The Mechanic is the Teaching

Brenda Brathwaite designs games.  She has worked on a lot of games, and won a bunch of awards, and should be generally lauded, but I am particularly interested in a set of six non-digital games that she has created, which seem like they would be an innovative and powerful tool for teaching history at a range of levels.

Her Mechanic is the Message series “captures and expresses difficult experiences through the medium of a game” – and the difficult experiences that Brathwaite has chosen to capture happen to be historical ones, and many of them are problems that have come about as a consequence of European imperialism and Atlantic systems.  In her talk at the Art History of Games Symposium , Brathwaite said that her first impulse to create these games came when her daughter came home from school after studying slavery and noted that once upon a time a lot of people from Africa took cruises to America.  Being a game designer, Brathwaite’s educational impulse came not in the form of books or movies or a stern talking to, but in the form of what might look and feel like a board game, but which is actually an “interactive installation” which is “capable of a higher form of communication, one which actively engages the participant and makes them a part of the experience rather than a passive observer.”  The games in the series are

  • The New World (on the Atlantic slave trade)
  • Síochán leat (on Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland)
  • Train (on concentration camps)
  • Mexican Kitchen Workers (on illegal immigration and exploitation of illegal immigrants)
  • Cité Soleil (on Haiti)
  • One Falls for Each of Us (on the Trail of Tears)

As someone at the early stages of her teaching career, and who is currently writing a ‘teaching philosophy,’ I have been thinking a bit about how to teach traumatic events in a way that both conveys their gravity and doesn’t reduce crises to numbers.  I recently ran into this problem when I was TAing for a class that asked students to look at the Slave Trade Database.  Although the students were initially blown away by the scope of the project, and although the scope of the slave trade registered with them, they felt like the STD did a bad job of conveying the humanity and tragedy of Atlantic slavery.  They wanted stories.  The teacher and I didn’t want to reduce the slave trade to a collection of narratives, because scale is incredibly important.  I have run into the same problem trying to teach the Irish famine.  I can give statistics about the number of deaths, evictions and emigrees and  I can talk about what percentage of Ireland’s staple crop was lost between 1845 and 1852.  I can also show what are now standard images from the Illustrated London News and read passages from Asenath Nicholson.  One approach gives the scale, the other gives the ‘human interest’ and neither satisfies my expectations.

Back to the games.  Brathwaite’s games seem like they might be able to unite problems of scale and narrative in a form that people don’t expect to be educational, and which might consequently open up doors for learning.  It is possible that these games (I feel like I should call them art installations, but she calls them games, and that is how they are conceived, but I need to de-couple the idea of games a la FAO Schwarz from game as a concept) will never be widely available.  The one she talks about in the link above, One Falls for Each of Us consists of over 20,000 wooden pieces, and is currently more of an art piece than a commercial entity.  However, were they every to become widely available, I would buy them and use them in classroom situations.  I worry that the connotation of ‘game’ might cause students to take issues less seriously, but if these games force them to conceptualize slavery, Indian removal, immigration, the Holocaust, and Haiti in a new way – or at all – well, that seems like a good thing.

The idea of making students feel complicit in historical systems, another way of reminding them of historical baggage that we all carry around, seems radical, but I also think it would be very powerful.

In her talk at AHGS, Brathwaite has some really interesting things to say about what we are and are not comfortable with.  I remember the first time I saw Puerto Rico The Game being appalled that you got ‘slave’ tokens every turn, which helped you to accomplish tasks.  I do not remember being appalled the first time I played, say Civ.  She is an incredibly smart woman, and has some great things to say about our conception of history.  So, also, read her stuff.

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