Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) is an interdisciplinary centre for research/ creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art


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Train wreck

Posted by wbarobinson

In tandem with DiGRA 2013, Georgia Tech and the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) presented a collection of games designed by women. Dubbed XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design and curated by Celia Pearce, Cindy Poremba, John Sharp, Adam Rafinski, and Akira Thompson, this exhibit housed a wide of array of games for PC, console, and analogue. What I had forgotten was that Brenda Brathwaite’s Train was there, arguably the most influential game I had never played. I have presented it at several conferences and taught it to my students in class, but because there is only one copy and it is physical, I had never managed to play it. I attended the show, which was catering to DiGRA conference members that night. I played Kaho Abe’s Ninja Shadow Warrior and walked along the corridor, browsing the set of posters on different classic games which featured female designers. Upon entering the main room I still didn’t notice the train tracks in the middle of the space. I walked around the room, making sure not to miss anything. When I finally turned away from the wall, my heart skipped a beat. I ran to the Nazi typewriter sitting in the center of the room and eagerly read all the rules. Before that point, I had only heard about the game’s rules second hand, understanding their gist but not their detail. The devil was in those details as plenty of missing bits of information became obvious. One of Train’s most famed rules is that “the game is over when it ends,” what I had missed until playing is that there is no win condition. While points can be scored, Brathwaite’s game does not value these points. This shifted my outlook on the piece as a work of political art as well as my own board game art design practice. While Brathwaite’s game works well in a gallery space with casual gamers who do not know the “twist,” my own work assumes that players are going to look for win conditions and seek them out over repeated plays. The players in our session were Felan Parker, game and film studies PhD out of Toronto, Espen Aarseth, founding game studies scholar working at ITU Copenhagen, and myself. While I did my best to score as high an amount as possible in a timely fashion, Felan went for a different point scoring strategy and Espen basically just messed around. We all knew what the game was about but we all decided to play in our own way. Because each of us knew that the game was a Nazi logistics simulator, where one tries to bring as many Jews to concentration camps, we found ways to subvert the game. I can safely say that not one of us had the same goals and as a consequence of that, not one of us was playing the same game. In the end, Brathwaite’s work is a toy and a simulator, not a game to be gamed. The whole point is that one might mistakenly try to “game it” not knowing that they cannot win, only to realize the folly of their ways. In this way, I felt the object fell short in large part because none of us behaved like the ideal player would. This was of course due to the game assuming one would misread the rules and rely on social conventions.