Mastering Systems of Emotion

At this past Game Developers Conference, Brenda Brathwaite gave a talk titled “One Falls for Each of Us: Prototyping Tragedy”. She gave a nearly identical talk by the same name in 2010, which is available online and I would encourage all of you to watch. Brathwaite is a powerful orator, imbuing all her talks with vigor and emotion. Her six part, “The Mechanic is the Message” game series has drawn immense interest and critical acclaim for generating an equal amount of critical thought and emotional weight. One Falls for Each of Us, the fourth in the series, models the US slaughter of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. While I appreciate the title of her series, the mechanical reconstruction of history is not the message alone. Or rather, the components of a historical system mean little without a conjoining emotional system. Brathwaite’s work exemplifies how game designers can create provocative player-imbued systems of emotion.

During Brathwaite’s presentation, one powerful and important statement stands out: “Wherever there is human-on-human tragedy, there is also a system.” This is particularly true during large scale tragedies. In the case of Train, her well-known boardgame about the Holocaust, Brathwaite creates a game out of the systems required to collect and transport millions of Jews to concentration camps. How could you make a game about the Holocaust? Well, it turns out pretty easily.

Creating a game system inspired by human tragedy need not succeed in creating a strong response. Brathwaite imbues her work with deep emotional resonance, and not by solely relying on her collection of relevant historical units. Numerous games draw upon human tragedy without evoking many feelings at all. As she states, “as long as they are decently abstract, they don’t make us uncomfortable.” Someone could have a strong emotional response while playing Civilization V, but that is incidental. The sensations of disgust, revulsion, guilt, and melancholy generated by Train are not. Brathwaite calls the games Puerto Rico and Sid Meier’s Colonization two different versions of One Falls for Each of Us, as they all draw upon the tragedy of colonialism and incorporate representations of the oppressed into the game mechanic. How can One Falls create such an emotionally moving experience with the same basic conceit?

We do not all react to the discussion of slavery identically- context matters. When analyzing the economic effect of the slave trade on African states, we might abstract the human effects and react stoically to the staggering numbers of exported captives. Alternatively, we might weep at a play about one family of slaves, torn apart by racism and exploitation. The system of each circumstance is composed of uniquely meaningful symbols that may or may not trigger an emotional response.

One Falls for Each of Us uses 50,000 small wooden figurines, each painted by hand, to represent the number of Native Americans killed on the Trail of Tears. The staggering numbers of pawns are meant to be overwhelming. These figurines rest on sheets of newspapers, their red dye dripping off their forms and onto the paper like blood, framing pictures of suffering people in the newspaper with tangential sorrow. Similarly, Train rests atop a shattered window pane, and its oversized yellow figures must be squeezed and forcefully jammed into the game’s train cars. These individual elements create a system of symbols that we players imbue with personal meaning. When confronted with thousands of figurines, we might ponder the largest crowds we have been around and the faces therein. A shattered window may remind us of angry destruction, a bad part of town, or even a hand cut by accident. In the context of the game, the interrelation of these symbols can evoke strong and complex emotions.

Take The Path, developed by Tale of Tales, is another example. The Path is not a traditional game in the strictest sense, but it is also not about large-scale human tragedies of the past. The game models personal tragedy, both human-on-human and otherwise. Yet, it still constructs an emergent emotional system. Players control six sisters, informed only of their name, and lead them through the woods, where they encounter objects, locations, and a wolf of indeterminate form. When choosing a character, we might think about young women in our lives who are roughly the same age as our protagonist, or we might think back to when we were their age. We might also think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and how it might relate to our character and ourselves. When the sisters find certain objects with which to uniquely interact -a swing set perhaps- we might think of our own childhood, or femininity, or growing up, and try to interpret the meaning of the swing set. How does our character interact with it and why?

When The Path is over, when our avatar has met her wolf and journeyed into her grandmother’s house, we examine our collective play experiences and respond accordingly. The collection of symbols in which we imbue meaning create a system that evokes emotion. While we all have our own experiences to draw from, we relate to many symbols similarly. Our semiotic understanding of a situation is, in some ways, predetermined by symbols present in our collective conscience. It is no coincidence so many players of The Path interpreted the wolf scenes as acts of sexual violence, despite their ambiguous design.

During her talk, Brathwaite mentions The Path as a game that drew her out of an emotional trauma. How do we master systems of emotion when they model our own personal tragedies? We only know by traversing that space. We might locate the permissive conditions for tragedies and understand the abstract systems that lead to human follies, but to understand the emotional landscape, we must traverse it. Game designers like Brathwaite shepherd us through their carefully constructed systems of emotion. In the process, by expanding what games can do, games and gamers become stronger.