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
Ludosphere.

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