Tactility and Ambiguity: The Mechanics and Message behind Train

Before I begin, I have to apologize for getting this out so late. I played Train about a month ago now, but it’s been a bit of a rough and busy time, making it easy to get preoccupied with easy things rather than tackling difficult problems. But I suppose it takes time to reflect, so there’s that as well.

Now some people might be quick to jump and state that “Train has been out for two years now! This is old news! Tell me something I haven’t heard before!” Well, that may be fine and good for reviews and game news where the latest announcement was old two days before it made headlines and which is about getting information to help people make buying decisions before they even knew they wanted something. Criticism though pays little heed to time – a critical analysis of Myron’s Discobulous or Fellini’s 8 1/2 is still important even though these works were created decades – or centuries – ago.

So this is not news. It is not a review. It is a critique and analysis of a game that seems to have been the most important work to come out in the past three years and I feel deserves a little more analysis from people who have played it first-hand than it has received. Still, there have been plenty of critics who got here before me, so I ‘publish’ this at the risk of saying something that’s been said before.

This is also in draft format, so perhaps a blog is a perfect venue for it at the moment. It’s also about 4500 words long, but hopefully will keep you interested for at least a fraction of that space.

Tactility and Ambiguity: The Mechanics and Message behind Train

Draft 03-07-10

Devin Monnens

I have played the most talked-about game of 2009. Everyone – the critics and the pundits – has talked about this game, though many commentators have never played it. This game has not been played because only one copy of it exists in the world, and that physical copy is usually kept in the artist’s house in California (though sometimes it is displayed at art exhibits or presented at the University of Southern California’s game design program). I am sure you have heard of it. This game is called Train, and it is a board game designed by Brenda Brathwaite. It is a game about the Holocaust.

train-image-crop

Train’s subject matter is the main reason it has garnered so much criticism. People don’t like talking about one of the most horrific things human beings have done to one another, which should probably be a crime in itself – after all, how can we hope to prevent such horrors from recurring if we ignore them and think only of more pleasant things? At the same time, people who hear about Train are skeptical because any game that is about the Holocaust has to be respectful to the victims, a point made more controversial in that Brenda makes the player take the role of a Nazi controlling the trains sending people to the death camps.

I suppose I should have begun this article with a big ‘SPOILER ALERT’ in flashing red lights. You see, one element of Train – and perhaps its most-discussed gameplay element – is the fact that many players do not realize when they begin that the game is about the Holocaust. “Ha-ha!” shout both critics and pundits alike. “Train is nothing more than a cheap dramatic reveal! One moment, we’re off to Disneyland, and the next we’ve arrived in Auschwitz!”

“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what game they are playing.”

(Of course many prisoners had no idea where they were being taken while Nazi lies and propaganda presented the camps as retreats; in this regard, Train’s ‘reveal’ is thematically – and to an extent, historically – accurate.)

This reading, I argue, is flawed and seems largely the result of insufficient coverage of the game (reduced in large part to the fact that only one copy exists and fewer people have played it than have played Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril). This argument also becomes moot if we are to take the manifesto of the game design collective Tale of Tales seriously, whose first point states: “Games do not have spoilers.” Simply, you can still experience Train knowing ‘the reveal’.

I played Train recently at the Art History of Games conference in Atlanta where the game was exhibited along with several other works of game art commissioned specially for the conference. I had read about the game before, so its theme and contents were not a surprise. In this regard, my only disclaimer is that I was unable to play without the experience of someone who had never heard of Train before. But more on this later.

Train is not an easy game to play. This is not difficulty in the sense of I Wanna Be the Guy, which rakes gamers over the coals of masochism; this is difficult in the sense of content. Further, Train is even harder to play once the player knows the game’s subject matter. Taking that first step to decide you want to play is difficult. For me, I was reluctant to start because somehow it felt I might be made complicit. My session was made easier because I got to participate in atrocity with the help of Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey. I got to play Train with Tale of Tales, and I don’t think the game would have been the same with anyone else. I say this not to boast or make them complicit, but to reinforce the difficulty it takes to begin playing Train and how a good play group can significantly alter the experience.

From a quick overview of the rules, Train may seem little more than a racetrack board game (or “race game” as defined by David Parlett) where players race to deliver the most passengers the fastest, with a ‘surprise finish’ wherein it is revealed the trains’ destinations are concentration camps.

Train arises in a field that is now becoming dominated by the concept of ‘the mechanic is the message’ – that a game’s meaning is derived solely through its game mechanics, or the rules and rule-systems (dynamics). In fact, the series of six games in which Train is but one piece is called The Mechanic is the Message and was built with this concept in mind. Because of this, the tokens in Train – the prisoners, the boxcars, the track, the concentration camps, and the event cards – can all be represented in abstract form, and meaning can be derived from it. However, the argument goes that Train is formally similar to a game of Backgammon, and so lacks the type of procedural rhetoric found in a game such as Ian Bogost’s Airport Security. In this sense, a shallow reading of the rules makes the game’s meaning arise solely through the representative level, that without the setting of the Holocaust, Train has no meaning. So sayeth the critics.

But to read Train solely from the perspective of rules is to ignore two major sources of meaning that are arguably only possible through the game’s analog nature: tactility and player interactions with ambiguity. As shall be seen, it is these two elements which prevent Train from being adequately expressed as a digital game and why it simply isn’t possible to talk about Train solely by discussing its ‘reveal’ (which in fact, this ignores a large part of the experience).

The tactile level centers on the people, abstractly human-shaped wooden tokens. When the game is initially set up, the people are in straight rows, regimented two-by-two (Brenda used a business card to line them up; I’d like to say it was John Romero’s, but that’s fantasy). The order inherent to these rows is two-fold, on the one hand suggesting the herding of prisoners under armed guard into box cars, while on the other suggesting the fragile stability of the Jewish community in 1930s Germany. When a person is grasped from the ranks, these orderly lines are scattered, disrupted in a strangely violent act.

The people are then loaded onto box cars not quite large enough for them to fit inside smoothly; the people are either popped in shotgun-style or stuffed in haphazardly. The box cars are light, made of flimsy plastic and easy to skip off the tracks, while the weightlessness of the wooden people makes their solidity fleeting, their existence fragile: Train would feel completely different if the box cars had been made from metal or sturdy wood, the people die-cast metal, and this feel would be completely lost in the digital realm.

The tactility of these small, fragile tokens and the mechanic of a round peg in a square hole reinforce the cheapness which life has taken on. Pieces are knocked over, peace and symmetry disrupted: simply the act of selecting a person to load onto the train is violent with the act of hand-grasping-piece making the player complicit. The same mechanic taken in a differently colored setting – transporting passengers to Disneyland, for example – would communicate a similar message of the lack of human dignity and people’s reduction to mere numbers: people are reduced to cattle whether they are being herded into theme parks or concentration camps, the primary difference being the people in the latter scenario did not choose their destination.

Despite its subject matter, Train is also a complex game of strategy for up to three players. Each turn, the player is given several dynamic choices: roll the die and load that many passengers onto the car, roll the die and move the car forward (note you have to decide what you want to do before you roll), draw a card, or play a card. Each action card has its own use – derail a car to disrupt the other player, have a car switch tracks, block the rail lines, or double the movement speed for one turn. This strategy means there is good balance between the dynamic of gaining resources (more passengers on the train car) and moving towards the end versus disrupting other players’ gameplay to prevent them from winning.

Within this tactile and strategic narrative space, the second key meaning behind Train arises. Games are not static, represented by rules and tokens, cutscenes and narrative: they are experienced. And the central experience behind Train is the interaction of players within the narrative of the Holocaust and the interpretation of rules. Here, though the game is playable, its rules are largely ambiguous.

A cursory glance of the rules makes it obvious that Train’s rules are not clear-cut. They contain phrases such as “half the prisoners refuse to reboard” and “Train ends when it ends.” Simultaneously, Train is in conflict with our cultural interpretations of how games work: why is the game’s implicit goal to transport passengers to concentration games? A quick discussion with Brenda will reinforce these facts.

Normally, we would consider such ambiguous and contradictory rules to be flawed game design. After all, players won’t understand how to play a game without having to interpret ambiguous rules. We teach our students how to write good, understandable game rules because the designer will not be there to tell players “how they are supposed to play the game.” Brenda Brathwaite knows how to design games. She has been doing so for over 20 years. Train’s rules are supposed to be ambiguous because that ambiguity is central to its meaning:

Like tactility, ambiguity is key to how Train is played and interpreted.

As such, it is perhaps best to apply the lens of Stephen Sniderman’s “Unwritten Rules” to the game’s interpretation to determine how we deal with ambiguous and culturally defined rules. In this essay, Sniderman argues that unwritten cultural and social rules govern how a game is played as much as its formal rules. When does a game begin and end? How long should a player’s turn last before he spends an “unreasonable amount of time” deciding his move? What kind of etiquette should players have? These cultural components all come into play with Train.

For instance, during the game, I have to ask Auriea if she would be ok if I derailed her box car. (I like to think I would have derailed the car even if she said ‘no’). The reason I ask is because I want to ‘play nice’ and not offend my playmates, even if I am under the impression I am saving lives. You don’t ask the SS if they would be offended if you disrupted their operations in order to save the Jews. But you do play nice with your playmates and don’t make actions that could be considered as cheating or unfair if you want to continue playing with your friends in the future.

Though I do wonder if it is ok to cheat if you are cheating to save lives or the rule system itself is immoral. During the opening, Brenda explained to me some of the ambiguities behind the rules. For instance: “There is no rule that says you cannot take people from one person’s car and remove them or place them into your own.” Likewise, Brenda states that players could simply ask where the trains are going, an act where lifting up the Terminus cards to determine destination is discouraged as an ‘unwritten rule’ of play – but a valid question to ask. These possibilities are interesting in and of itself because while the rules do not disallow such action (and such action does not contradict any of the game’s explicit rules; ergo, it is not cheating), interfering with another person’s ‘property’ within gamespace is culturally disallowed. Cultural values – what is allowed and disallowed, what is expected and discouraged – are as much a part of how we play games as they are a part of society.

This interplay of cultural values can contribute to a game’s interpretation in other ways; as narrative and meaning are imbued on traditional games, these traditional cultural interpretations of games and play become centers of commentary themselves. One such unwritten rule, based on Jesper Juul’s definition of game, is that a game’s goal is valorized. Culturally, we associate achieving the goal in a game with success and reward. Good players are recognized for their skill. Professional athletes and Olympians become heroes while the schoolyard masters of Basketball gain reputation among their classmates. Train flips this on its head: a morally repugnant goal has become valorized by the nature of its ‘game-ness’. To win this game is to simultaneously lose. As Michael put it, loading more passengers onto the boxcars, “I don’t think I’m winning.” Or, to put it another way, simply because the game has a goal does not necessitate the morality and valorization of that goal, as critics of Manhunt 2 might argue.

In the right hands, valorization is a tool which illustrates the maturing nature of the medium, while its improper use can underscore a sense of childishness and perversity.

Sniderman also deals with ambiguity in rules. On the one hand, the ambiguity of unwritten rules cannot be thoroughly defined: how do we state what constitutes a ‘reasonable amount of time to make a move’ in Tic-Tac-Toe, for instance? Who defines what ‘reasonable’ is and how is it enforced? What are the consequences if the rule is not followed? Game rules must be logical and clear-cut, or else they cannot be enforced.

For instance, one of Train’s first rules states that the person ‘least likely to admit to something’ will go first – a perfect rule for those who are about to commit an atrocity. As a result, players must decide amongst themselves who best fits this description. In the case of our game, Michael voted himself with help from Aureia, who I assume knows him well enough to support his call. However, I still have a nagging suspicion that I might have been the one least likely to admit to something, depending on what that ‘something’ is, the context in which it may or may not be admitted, and who it is being admitted to. The paradox is that he who is “least likely to admit to something” probably wouldn’t admit even to that, lest it give away his cover.

The fact that we all agreed that Michael should go first highlights another unspoken rule of games: Rules must be agreed upon in order for the game to be played. When the rules of the game are unclear, players must agree on a new interpretation of the rules before play can continue.

This happens all the time in games where players are learning the rules. How far can my infantry units move through forested terrain, for instance? Check the rulebook. What happens when I roll doubles or land on the space another player occupies? Check the rulebook. It also happens when a unique play style emerges in a well-understood game, such as throwing the ball from behind the back board to score in Basketball. Play must stop until an agreement of the rules is reached.

With ambiguous rules though, the interpretation of the rules is not clear. Instead of ‘it takes two movement points for infantry units to enter a tile containing forest’, we might instead ask ‘how many trees on a tile determines whether that tile is forest or not? Does at least 20% of the tile have to be forested for it to count as a ‘forest tile’? Or is one tree enough to hinder movement?

One such rule clarification was required in Train regarding ownership of box cars. Who controls which box cars? Do players control a line of track or do they retain control of the cars they placed on the board? Thus, if a box car switches tracks, does the player who owns the track gain control of the box car or does the player who owns the car retain control, thus making it possible for players to block the track? (We decided on the latter, though this might simply have been the result of an over-eagerness to read ambiguity in the rules. This interpretation also meant that one player cannot have more than two box cars at a time).

Perhaps the most important ambiguous rule in Train regards derailing trains. When a Derail card is played, it causes the chosen car to “go off the tracks” and empties the passengers from that car. Half of the passengers return to the start while the other half “refuse to reboard.” On a formal level, the rules do not state whether the number who “refuse to reboard” is rounded up or down. However, the meaning of “refuse to reboard” is ambiguous. Why do they refuse? Do they dislike the conditions on the train or know where the train is going? Were they injured when the car derailed? And what happens to the passengers who “refuse to reboard”? Are they executed for refusing? Or did they escape to Denmark, as it is usually interpreted? The rules do not explicitly account for these kinds of limbo.

Another importantly ambiguous rule is that Train “ends when it ends.” This simultaneously evokes the magic circle and games’ sense of safety (as defined by Chris Crawford). Unlike reality, the magic circle of Train can be dissolved if players feel too uncomfortable with its subject matter (the game is no longer ‘safe’ for them). The Holocaust narrative of the game dissolves, leaving us in the real world – but we take the experiences we had with us to incorporate with our preexisting historical knowledge through the porous ring of the circle.

This rule is also notable because it makes explicit an implicit rule common with all games: the game is over when the players decide to stop playing it. Games are usually over when the algorithm has completed itself – when one side has won the game. In the case of Train, ending the game is an explicit rule that can be implemented at any point – even if it’s someone else’s turn. The message is that we can choose to stop participating in something we do not agree with and that this moral choice is part of society. However, the unwritten cultural rules of games also stress a need for completion – the attainment of a variable, quantifiable outcome. The act of prematurely aborting a game before its ‘completion’ is thus the act of a spoilsport (or outside influences, such as mother calling the kids to dinner). To use this rule, players must break with cultural expectations of play, and so the act of quitting the game one disagrees with is itself an act of rebellion – or an unspoken call for agreement.

Michael, Auriea, and I did not exactly ‘play Train to the finish’ – the needs of the conference arose again and we caught the last bus back to the auditorium. However, even here I have to wonder if there was ambiguity in this decision as well: did we quit because we had to leave, or because we chose for the game to end? And are outside circumstances identical with choice? Would we have continued play out of curiosity or have quit in disgust at our participation?

Additionally, the ambiguity of Train is two-fold because the game is played within a gallery setting, a place where visitors are not allowed to touch the artwork. The written and unwritten rules of a gallery determine how we view objects within the space (R. Mutt and “My kid could draw that!” being two examples) while identity cards determine our interpretation of the piece (and with some audiences more of our attention than the art itself). When a game is placed within the gallery, are viewers supposed to play it or let it sit?

Ironically, Train can only be played during certain parts of the day due to the danger that someone might steal or damage pieces of the game or it would not be properly set up. Interactivity and lack of security determines when it is possible to interact within this space in which interactivity is not expected. And we certainly aren’t supposed to smash the art with a hammer (even if the rules say so).

Train integrates such destructively tactile interactivity into its rules. During setup, players are encouraged to break the glass in a window on which the game board is set up. One observer smashes the glass, first hesitantly, then with greater spirit. I demurely observe from the sidelines that “Technically, the rules state you may do this on setup, and the game has technically already been set up.” I am also not sure if Brenda will be angry that someone has smashed her glass, due to her anxiety from the night before, yet realize that if you leave a hammer with some interactive art, someone is going to use the hammer.

A new kind of rule.

Checkhov’s Hammer.

What the kid doesn’t realize is that he just started the Holocaust within the gamespace by reenacting Krystallnacht. I suppose I am one of the silent idlers who sat by and let it happen. I, the holder of rules. Perhaps he is just another casualty of historical ignorance, along with patrons who give fail to give the fancy typewriters – actual SS typerwiters used to write orders for genocide – little more than a first glance. The typewriter, used to type the game’s rules, becomes another artifact of a space that requires context and interaction to fully understand.

Though rule ambiguity in Train is key to its interpretation and meaning, ambiguity is also key to atrocity.

In Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a train full of Jews arrives in a Polish village right before the end of the war. The mayor does not have the resources to take care of the Jews and has received no orders regarding what to do with them. He knows they are prisoners and that they should be sent to a concentration camp, but he doesn’t know what to do with them or how to get them to one. Repeated calls to local administrators refer him to other administrators who eventually tell him to contact SS headquarters. The young SS officer on the other line tells him to liquidate the prisoners. When the mayor asks how, perhaps in hope that he can avoid following the order, the SS officer suggests he use any means he sees fit. The mayor requests the orders be delivered in writing. The SS officer on the other end laughs, “These orders are never issued in writing,” thus sealing the fate of both the Jews and the mayor.

When the ‘orders’ are issued in Train, they are given with a level of ambiguity such that perhaps they were not even issued at all – though their intent is coldly suggested.

Ambiguity is thus central to the operation of the death camps, as it is to the operation of the game. The Jews can only be murdered if the mayor follows the unwritten orders – the unwritten rules of the game.

If games only progress through consensus, then a game’s operation is made possible only through consensual agreement about a rule’s interpretation. Ironically, genocide seems to occur through consensus as well – consensus of the common people with the will of the ruling power and perpetuated by the silent and the apathetic.

Yet Train also provides opportunity for players to speak out against atrocity. In addition to the rule that Train “ends when it ends”, the game also is over when no more passengers “can be delivered”. While this suggests that Train is over when all passengers have been delivered to the concentration camps, the ambiguity of these rules thus makes it possible to ‘win’ the game without sending a single passenger to the death camps. This situation can be reached in several ways:

1.Players choose to end the game before a single passenger is delivered.

2.All passengers have “escaped to Denmark” after “refusing to reboard”.

3.Players might decide that a derailed box car is no longer usable (this happened in our interpretation of the rules).

4.One or more players disrupts play, making it impossible for the other players to make a meaningful decision (for instance, by drawing all the event cards and blocking the rails while refusing to clear them).

5.No more passengers can be delivered because the players simply refuse to deliver any.

The downside to alternate goals might be that playing against the implicit goal somehow feels cheap. The danger here is that it could become empowering to imagine yourself rewriting history, preventing the Holocaust by saving Jews from the death camps within game space. One the one hand, this springs to mind the idea that history can be erased and we can imagine a world in which ten million people are saved from genocide, that the Holocaust can be prevented within a game. Or perhaps that we could have prevented it if we’d tried.

Upon reflection, I don’t feel this is what Train accomplishes. Instead, it suggests a stronger note: that those who can observe and have the bravery to oppose unjust or immoral rules can contribute their tiny bit to helping others. Schindler may not have been able to prevent the Holocaust, but he was able to save many Jews from their deaths. In a situation such as this, saving even one life may be counted a victory, however small.

Ultimately, this may be the basic message behind Train as a piece of game art that produces a message through game mechanics: In a game where the mechanic of gesture is as important to meaning as is the ambiguity of a game’s rules, the ability to create a meaningful gesture against injustice through player action becomes a message and perhaps an unspoken rule in itself.

Question the authority of the rules. Do not follow them blindly simply because you are told to.

If we are to consider the mechanic as the message, then we had better do our best to understand what that mechanic is trying to say – especially if the mechanic is unwritten.

Otherwise, we will remain stuck in a world where interpretation is limited to rules and objects defined on paper rather than experiences and dynamics emergent through play.

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7 Responses to “Tactility and Ambiguity: The Mechanics and Message behind Train”

  1. deserthat Says:

    Correction: Train is currently NOT in USC, but in the artist’s home. It will be displayed at USC for only a few days.

  2. Michaël Samyn Says:

    Thank you for playing Train with us.

    I was glad to have played it within the context of the Art History of Games symposium because the experience of Train became stronger for me when the rules started breaking, when it stopped being a game. I’m surprised that the idea of breaking the rules hasn’t been used more in artistic games. It makes perfect sense if you think of art as something that allows you to perceive the world in a different way. Following a ruleset strictly just doesn’t seem like a good recipe for that.

    Obviously, within the narrative of the Nazi regime in Germany, a ruleset by itself becomes a perverted idea. The Third Reich was very big on rules and law and order. In a way, the organization of any state is similar to a game design: a set of rules that you have to obey in order to play. If you don’t obey, you can’t play (and get thrown in jail, e.g.). By creating an environment where the player is encouraged to break the rules or make up new ones, Miss Brathwaite escapes the potential fascism implicit in games (by their demand to play by the rules).

    In the end, playing Train was most revealing to me in terms of understanding some of the experience that the normal German people, or the lower ranking soldiers, must have gone through during that period. It’s easy to paint Nazi Germany as 100% evil. But Train allows us to feel empathy for the millions of “law abiding citizens” who were as helpless as anybody else. The doctrine is established, the rules are laid out. And you sort of have to play. But since the rules don’t make sense to you, you apply them in a half-hearted way. You still do as you’re told, for form, but once in a while you get away with doing something that makes more sense (like helping innocent prisoners escape).

    Unlike most stories about the World War, Train is not about heroes and villains. It is about you and I and makes us think about what we would really have been doing in such situation. And that’s when art becomes great.

  3. The Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah « Desert Hat Says:

    […] in 1999, a year before this thesis was published). Of course, Brenda Brathwaite’s Train also addresses the issue of the Holocaust, suggesting there is more than one way to respectfully […]

  4. Week 16: Brenda Brathwaite and Train « Critical Game Studies Says:

    […] Monnens, Devin. (2010). “Tactility and Ambiguity – The Mechanics and Message behind Train.” Desert Hat. https://deserthat.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/tactility-and-ambiguity-the-mechanics-and-message-behind-t… […]

  5. Additional Readings on Train « Critical Game Studies Says:

    […] Tactility and Ambiguity: The Mechanics and Message behind Train […]

  6. azerty Says:

    azerty…

    […]Tactility and Ambiguity: The Mechanics and Message behind Train « Desert Hat[…]…

  7. Readings for Wednesday, March 21 « VA 306 – Intro to Game Design (Spring 2012) Says:

    […] Read “Tactility and Ambiguity: The Mechanics and Message behind Train“ […]

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