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Brenda Brathwaite: When Game Design is More Art than Science

Brenda Brathwaite is a professor of game development and interactive design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She's used her game design skills to create games to teach about tragedies and has received an impressive amount of press for her game, Train.

Train is a simulation of the Holocaust, requiring players to transport yellow pawns on model trains. The game does not overtly state what will happen to those pawns — in fact, it does not even make the underlying idea of the game obvious, omitting any mention of the word 'Holocaust. Instead, part way through the game, players realize the situation when they flip cards to discover the destination of each train to find that each is headed to a concentration camp.

While the game itself seems to provide a meaningful experience for players, I read a critique of Brathwaite's methodology recently that really struck home. Sirlin posted the following as part of a larger discussion on a presentation by Brathwaite:

To me, making a game is about ending up with a thing that is "good," whatever that means to the designer (or to the player?). But it's not about any particular backend production process. If I made a game about a modern tragedy and I told you I typed the rules on a real Bush Administration computer, would that matter? I think mostly it doesn't. If anything, using a real Nazi typewriter goes against the ability to
actually make copies of this game and put into players hands. But making copies of this game isn't the goal either, says Brenda. She made only one and said she wouldn't make any more. (I think she later agreed to make a total of 6 for very special exhibits or people, not sure on that.) The whole deal about the typewriter signals to us that the piece of art here INCLUDES the development process. That's kind of out-of-bounds to me, in that we're only supposed to consider the game as a final piece of work. I don't really care how Halo was made, only Halo is good. But Brenda isn't really making a game, is she? She's making a piece of art. I think Train is supposed to be about not only the final product, but how it was made. By the way, games can be art, but not all pieces of art are games.

At what level is board game design more art than science? Is a game truly a game if you can't replicate it?



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