Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Using Games To Teach About Social Problems

Raph Koster linked to an interesting article about Brenda Brathwaite's attempt to create games that illustrate issues such as slavery and the Holocaust.

It is an interesting read, but I find myself wondering just how successful these games really are. There are two issues I see: the rules often emphasize the wrong aspects, and thus can be subverted; and the fact that games are often isomorphic to other games.

For the first issue, about emphasizing the wrong aspect, consider the description of the initial slavery games:
Brathwaite assembled a collection of tiny wooden figures, then had her daughter group them into "families." After her daughter was finished, she picked them up by the handful and placed them on a makeshift boat. Her daughter was confused: Why would she take the parents but leave the baby? Why wouldn't brothers stay with their sisters? "No one wants to go," Brathwaite explained. That's when it started to click.

Then Brathwaite devised a primitive resource management mechanic. It took 10 turns for the boat to cross the Atlantic. The boat had 30 units of food. Each turn, the player had to roll a d6, and reduce their food stores by that number. By the trip's halfway point, it was clear to her daughter that her "cargo" wouldn't make it. It wasn't a "fun" game by any means, but it served a different purpose: It helped her daughter intuitively understand the emotional experience of the slave trade, a lesson that numbers on a chalkboard couldn't provide.

In the first example, what if the player made a conscious attempt to keep families together? Doing that defeats the moral lesson that you are trying to teach. Or in the second, suppose the player figured out the right balance between slaves and food stores such that she could keep the "cargo" alive till the end of the journey? Is that winning? Or would it teach that slavery is okay if you take proper care of the slaves?

If you change the rules of the game such that it is impossible to survive the trip, does that show that slavery is evil, or does it really show that you rigged the game to ensure the "right" outcome?

The rules of a game can simulate many things. However, I'm not sure they can get across fundamental moral points like the idea that it is wrong for one human to own another.

The second concern is that game rules can be thought of as just problems that can be solved. Such problems are often isomorphic to different problems. That means the underlying rules, constraints, and solutions are the same, but the context is what determines the morality.

For example, consider the game Train described in the article:
The object of Train is to get a collection of people from Point A to Point B by placing them in a boxcar and sending them on their merry way. Played among a group of three people, players draw cards from a pile that can impede other players or free them from existing obstacles. The first player to reach the end of the line wins.

The destination? Auschwitz.

Now, the article doesn't really expand on this, but the underlying problem is a logistics problem like the ones faced by airline, trucking and other transportation companies every day. The shock comes from the context: that the people being transported are Jews and the destination is a death camp. The context is very important, but I don't see what the *game* part actually adds.

Or let's look at the second slavery example again:
Then Brathwaite devised a primitive resource management mechanic. It took 10 turns for the boat to cross the Atlantic. The boat had 30 units of food. Each turn, the player had to roll a d6, and reduce their food stores by that number. By the trip's halfway point, it was clear to her daughter that her "cargo" wouldn't make it.

Let's change the context. Instead of slaves, let's say the boat contains refugees fleeing a city that is being destroyed. As they cross the ocean, they realize that they don't have enough food for everyone to survive. Now the lesson the game teaches is about hard choices, and maybe even about the nobility of sacrifice. It's diametrically opposite from the evil of slavery, but the underlying game mechanics are identical in both cases.

The context, or the "fluff", determines morality, not the game rules. But if you're using a game to teach the moral concept, and someone sees through the game to the underlying isomorphism, that weakens the lesson. It makes it easier to declare the two situations equal, to justify actions taken.

Games are problems where you need to find a solution while being bound by rules and constraints. These rules and constraints are the most important parts, more important than the context that surrounds them. As such, games are a poor medium for conveying lessons about morality and social problems. Rather than focusing on the moral issue, the game becomes about trying to achieve an acceptable outcome by outwitting the rules.


  1. While I generally agree with what you're saying, the way you rip the first item apart makes no sense:

    The daughter grouped families. The mother then destroyed them by taking people 'by the handful' (which really should read: at random). There is no way the daughter could have rigged the game to keep "families" together.

    You then go after the food shortage thing... which you again interpret wrong: there is no good solution. There is no way to win. Almost every single time, people will starve. Again, no way to game the system (other than using special dice).

    You seem to get the concept right further down in your article. Which surprises me that you'd get it wrong up top...

    That said: yes, the games seem pretty stupid to me. The first game seems to have rigged mechanics, which after seeing once I'd refuse to play again.

    The Train Game sounds like fun until someone wins, at which point you get a shock! (OMG, I was just trying to win so I could kill people!!! *cry*) After the first time there's no shock factor. If you truely believe you're transporting people to the death camp, you won't play again. If you don't care... you'll ignore the ending text and claim victory of just 'reaching the end'.

    *shrug* Games are meant to be played more than once. They should have replay value. None of these do. That makes them shitty games.

  2. Well, I maybe reading more into the examples given, but to me games are about making choice. For the slavery examples, the only possible choice is who to take on the boat, and maybe how much food to take.

    Otherwise there is no choice, and hence no game, just some sort of performance art. I'm just pointing out that even under the constraints of the game, it is possible to make choices which defeat the purpose of the game, but are still morally wrong.

    For example, the second slavery game essentially says "slavery is bad because many slaves died on the boat trip due to lack of supplies." That's what the game mechanic emphasizes. The easy solution is to take less people and more supplies.

  3. Ah, but the slavery game quite explicitly was not about choice. The only thing the 'player' got to do was emotionally invest in "creating families" and then watch people die as the player rolled a D6.

    It was a game designed on the fly for a young child in order to teach that child about the harsh realities of life. The target audience was not people like us. It was a young child.

    Think of it like snakes and ladders. There are no choices there. You roll a D6 and live with the consequences. Luckiest player wins. Are you going to accuse snakes and ladders of not being a game?

    So yeah, all I'm saying is that you've made something up and then attributed it to someone else so that you can criticize it. Seems unfair to me. Rather irresponsible 'journalism'.

  4. Please note, its not that I disagree with the overall message you're trying to convey, but rather with the method you're using to convey it.

  5. ralph kostner, the person who brough us Star Wars Galaxies. As soon as I see that the whole article becomes unreadable

  6. Very interesting post.

    There is a time honored tradition of using games as teaching tools. It sounds to me as though both of these games worked for the people who played them.

    I'm not seeing the replayability but maybe that isn't the point.

    I'll think about this some more. Probably blog about it sometime also.

  7. Tharok, I don't consider Snakes and Ladders to be a game. It's an activity, but since there's no choice, no decision points, I don't think it's a game. It is an activity that superficially "looks" like a board game, but I don't think it actually is a game.

    You are right though, I'm not critiquing the slavery "games" as explained. I'm extrapolating them into what a real game would be, utilizing the decision points the slavers made. Those decisions are the ones being illustrated after all. Maybe that is unfair to Ms. Braithwaite.

    I still stand by the idea that complaining that a Rule where families must be separated,or insufficient food must be stocked, is a valid complaint about the "game." This complaint completely misses the point about slavery. My contention is that games will naturally contain this flaw, where complaints can focus on the trivia of the rules, ignoring the deep moral point underneath.

  8. The second game is flawed in a major way. Regardless of how many slaves you were carrying food consumption is still 1d6? You could make the trip on luck carrying 1000 slaves or fail in 6 turns carrying 1.

    The Train Game after you play it once becomes a matter of letting somebody else "win" at being the bad guy. You use impediment cards on yourself while using clear cards on the other guy.

    Games can be great teaching tools but have to be designed well.

  9. Games are excellent teaching tools. We probably all agree with this. Rohan earlier made a good post about accidentally motivating your players incorrectly that I think is a good preview for this post.

    It is possible to teach about social problems through games but since social problems often have no correct answer the game is probably too hard to design properly. Blizzard has spent millions of dollars on wrath just experimenting with us. (see torture quest brouhaha)

    The slaver game is a great example. Instead of teaching that slavery is morally wrong it has the player empathize and perhaps justify the slavers actions.

    Also, FYI it was by design that the slavers ships didn't have enough provisions or space. The slavers did a cost analysis on how many would die on each voyage despite this.