“Game.” What does that word mean? Board game. Video game. I was taught a game is one thing and one thing only: entertainment. Its value is found not in edification but rather abnegation, escapism meant to distract from the dullness of day to day life.
Now, I do not think that definition is insulting. Escapism is important. Life is hard, and sometimes a few hours shooting down virtual baddies in Call of Duty can make that life a little easier. No, I do not think it is insulting, but I do think it is inaccurate. Games can, and often do, entertain, but what is stopping them from going further? Why can games not discuss war, suffering or the human condition in the same way a film such as Apocalypse Now or a book such as Heart of Darkness does?
Perhaps games are just not capable of tapping into such profundity. It can certainly seem that way on the surface. After observing a 13 year old playing Grand Theft Auto for a few hours, gunning down hundreds of virtual people for sh*ts and giggles, you may be tempted to conclude that games are not only lacking profundity, but trivialize the human experience.
And it is true in a sense. Games, by their very nature, have to simplify life, breaking complex ideas down into simple objectives with definitive beginnings and ends: do this, do that and then you win. And is the idea of “winning” not problematic in and of itself. Games have winners, but often times life does not. How could a game about the Bosnian War for example, have a winner without severely undercutting the human suffering it hopes to accurately depict? It seems games and the concept of emotional depth are at odds. It seems that way, but it most assuredly is not.
There is a game I guarantee that you have never played because you will not find it in your local Toys R Us, or indeed any store. In fact, only one copy of this game exists in the entire world. It is a table-top board game called Train. The game includes little yellow tokens, meant to represent people, and miniature trains that these tokens can fit inside. The goal of the game is to get all of your tokens aboard your train and to get them to their final destination before your opponents can do the same.
Who these people are and where they are being taken is not immediately revealed to you. But if you succeed in doing all this before the other players—if you “win”– as a reward for your victory, you get to draw a card revealing where your little yellow people ended up. The card you draw has one of several locations printed on it: Belzec, Dachau, Auschwitz. The realization hits hard. The little yellow people? Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other arbitrarily condemned individuals. Their destination? the certain death of one of Nazi Germany’s infamous concentration camps.
I imagine a certain number of people will react to my description of this very real game with understandable indignation. Turning the holocaust into a severely twisted variant of Candy Land seems to be in the very highest echelon of bad taste, but please bear with me.
Imagine you have just beaten this game and are celebrating your victory, perhaps even rubbing it in faces of the other players. But then you draw that fateful card and realize what your “victory” actually means. It is doubtful you would continue to find pride in or take responsibility for being the most efficient purveyor of death in the group. You would come up with any number of excuses or rationalizations: “I didn’t know what I was actually doing.” “Those were the rules of game.” “I was only following orders.”
“Only following orders,” the infamous refrain of the Nuremberg trials. Countless Nazis defended their atrocities by claiming they were just obeying orders. I—and I would wager many others—find that excuse pathetic at best, disgusting at worst. And yet, I am sure you, as the unfortunate victor of that game of Train, would beg to differ.
Train is brilliant because it forces the player to learn the most important lesson we should take away from World War II: given the proper context and motivation, we as human beings can be enticed into doing just about anything. Train demonstrates to us that the men and women who perpetrated these crimes—while far from innocent—were not monsters; they were humans, just like ourselves. And as humans, we are no less vulnerable to the kind of social conditioning that made such crimes possible. Train, despite appearances, is an expertly delivered warning, not a callous bastardization of the greatest tragedy in human history.
It is a profound message, but more importantly, it is a message that cannot be replicated by any other medium. You cannot read or watch it. It is something you have to actively participate in. In other words, it a lesson only a game can teach. So yes, games can entertain, but they are capable of much, much more.