprise is touching: people are moved. Once more we appreciate the designer as an artist.

On The Track of Popular Discourse

While it is apparent that this plot can move people to a point were under circumstances they could even cry, I wonder whether it is not the same plot structure that leads to an ideological weak spot in the game. I ask myself whether the concept of the “unaware player” does not reinforce the rather arguable view on the Holocaust that depicts it as a historical event in which an innocent folk was betrayed by a cast of sick and evil-minded bureaucrats which derailed it into a path of evil. While this view demonizes a cast of leaders, it allows the rest of the society in which the “unthinkable” happened to get away as the “innocents”. However, there are a lot of artists and philosophers –among them leftist critic Hannah Arendt– who believe that this view gives a wrong image of the social and cultural climate that nurtured the Holocaust.

By positioning the player into the “unknowing innocent citizen” role, does the game limit its critical potential to a typical ‘figure’ of the popular discourse on the Holocaust? Does it reproduce what Roland Barthes calls “dead language”, a discourse that locks reflection onto the issue at hand into a paradigm of certain frozen gestures? Such discursive figures strongly structure the way in which we speak about a topic. Often it is only the gesture of the figure that we recognize and utilize, thereby reflection onto the issue being rendered impossible. In the case of the Holocaust, this dead language usually turns the issue into a totem-like object which is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of a ‘museum of evil’; it is sentenced to live in this museum as a symbol that prompts us to recall the issue the way the involved power elites agreed to forget about it. Through this, our chance to sincerely confront the problem and ourselves is replaced with sort of a meta-language. We cannot speak anymore from within or at the level of the Holocaust (and of those Holocausts that we are capable of right now, in all our “unawareness” and “innocence”), we can only speak on it or about it (as a bitter lesson of the past; the learning taken for granted, the immunity automatically gained; a save distance put between ourselves and the unthinkable). Eventually, the actuality of the –or any– Holocaust is replaced with a myth of it. “No, we, won’t allow, that, to happen again”.

If I can imagine a weak spot in this game then I believe that it is this aspect for which can be said that in favor of a cliché, it pulls out the player too early out of a process of deeper understanding and learning. Since I never have played the game, and that for simple geographical and physical constraints I will not be able to play it for a long time to come, I keep wondering what the experience of playing this game really is like.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thoughts on ambiguous morality, Kohlberg, and The Witcher

In this article, researcher Mark Chen explores how the morally complex dilemmas in The Witcher allow players to think critically about their own morality.

When I played The Witcher last year, I was struck by how morally ambiguous the scenarios I was presented with were. It was impossible to "game the system" and second-guess what the devs defined as the good or evil choices. In fact, the choices were often equally compelling and forced me to think critically about my own moral code.

Just to bounce off of Nels' discussion of Kohlberg's stages of moral development, the scenarios in The Witcher are similar to the ones used by Kohlberg, Gilligan, Haidt, and other psychologists to explore moral development in students. There have been, however, many criticisms of Kohlberg's work. These critiques focus on his problematic emphasis of societal structures and a kind of logical, reasoned argument for his later stages. Gilligan and Attanucci (1988), for example, claim that this devalues "morals and ethics of care" and, in turn, offered an alternative stage model of moral development for females. Rather than going into all of the pros and cons of these models of development, however, I would like to support what Nels said in that games like The Witcher are great at offering authentic experiences. These experiences may even be more situated than the hypothetical situations that Kohlberg and others used in their studies.

What I mean is that players build a relationship with the characters they play, and, through the embodied experience of the ongoing narrative of the game, the relationships and moral choices are deeply situated and contextual. In addition to being grounded in real experience, players have the option of trying out the different options available to them with respect to where the narrative goes, and they can experience the implications and consequences of these choices rather than simply imagining them.

And The Witcher did this very well. In other words, I was forced to sit back and think about my thinking and actions whenever a new dilemma presented itself and assess whether these actions were consistent with how I should act in relation to some sort of ideal I had in my head. I was able to align my play with who I thought my character should be. When I mention “my character” I mean both Geralt, the on-screen character I controlled, and myself-as-Geralt in a sort of cybernetic relationship. This mirrors what Jim Gee describes as “projected identity” in his writings about playing a half-elf in Arcanum (2003). The actions made and roles taken in a RPG are limited by the abilities of the in-game character, the abilities of the player, and the imaginings of the player about who the character should be or how he or she should behave.

In sum, the value that games add is not just the fact that they offer rich experiences to explore morality (and possibly help people develop moral reasoning), but that they offer exploration of different identities and different morality paths. Presenting players with a sandbox to explore real, complex, gray issues and modeling realistic consequences are what will make games mature.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gilligan, C., & Attanucci, J. (1988). Two moral orientations: Gender differences and similarities. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 34, 223-237.

*This post contains similar ideas in a longer review Mark wrote on The Witcher for E-Learning. (Chen, M. (2008). Moral ambiguity in The Witcher: A game review. E-Learning 5(3), 358-365.)

Mark Chen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington-Seattle, College of Education, who uses ethnographic methods emphasizing personal narrative and experience to study groups of gamers in the massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft. Prior to his doctoral work, Mark was the webmaster and a web game developer for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, OR. You can read more about Mark on his blog.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kohlberg's Moral Development Comes to the Mushroom Kingdom

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson argues that game developers can use Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development to create more compelling games.

The primary distinguishing feature between escapist entertainment (of any form) and more serious media is the latter's potential to effect the audience long after the experience is concluded. More serious, more adult media encourages introspection, a different way of looking at the world or poses difficult questions. But, according to the research of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, moral questions posed by media may also help us refine how we reason about moral decisions.

Wikipedia has a decent summary of Kohlberg's stages, and a more in-depth one is available here, but the basics can be summarized as consisting of three levels with two stages in each (this is game-ish already!).

The first level is "Pre-Conventional Reasoning," with stage one being "obedience and punishment orientation." Moral reasoning at this stage really consists only of "what is good is that which will not get me punished." Stage two is "self-interest orientation."

Level two is "Conventional Reasoning," with stage three being "interpersonal accord and conformity." At this stage, morality is evaluated based on the impact decisions will have on relationships with others. Stage four is "authority and social-order maintaining orientation," where individuals obey laws and social conventions because they understand their importance in maintaining a functional society. Here morality is largely dictated by an outside force and viewed as relatively unchanging.

Level three, "Post-Conventional Reasoning," hosts stage five, which is "social contract orientation." Here, morality is recognized as general principles agreed upon to promote individual and community welfare. Those that lose their utility can be changed or removed. Stage six is "universal ethical principles," where morality is reasoned through a framework of abstract moral principles, and is somewhat Kantian in nature.

The interesting thing about Kohlberg's stages is he found everyone begins at stage one and move through stages (none are skipped) as they age until stopping at one of the stages. Kohlberg studied a set of subjects over 20 years and at the end of the experiment, about 30% were reasoning at stage 3, about 60% at stage four and about 10% at stage 5. Other research has confirmed a similar distribution amongst a larger sample group.

So, with that lengthy preface complete, what does this have to do with games? Kohlberg believed that development of moral reasoning depended upon a) general cognitive maturation and b) opportunities to confront moral issues, especially when discussing them with someone at a higher stage of reasoning. Games, I believe, can serve as a springboard for the latter in a way other media cannot. Discussing why a character in a film made a decision and theorizing about alternatives is one thing. But discussing why I made a different decision from you and examining our relative consequences is something else entirely.

Most "ethical" decisions in games are truly ludicrous in scope. When the decision is between driving a bus full of school children to the ice cream shop or locking the doors and setting the bus on fire, the rightness of this decision is obvious to anyone at any stage of moral reasoning. If we want to promote more sophisticated moral reasoning in games, the very first thing we have to do is jettison these absurd "dilemmas." While the intent may be to heighten drama by raising the stakes, it really has the opposite effect and deflates any chance of substantive thoughtful reasoning.

James Portnow wrote a great opinion piece on Gamasutra last week about moral decisions in games. One of his recommendations is losing the universal good/evil slider and I wholeheartedly agree. What this does is trap players at the 4th stage of moral reasoning (at best), where morality is derived entirely from an external source and wholly static. By creating distinct moral relationships with different groups, players have the ability to explore different moral frameworks.

There's an important distinction here. Games are not meant to serve as a substitute for moral instruction, nor is that what Kohlberg's stages are about. It's not about what moral decisions to make, it's about how they're made. Games can provide a more engaging way confront moral issues and discuss them.

If we believe games have the ability to teach and inform, and I believe that they do, we should seek out and embrace opportunities to post interesting questions to players. Especially when we can do so in ways that other media cannot. But the types of conversations games ask players to have are shallow and based on unsophisticated moral reasoning. By creating more substantive decisions, we won't just be creating more compelling stories, we might actually be encouraging moral development in some players.

I don't agree with the sentiment that games universally infantilize players, but in this regard, it's pretty hard to dispute that the moral reasoning games ask players to use is that of, at best, teenagers. Kohlberg's stages give us pretty clear evidence for the benefits of posing moral questions with more depth and nuance. We have an opportunity to make a real difference here. All we have to do is seize it.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49.

Friday, July 17, 2009

GDAM Mature Games Podcast

In this podcast, writer and game designer Sande Chen, writer and designer C.J. Kershner, and game designer Ryon Levitt discuss the topic of Mature Games.

[Spoiler Alert: This podcast discusses aspects of the games, Passage and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, that you may want to experience on your own.]

To download the podcast: go here.

Games Referenced: The Witcher, Imagination is the Only Escape, Frontlines: Fuel of War, Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto 4, Passage, Guitar Hero, Pong, Space Invaders, Habbo Hotel, Six Days in Fallujah, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Starcraft 2, System Shock, Persona 3, Mass Effect

Quote From Podcast:
Are you guys familiar w/ the Starcraft 2 teaser/trailer? ... I think a lot of games do the exact opposite, where they have the suit of armor already there and just a big hose comes down and squirts a different kind of meat into the armor. You've got the grizzled space marine meat, the black drill sergeant meat, the wise-ass skater punk meat, but they're basically all just space marines.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

C.J. Kershner is a New York City-based writer and designer. He has written for GameSpy, Opium Magazine, and Monkeybicycle. He currently works at Kaos Studios and can be reached at
this e-mail address.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for KOEI, currently working at their main branch in Yokohama, Japan. He is currently working on his first title as a designer. Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

August 2009: Single-Play Sessions

August 2009's topic, Single-Play Sessions, was submitted by game designer and writer Andrea Phillips.

She writes:

Games are designed with the understanding that each player needs to meet some requirements to get the best play experience. Hardware specifications and age or maturity level, for example, are even listed on the box. But game design also makes implicit assumptions about a less obvious requirement – the time commitment we ask from our players each time they sit down to play. This assumption can quietly influence saving systems, level size, challenge difficulty and more.

In a world where the average gamer is in the mid-30s and an ever-growing number of gamers juggle their spare time with the demands of career and family, the assumption that a gamer will sit and play however many hours it takes to get to the end of a level, a match, a mission or a save point is a risky proposition. The perception that a game is asking more than a player can give can limit the audience. The time has come for game designers to be mindful of the session length we’re asking from out players. But the act of fine-tuning a game with the player’s amount of free time in mind can have a far-reaching effect – doubly so for multiplayer games.

• How long can you reasonably expect a player to play in a single gaming session? What about for a multiplayer game?
• How much should a player be able to accomplish in that amount of time?
• How does that reasonable session length change depending on the game genre and demographic your game is trying to reach?
• Is a 20-minute gaming session necessarily different in quality from a three-hour session? Why and how?
• What does designing with shorter vs. longer sessions in mind mean? Do shorter sessions sacrifice narrative tension or game difficulty? Do longer sessions risk frustrating or completely losing many potential players?
• Does giving the player complete control over session length hinder your ability as a designer to effectively pace the action and narrative flow of your game?
• Does the ability to restore a save point from anywhere in a level, boss encounter, or match – even during a cut scene – run too high a risk of unbalancing a game system? Is this risk higher for some genres?
• Does allowing the player to save from anywhere completely solve the problem of the gamer with limited time, anyway?
• How do you fine-tune your game design to maximize narrative power, preserve pacing and game balance, and limit unnecessary player frustration?

Andrea Phillips is a freelance alternate reality game designer and writer, and has worked on projects like the award-winning Perplex City, True Blood’s Blood Copy campaign, and Channel 4’s She is the chairman of the IGDA ARG SIG. She writes about games and digital culture at Deus Ex Machinatio.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reflections on Train

In this article, writer and game designer Sande Chen discusses her experience with Train and asks what happens when the player isn't providing context to the game experience.

[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses aspects of Train that you may
want to experience on your own.]

As I write this and think about Train, I am a passenger on a train. As a modern-day commuter, I have nothing in common with those train passengers of the Holocaust but I can imagine their anguish and fear. I can feel an overwhelming sadness, so much that it makes me sick in the stomach. I share no cultural background with these people, and yet, I felt an immense empathetic response when Brenda Brathwaite explained the design decisions behind her Holocaust game, Train.

I was at the 2009 Game Education Summit, where I had co-presented with Dr. Ricardo Rademacher on the topic of Creativity, Constraints, and Compromises. The program had mentioned that Brathwaite's board games were on display in a nearby room. Curious, I went to see them on the last day of the conference.

I had just picked up the typewritten rules for Train when Brathwaite walked in with some conference attendees and proceeded to talk about Train. Here, in this intimate setting, we were given a detailed look at the game by the game designer herself.

Brathwaite explained that every detail behind Train had symbolic meaning, from the number of cards to the actions. She demonstrated to us how the pawns were purposely too large for the boxcar openings so that the player would have to really jam them in there. As more and more pawns were placed in the boxcar, they were no longer standing but crammed in every which way. Then, at the end of the game, the players needed to shake the boxcars to get the pawns out. It was this level of detail that made me admire Brathwaite as an artist.

At the beginning of the game, players may not have felt that these little yellow pawns represented real people. But when Brathwaite turns over the destination card and it says, “Auschwitz,” the realization sinks in. Some players, noted Brathwaite, do figure it out early and actively try to sabotage the trains, including their own.

My line of questioning begins: What if the destination card was for a lesser-known concentration camp? Do players, blissfully unaware, continue playing? After all, Train, taken out of context, might be a fun game. What if the players were from another culture? What if the event was something not as well-known or explosive? Or something outside of the culture? The Trail of Tears, maybe? The Cultural Revolution? I mentioned Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, and how audiences sometimes don’t feel the tragedy in the recitation of the names of the dead.

If we say that the game developer contributes 50% and the game player contributes 50% to the interactive experience, is it a lesser experience when the numbers don't add up? What if the player has nothing to contribute, meaning 0%? At what point is the authorial intent or meaning of a game lost?

For certain, if Brathwaite had not mentioned it, I would not have caught that the typewriter was a Nazi-era machine. At times, I felt that there ought to be a plaque on the wall explaining all of these nuances. This further cemented the notion in my mind that Train was really more of an art game.

Furthermore, even though the game could be played repeatedly, most people did not want to once they learned that they were sending their train passengers to concentration camps. Rather, Train is an interactive experience you undergo and the epiphany is part of the process.

There was a woman who did reset the board to play another round, Brathwaite recalled. The other players were aghast. The woman exclaimed, “What? It’s just a train station.” Whether the woman understood the game’s meaning or misunderstood it, we’ll never know.

I’m also not sure how children would react to this game. That’s why I think of it as a game for grown-ups. I know that as a youngster in elementary school, I knew nothing of the Holocaust. I had a playmate whose mother was German and one day, another playmate whispered to me, "You know what the Germans did, right? They made lampshades out of the Jews." I thought this statement was baffling. It really wasn’t until I read Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night that I began to understand about the Holocaust.

But my questions were answered in a way. As Brathwaite packed away Train, two people were trying out Siochan Leat (aka The Irish Game). When Brathwaite had spoken about this game, I could tell that she felt very strongly about it. All I knew about Siochan Leat was that it depicted an event in Irish history when the British invaded Ireland. I could see this very clearly as the game progressed because the British pieces were slowly displacing the Irish pawns. But since I knew next to nothing about Irish history, I found that I didn’t feel anything like I had with Train. Moreover, I thought that Siochan Leat might be a fun strategy game to play over and over. I didn’t know the historical context behind Siochan Leat and therefore, I only saw the game.

Photographs courtesy of Kristan J. Wheaton.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She
is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

August 2009 Poll

Please come and vote for the August 2009 topic!

You'll see the poll to the side. The choices are:
  • Cheats
  • Single-Play Sessions
  • Gaming the Game Developers (Using Game Design Principles to Motivate/Inspire Co-Workers)
Please vote by July 12, 2009!