On Brenda Brathwaite’s TED Talk

Some of you might know that I had TED talks. They’re generally a method for telling “uncomfortable truths” with surprising solvency strategies couched in corporate language that tries to sell us a brave new future. What I am saying is that I think TED talks might be the heart of evil.

But there is something good living in Satan’s bosom. I was linked this talk by Brenda Brathwaite about using games to teach her daughter about the middle passage, one of the most horrifying things in history.

Take ten minutes to watch the video.

Two things:

1. This is a beautiful way of teaching horrible events. The culture that I come out of has a simple method of dealing with problematic history: pretend it didn’t happen. It is easy to forget that the house I am in right now is built on land that was forcefully taken from its indigenous inhabitants. Violence is everywhere, and sometimes you only have to peel off thirty years of time to be covered in the blood of recent history. In the event that we don’t forget about that violence, we make ironic statements about it, distancing ourselves from our culpability in the violence. So when Brathwaite creates Train, she is doing a great job of putting people in specific positions, making them understand the kinds of horrible decisions that kill, displace, and disenfranchise people.


2. Like everything, there is a counterargument, and I think this one is particularly damning: all of Brathwaite’s games put the player in the role of a controlling body. The New World makes the player into a slave ship overseer. Train turns the player into a Nazi. So the games make us recoil in horror, but it isn’t a horror that is dependent on the experiences of people who are being controlled; we become horrified because we are slave masters or Nazis and those people are BAD. Both games are, in essence, math problems–there is input and output and solving the problem makes you realize how fucking evil The Third Reich was. There is no disruption of subjectivity, no deterritorialization of the self in the face of the suffering that the Africans on the ship faced.

Ultimately, I think that suffering needs to be highlighted, and the way you do that is by putting the player in the place of the subjected individual, not the controlling entity. Emotive connections are where real horror, and thus longterm learning and change, take place. Eventually, the knowledge that you were a Nazi for thirty minutes goes away. But the feeling of being in the cars, the cramped space, that would never go away. That would make you change your life. I think games can do that, and while Brathwaite is doing something great and amazing, I think we need a different approach.

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3 Responses to On Brenda Brathwaite’s TED Talk

  1. BooDoo says:

    There’s something to be said for games allowing different players to inhabit asymmetrical roles, putting both the systemic imbalance and actor complicity into play, a la Sociopoly (http://www.nyu.edu/classes/persell/aIntroNSF/Documents/TSJessup2001.pdf)

    The impact here on all players can be more meaningful than having either the subjugated abstracted away to chits on a board, or the oppressors embodied entirely in the rules/game designer.

    Of course depending on the scope of allowable interaction, you may get into Stanford Prison Experiment territory; best to proceed with care when intentionally designing and encouraging an imbalance of power between individuals in any context.

  2. Enjoyed your comments and kind words on my games. Great observations. With Train, there is actually another layer beyond the first. The first is will people blindly follow rules, even if they are removed from a Nazi typewriter? The second layer is can you work within the rules as written to free everyone once you realize what it happening? That is possible and it often happens.

    • kunzelman says:

      I had no idea that the player could play against the game in Train. I would love an opportunity to see it played. Thank you for the comment! I love your work and I am very, very interested in seeing the final product of your new project.

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