Brenda Brathwaite: Message in the Machine

Brenda Brathwaite, veteran video game designer, has been roaming the streets of San Mateo with blood-spattered hands. Her fingers and palms were stained while dyeing wood tokens for One Falls For Each of Us, an art installation about the displacement of Native Americans. Brathwaite, who loves symbolism, says her sullied hands represent her immersive game design process: “Sometimes the game sticks to me, in this case, quite literally!” But she also reads the image metaphorically: she has blood on her hands. “We are all part of it. I’m living on land that was taken from someone else and I don’t seem to have a problem with that.”

In 2009, Brathwaite received attention for “The Mechanic is the Message,” a series of six works that she calls “non-commercial board games.” Each piece turns a social trauma into a game: the slave trade, exploitation of Mexican workers, the trail of tears, political unrest in Ireland, gangs in Haiti, and the Holocaust.

This is a clear departure for Brathwaite, who has 29 years experience creating mass-market console and computer games. She has credits on over 20 titles, including the first console game with advertised sexual content (Playboy: The Mansion, 2005). An outspoken anti-censorship advocate who penned an industry guide on sex in gaming (Sex in Video Games, 2007), she is a female pioneer in the male dominated world of electronic game design.

Brathwaite embodies computer games. She punctuates her sentences with sound effects, like “boom!” and “bang!” and dissects her life into “levels,” and “rounds.” She is an industry celebrity, recognized at gaming conferences by the stream of Pikmin like groupies who follow behind her. Fans have been known to bow at her feet in honor of the Wizardry series of adventure role-playing games.

Brenda Braithwaite, photo by Thomas Hall Photography

You won’t find Brathwaite’s latest designs in an X-Box or PC but at conferences or in art galleries. In fact, she has shunned her computer in favor of wood, paper, card and glass. She has also, it seems, abandoned pleasure: her art board games invite players to experience the system behind tragic events. These days her good friend John Romero, who created the legendary first person shooter Doom, has taken to introducing Brathwaite as the woman who makes games that make you cry.

Train (2009) is a table-top board game constructed on a shattered window frame. It features real model train tracks made by Brathwaite. Players must remove the rules from the jaws of an authentic Nazi typewriter. They are told to use toy trains to transport bright yellow tokens from one end of the board to the other. When players finally usher all the tokens to their destination they experience a moment of triumph. But this is short lived. A game card reveals that they have just sent 700,000 Jews to Auschwitz (each token represents 100,000 Jews). Players are shocked and often reduced to tears when they discover their role in the system of genocide.

Train received the Vanguard Award at the 2009 IndieCade Festival of Independent Game Design. Celia Pearce, the Festival’s chair, says the Vanguard category was created to acknowledge Train’s innovative vision. It is the first non-electronic game the jury has selected for competition. While there is a tradition of using board games in art practice (the surrealists are the best example) it is unusual for art to be playable.

Brathwaite’s transition from commercial game designer to artist stems from her interest in the power of games to express painful emotions, by implicating players in a system of tragedy. In 2006, she made her first board game to demonstrate the slave trade to her seven-year-old daughter, who had alarmingly described the middle passage as a cruise, failing to engage with the trauma of the event. Brathwaite hastily drafted rules and found some tokens to represent humans, which her daughter moved across the Atlantic. Tokens were killed, removed from their families and sold as slaves. When she finished playing, the child broke down in tears, and bombarded her half African American father with questions about slavery. Brathwaite realized her daughter truly cared for the characters because she felt responsible for their demise. “If I can’t make you feel some sort of responsibility for things that are happening in the system, then the game has failed. Why even bother? I could read you a small pamphlet. I want you to feel what’s happening here,” she decided.

At the time of her slave ship demo, Brathwaite was teaching game design at Savannah College of Art and Design, and researching her MA thesis comparing the video game designer John Romero to abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Nevertheless, she insists that she didn’t aim to create art. She was using game design to cope with the trauma of a life-altering attack. The tragic event, which she won’t discuss in detail, left her with a hyperactive startle reflex and a twitch in one of her eyes. Immediately following the incident, bedridden and traumatized, she turned to what she knows best: game design. “I was trying to make sense of my attack through systems, because systems make sense. They predict behavior and they determine outcomes.” She wondered if game mechanics can capture painful emotions, like paint or photography. Games are immersive, so can they engage users more effectively than other art forms?

Brathwaite continued experimenting with non-digital games just as an artist sketches or conceptualizes ideas. Then she casually discussed her new designs at an invite-only gaming conference. She was inundated with requests to exhibit her board games and she received ample coverage on gaming blogs and even a story in The Wall Street Journal: “it seemed to be explosively written about. It seemed to go boom!” She’d accidentally released what were only ever supposed to be answers to a personal set of questions.

Games have always been part of Brathwaite’s life. In 1981, at 15, desperate to supplement her widowed mother’s income, she had a chance encounter with the sister of a local game developer that led to a job at the Sir-Tech software company. Brathwaite quickly graduated from admin to researching medieval swords, and fell “completely and utterly in love” with electronic games, an attachment which has endured to this day.

Because her latest work is classified as art she has avoided the controversy that follows electronic games that tackle social trauma, such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG (2005) or 9/11 (2008). Celia Pearce says this is the genius of the series: “Anyone who turns a serious topic into an electronic game gets slammed. By making board games, Brathwaite circumvented all that cultural baggage: whether she intended to, or not.”

Brathwaite says that her art games release her from the constraints of commercial video game design where she must collaborate with a team, obey genre rules, stick to a timetable, consider the goals of the publisher and construct marketable play experiences for a specific platform. “When it comes to my non-digital games all bets are completely off. I’m going to do what’s right for the idea, and I’m going to listen to what the game demands.”

Brathwaite’s art board game design process is meditative. She says she enters an almost trance-like state which is phenomenally different from her commercial game design process. She prefers to work through the night so she can immerse herself in the creative process. A core component of her practice is the search for symbolism. For example, she chose to represent the Jews in Train using the brightest yellow she could find. The volume of the color reflects the intensity of the pain experienced by the traumatized Jewish population. A photograph of two little boys, victims of the Holocaust, served as inspiration for the work. When she was creating the game, Brathwaite looked at the photo for up to two hours each day. She wanted to tap into the emotion that their mother would have experienced so she could express that pain through game mechanics.

She has chosen to use 50,000 tokens for One Falls for Each of Us, to represent each and every Native American forced from their land. In the tradition of conceptual art she refuses to limit her vision, by reducing the number of tokens for the sake of convenience or marketability. “The Trail of Tears wasn’t convenient for the Native Americans, so why the hell should I make it convenient for you?”

But Brathwaite still believes that all game designers are potential artists because their goal is to immerse the user in a world where they think and feel with the characters. When designing electronic games she conducts extensive research and tries to become her characters so she can plot their actions realistically. She calls herself the Marlon Brando of gaming: a method designer.

The process of designing Wizardry 8 was especially intense. The characters lived inside her brain: “I had to carry paper and pencils with me because ideas would show up at the most inconvenient and ridiculous times. If I was in the shower I would yell out to my husband at the time and get him to write the idea down for me.” She wrote stories from the point of view of each character so that she could plot their actions with veracity, “I know that this event would make the character angry. But would they be the sort to stab you in the back in a passive aggressive way later? Or would they be the sort to immediately go to wherever you are located in the game and try to take you out?” Likewise, when she was designing Playboy: The Mansion Brathwaite immersed herself in Playboy magazines and met with playmates.

Driving to conferences with Train (which is kept in a four-foot-long wooden box) reminds Brathwaite of the ’80s when she would unplug her Apple II and take it on solitary road trips to show her designs to colleagues. “It was just me and my games in my car,” she says. Brathwaite is obviously dependent on the medium she has used to express herself since she was a teen: “I’ve only ever made games. I don’t have context for anything else in this world and if the game industry ever goes away, I’m fucked.”

In December 2009, Brathwaite left her teaching position to work as the Creative Director at Slide Inc. She now works at LOLapps, as the Creative Director, designing games for Facebook. While she continues to make art games in her spare time, the opportunity to create real time play experiences for mainstream users was irresistible. For the first time in her career all her relatives, understand what she does for a living, thanks to games like Farmville. “It’s 1981 again. I didn’t want to miss it,” she says. “I want to get my fingers covered in Facebook grime.”