A Haunting Truth

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

The Polish government has a group called The Institute of National Remembrance, created in 1998. As an American, I must say the frank openness and purpose of the Institute is just incredible. Its role is to make known the history of the Polish people, which is often a grim truth, share the archives and secret records collected by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and educate the polish people.

I've always been an avid student of history. I know all too well what my history books taught me, or more often didn't. Knowing there is a government agency whose entire job it is to discuss these things is just incredible. I'd love for such a thing in America.

This is a blog about games and game design, though. Thankfully, the Institute of National Remembrance has the foresight and knowledge that games are an incredible way to teach. Yesterday, I bought Queue, also known as Kolejka in its native Polish.

This game was created to entertain, but also teach people about the absurdity of a centralized economy, how it failed the Polish people (and others living in the Eastern Bloc nations), and what it was like to live in a nation where obtaining common household goods and groceries people like me take for granted wasn't always easy.

Put simply, it is a game about waiting in line for groceries.

kolejka My copy of Queue, waiting for me to learn.

The game's presentation is humble, and I mean that in the best of ways. It is clean and almost silly, as it features actual propaganda imagery, cartoons, and goods from the time period. It is lovingly crafted, right down to the fake coffee stain on the back of the board. Everything is top quality.

I haven't played it yet, nor have I finished reading the rules, but I've begun and the game has already greatly interested me. It has affected me and I want to know more. I wish I taught a history class so that I could have my students play.

I'm an American, as is most of my readership, so I'd like to bring up the topic of how we as designers and Americans can inform, learn, and entertain with aspects of our culture other than our wars. This is already being done by others.

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Academy Games released Freedom: The Underground Railroad last year. In it, players act cooperatively as abolitionists trying to bring down the institution of slavery. I'm a big fan of Academy Games and accolades for the game have been numerous, but I must admit the topic makes me so uncomfortable I haven't been able to purchase it yet. This is very heavy stuff. In their review, the normally funny Shut Up & Sit Down reviewers only made a single joke about how they didn't feel comfortable making jokes.

I am curious that if a game can be made about the institution of slavery, can one be made about something as dark as The Trail of Tears? This was the government sanctioned act of forcibly relocating and killing many Native American tribes as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The experience and game could revolve around trying to survive under such hardships. Gaining food, shelter, and dealing with the oppressive conditions. It could also focus on the results at the end of the trail. How can one begin anew after such a trial?

A game could be crafted to tell the story of Japanese-American Internment during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government forced over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to live in internment camps due to fears of sabotage and treachery. These people lost their homes, their belongings, their businesses, and their status in our culture.

Perhaps the game could be about finding happiness in the camp? Or rebuilding life after the war and camp life? The important thing is to teach about the hardship and struggles in a way that is interesting for players.

Something slightly less dark, that nonetheless had a questionable impact on the world, would be how the United States and its allies split and divided the world following the end of World War II. Many new nations were created and merged. Many were split and divided, not among cultural lines, but often arbitrarily, geographically, or as a result of political bargaining. Take a look at how this has affected Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia -- pretty much every part of the world with combatants.

Players could play as members of the new Security Council, each with interests, each with a task and awkward duty of defining the new countries of the post-war world. This could even be a challenging Legacy-style game. What will be the repercussions of your decisions? What can you learn from them?

There are also positive elements to our history. Let this not be purely doom and gloom. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild war-torn, devastated Europe. Without it, World War III may have emerged from the ashes of a desperate and downtrodden people.

What about the desperate struggles of Hoover and Roosevelt during the Great Depression? What about the innovative, ridiculous, and sometimes unlawful moves to fix the greatest economic calamity our nation has ever faced?

Volko Ruhnke and his COIN (counter-insurgency) series of games let players live and experience history that is sometimes still happening. It is thought provoking and even painful.

What about how immigrants throughout our history have contributed positively to our culture with their cultural contributions, industriousness, and voice? The love of my life is a Cantonese-American and my great grandparents immigrated from Germany. There is an interesting story there and I want to know more.

What about the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr and the NAACP to stand up against oppressive laws throughout the United States in the middle of the 20th century?

My point, is that history is grand, dark, deeply important, and it affects our lives every day. I believe we often simply look to our wars and military conflicts for inspiration. As a result, we're missing an honest, frank, and enlightening look at the decisions that made our country what it is today, for better or worse. I think there is a great wealth of inspiration to be found and once I'm finished with my current crop of designs, I'm going to try to do something with it.

Games can be more than just games. They can be fun, insightful, and thought-provoking.

What story would you tell with a design? What element of our history would you investigate?

Comments

I've been thinking in a similar vein. What about a wargame, or any game where casualties stay on the map as corpses. A Gettysburg game might feel Very different if units that were "eliminated" remained. Perhaps affecting morale of surviving units nearby or ordered through them. Perhaps reminding the player of the sacrifices that they command.

Even Euros remove units with the implication of sacrifice.

What a tidy world gamers created with Chess.

Fantastic post. Well said. I see a lot of indirect learning in board games besides the natural fun and competition they obviously bring. I love using board games and other items like LEGO bricks to teach my kids while they have fun. I agree the look of 'Queue' is outstanding. I'm now much more interested to find out more about it.

I'm a palliative medicine doctor who works in hospice and I have found it very inspiring that games like 'My Gift of Grace', 'Village', and 'Go Wish' all approach mortality in different ways that can help people engage with the concept directly or indirectly. Thanks for tying that together for me with your post in a way I had not really conceptualized before.