cn: Discussion of Holocaust media, while avoiding discussion of the Holocaust itself.
Train (2009) is a board game slash art installation by Brenda Romero. It’s the most famous game in her series The Mechanic is the Message. There is only one copy of the game. In the game, players are tasked with transporting meeples by train. Over the course of the game, the players learn that they are in fact taking the role of Nazis transporting people to concentration camps.
Train makes a provocative and valuable statement, and I am by no means outraged by the game. However, I do have a few bones to pick with it.
First, there is the inevitable criticism that the game uses the Holocaust primarily for shock value. Many people consider this unethical, for reasons that I won’t get into. I basically agree with this critique–with a small adjustment. I think that Romero intended the experience to be educational rather than shocking. This intention is reflected in the other games in her series, which educate players about various historical and contemporary injustices. I think it’s possible her intentions are reinforced by various details that would be apparent if you played the game. But you will not play this game, because there is only one copy.
That’s okay, not all games need to be commercial. However, a game does need to be mass-produced in order for most of us to usefully critique it. In this case, the game isn’t mass-produced, but the story about the game is mass-produced. Train might be a game full of educational details, but the story we receive is really quite a short one, with fewer nuances than perhaps Romero intended. In the story about Train, it seems apparent to me that the Holocaust serves the purpose of shock value.
The second problem is, I’m not very convinced by the message that the story is used to convey. It feels like an attempt to explain evil behavior through our tendency to blindly follow rules. (I do not know if Romero intended this way, but I don’t think it matters, since that’s how it gets read regardless.) It very much reminds me of how people trot out the Stanford Prison Experiment to support the very same explanation for the Holocaust. The Stanford Prison Experiment was both unethical and fraudulent. After that major scandal, I’m very suspicious of convenient stories that explain evil behavior by drawing a comparison to an uncontrolled social experiment. I think this creates a false impression of understanding.
To sharpen this critique, I will repeat an argument that was made by a poster on Board Game Geek. The poster observed a significant disanalogy between the game and actual Nazis. While the player is initially ignorant of where the trains are going, actual Nazis were not ignorant.
If we ignore the setting of Train, the story it tells is one where the players first try to achieve the goal, and then somewhere in the middle they have a realization that causes them regret. They try to backpedal, they try to subvert the rules, or they quit the game entirely. And that might be an emotionally compelling story, but I don’t think it actually corresponds to the reality of its setting. The story of the Nazis isn’t primarily about regret and backpedaling.
My final and biggest complaint, is that Train very much misses the mark as a commentary on board games. In board games, it’s actually not shocking to be cast in an evil, murderous, or exploitative role. If anything, it’s shockingly common, especially with regards to colonialism.
I like to say about Train: Puerto Rico did it years earlier, and did it better. Puerto Rico is a popular euro game about growing and selling crops on the titular island. To do that, you need to have colonists working on the plantations and in the factories. For most people, it will be many games before someone points out that, given the historical setting of the game, the “colonists” are obviously slaves. This isn’t merely a revelation that you’ve been tricked, it’s a revelation about the culture we live in.
Of course, Train draws attention to what it’s doing, while Puerto Rico quietly hopes that you just ignore the whole slave thing. I commend Train to drawing attention to the more problematic elements of board games… except that Train doesn’t do that, it draws attention away instead. In popular articles, Train is framed as a singular subversive game that nobody wants to play more than once. This gives the impression that Train defies comparison to any other board game. As far as I can tell, Brenda Romero comes from a video game background rather than a board game background, and of course most journalists don’t come from board gaming, so the conversation around Train is deeply frustrating to me.