In her well-known GDC talk on Train, Brenda Brathwaite describes hearing Mary Flanagan, another designer, refer to a game as, "my work.” That the subtle change of language brought on a weird transformative moment, helping to further shift how she thought about the medium of games. Not long after, at Ian Bogost's tenure party, she's having the standard games industry conversation,
"So what are ya workin' on?"
"Yeah, me neither."
But, this time, Brenda was working on some board games because she wanted to, because she could. Trying to use games to capture the difficult emotions open to other mediums. Trying to see if that's possible.
"So, what are your games about?"
She'd made one about the Middle Passage, called The New World. One about the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland. And just then she was working on one called Train, about The Holocaust.
"But, Brenda," says this industry person, "That's not fun."
Was Schindler's List fun? Is fun what makes blues music compelling? Brenda started to question whether fun had anything to do with meaning. That of works most likely to move us, and stay with us, some (if not most) deal with human pain. With suffering. And that under the worst atrocities in humankind, Brathwaite says we can always find a system. And with a system, designers can make a game. If we care to treat games as emotionally complex experiences, as mediums for big, moving ideas, then we need to look past the fixation with pleasantries.
This is where the word “fun” starts making no sense at all. If we’re talking about the most atrocious in life, about pain, it’s time to call it something neutral – probably “engagement” – though even benched standbys like “delight” or “reinforcement” are better (if only marginally). Anything but fun. Friends pleaded I not call this a language of “fun,” but this is where I’m finally convinced. The draws to gaming are too complex, and “fun” is a nearly ghastly word to use if we’re talking about Train, Black Dog Game Factory’s Charnel Houses of Europe: the Shoah, or any work that deals with those elements in life that we’re meant to challenge.
In the past, if I was being belligerent enough, I’d argue that holding a newborn baby has resonance, a first kiss has resonance. You could call those “fun,” but they sit more at the fringes, they ask fun to grow up. And much to the chagrin of those around me, I probably can’t grow up completely. I like engagement as a more neutral term, but I’m not giving up on fun. This chapter, and the next, are about the same fundamental concept that underlies fun and engagement, but at some point I gave myself permission to keep both words. I decided that I didn’t have to decide. And yes, I am fully aware that at this point most casual readers will probably be saying,
But this matters. This is a book about words, okay? As long as we realize that it evokes a rich rainbow of meanings, and that sometimes engagement makes more sense, I’m okay with fun.
Some fun might just be icing, but style can help great ideas stand out. I think that up till now, the stylistic ordinance of games originated at the simple delight of them. Gamers frolicked in dreams, in ways not possible a generation ago. Of course these worlds would catch the eye. When The Great Train Robbery's highwayman pointed his revolver at the audience and fired, at the turn of the 20th century, some members of the audience literally ducked. We don't do that anymore. Novelty eats itself.
Fun still comes first. Some of what raised up great works of the last three millennia was decorative -- the arresting styles of Bram Stoker or Van Gogh; historic shifts in skill and execution brought out by Jimi Hendrix or Imhotep. It makes a difference, in the final product, but it's also a mistake to confuse it with substance. In every creator just named (and, sure, it's my subjective opinion) style and substance came together. The language of fun only takes us so far.
It’s also, sometimes, enough to carry us away.
And always a little fun to say.
Back to chapter introduction
Next: Chapter 3, Engagement
Next: Chapter 3, Engagement