What Can We Learn from Games?

ImageThis holiday season I enjoyed giving, receiving, and playing several new card and board games with friends and family. These included classics such as cribbage, strategy games like Dominion and Power Grid, and the whimsical Munchkin.

Can video and board games teach us more than just strategy? What if games could teach us not to be better thinkers, but just to be… better? A while ago we discussed how monopoly was originally designed as a learning experience to promote cooperation. Lately I have learned of two other such games in a growing genre and wanted to share them here.

The first is Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn (via Jeff Atwood):

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.

The second is Train by Brenda Romero (via Marcus Montano) described here with spoilers:

In the game, the players read typewritten instructions. The game board is a set of train tracks with box cars, sitting on top of a window pane with broken glass. There are little yellow pegs that represent people, and the player’s job is to efficiently load those people onto the trains. A typewriter sits on one side of the board.

The game takes anywhere from a minute to two hours to play, depending on when the players make a very important discovery. At some point, they turn over a card that has a destination for the train. It says Auschwitz. At that point, for anyone who knows their history, it dawns on the player that they have been loading Jews onto box cars so they can be shipped to a World War II concentration camp and be killed in the gas showers or burned in the ovens.

The key emotion that Romero said she wanted the player to feel was “complicity.”

“People blindly follow rules,” she said. “Will they blindly follow rules that come out of a Nazi typewriter?”

I have tried creating my own board games in the past, and this gives me renewed interest and a higher standard. What is the most thought-provoking moment you have experienced playing games?

8 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from Games?

  1. Promoting cooperation, problem solving for real life situations would be my favourite, however, you’d want the player to feel good after the game is played, am not sure that the Train one would do that 😦

    • I recently tried Gone Home on Steam. It’s a simple story about a college student who comes home after a year abroad to find her entire family missing with a note on the front door.

      You wander around the house during a storm, finding notes, letters, voicemail, messages, and diary entries from your sister that explain, piece by piece what happened.

      The game is terrifying because you keep expecting something to jump out at you, right up until the climax.

      I think the game beautifully exploits your expectations and punctuates the terror and tension with occasional snippets of your younger sister’s life via audio-journal.

      It was a moment of discovery of a new genre of games. Not horror but mystery and a completely different thrill than jump-scares or zombie games.

    • I agree. Train seems like it’s trying to do what some books do when they’re written from the point of view of the villain. You find yourself in the shoes of someone despicable but can’t get out of their heads.

  2. Hey, no problem! Another game you might all want to check out, as it’s pretty cheap on Steam, is Papers Please.

    You win the job lottery and get to be a border agent for the proud, fictional country of Arstotzka, which is basically modeled after a pre-1989 communist regime.

    Based on the news, terrorist attacks, and diplomatic relations, your job gets progressively harder, as you have to check people’s documents more painstakingly or refuse people from certain countries entry.

    All the while, your family is languishing on your often frugal income (if you don’t take any bribes).

    It’s amazing and puts you in the shoes of the kind of person most people hate and humanizes their job.

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