Engineering Cathartic Experiences with Game Mechanics: Brenda Romero

As topics go, it hardly gets more serious than the holocaust, or slavery, or racism. And you’d think there could hardly be a list of subjects less suited to games, traditionally associated with fun and enjoyment. Meet award-winning game designer Brenda Romero, pioneer of serious board games tackling difficult and painful subjects and using game mechanics to capture and expose the systems underlying human-on-human conflict and violence.


By definition, serious games are designed with a serious purpose – to teach, to further research, to promote social causes (see our article Why So Serious, for some great examples). And they are still supposed to be fun and enjoyable or else would be expected to fail their purpose.

But in the past decade we’ve seen video games venturing into serious subject areas, as well, and winning not just critical acclaim but enormous popularity while exploring issues such as terminal disease and suicide, depression, loss and grief  (see Games that Make Us Cry).

Winner of the 2015 Ambassador Award at the 15th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards, recipient of the 2013 Women in Games Lifetime Achievement Award awarded by Microsoft, and named one of Forbes’ “12 Women in Gaming to Watch” that same year, Brenda Romero (formerly known as Brenda Brathwaite) is among the brave pioneers who have pushed the limits of games and what we think they are good for.

“Games are spaces; they are spaces for contemplation, for courage, for conversation”

Games are her livelihood and her life; she makes them, she plays them, she teaches and speaks about them. Having entered the game industry in 1981, when barely 15, games have shaped her way of thinking and her systemic interpretation of the world.  

There is a system even to suffering and violence, and exposing (and/or controlling) it by means of game mechanics is a challenge that Brenda Romero has been pursuing in the past decade alongside her long and successful career as a commercial game designer (with several dozen titles in her ludography, starting with Wizardry all the way back in 1982) and as the first ‘game designer in residence’ at UC Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media..


The Mechanic is the Message

“The Mechanic is the Message captures and expresses difficult experiences through the medium of a game. Much like photographs, paintings, literature and music are capable of transmitting the full range of the human experience from one human to another, so too can games. Due to their interactivity, the installation suggests that games are 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.” (source)

More like art installations playing with the notion of ‘game’, her non-digital works are literally unique – with just one painstakingly hand-crafted set of each, they were never intended for publishing and mass distribution. In fact, they might not even have reached the public at all if it hadn’t been for the presence of a journalist at a small gaming event years ago, when Brenda first talked about her series.


Initially a very private project, it was an endeavour to push her own limits in a quest for greatness and a “personal best”. Brenda wanted to try and create the best game that she could possibly make without any commercial and production constraints, deadlines, and – perhaps most importantly – without any external or internal censorship and taboos. And to her, a great game is all about how it makes you feel.

It all started in 2008, when her 7-year-old daughter came home with a watered-down idea of the Middle Passage [the trade route of slave ships from West Africa to the Americas] at the very end of Black History Month in her school. “Basically, some black people went on a cruise” is how Brenda Romero likes to describe her daughter’s account of the slave trade.

So Brenda went about it the best way she knows – by quickly putting together a game.  They had to transport ‘families’ of pieces hand-painted by her daughter on ships sailing from Africa to North America, with ever shortening food supplies. The rules were simple: it takes 10 turns to cross the ocean and each player has 30 units of food; they roll a die each turn and take away the respective amount of food. And so they played until the girl’s realization that there would be an inevitable sacrifice of lives. Her wide-eyed, distressed question, “Mommy, did this really happen?..’ told Brenda the ‘game had been won’. She named it “The New World”.


Continuing her exploration of her very core as an individual (which is much like the single, essential core of any good game), Brenda  drew on her family history and her next project dealt with the brutal Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, resulting in an estimated 200,000 of war-related civilian casualties and the deportation of 50,000 as slaves to the Caribbean. Síochán Leat (Gaellic for ‘Peace be with you’) is still on exhibit at the Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

In 2009, Brenda finished what to date is the most acclaimed and aesthetically and conceptually most complete piece of the series: Train. It starts along lines deceivingly similar to an ordinary board game, with players having to load passengers onto train cars and take them to the end of their track by rolling dies. And the first one to do so flips over their ‘terminus card’, which reads… Auschwitz.  

In the words of its creator, Train explores complicity within systems. It also asks two questions, “Will people blindly follow the rules?” and “Will people stand by and watch?” A Wall Street article aptly named it: “The Board Game No One Wants to Play More Than Once”. As for how this great game makes players feel, even just hearing the artist describe it can leave you shaken and haunted for a long time, and over the years Brenda has witnessed people break down in tears, run off in shame, or explode in anger.


A game is one system where rules are NOT made to be broken, they structure and define its very essence. A game also fundamentally depends on players’ acceptance and adherence to those rules. That is why it is a stroke of genius to use exactly this framework to expose the collaboration and blind obedience that made possible the most terrible crime against humanity within a totalitarian system; to use players’ compliance to illustrate people’s complicity.


As if in revolt against the very rules she created in Train, Brenda Romero’s 2013 Preconception is a ‘pre-game’ that cannot be played. It is an installation representing a game designer’s ‘mindgame’ before the conception of rules and evokes the interdependence of structural elements within a game’s internal ‘chain of life’.

The other analog game projects – Cité Soleil, One Falls for Each of Us and Mexican Kitchen Workers have been changing direction and scope, growing and evolving with their creator. Suffice it to say, that – unwilling to compromise and refusing to make it easy for future players – for the game about the Trail of Tears the number of pieces hand-painted by the artist herself has grown to the mind-boggling 40,000. These projects explore history and culture as keys to understanding present-day violence, inequalities, moral debts and prejudice. They could develop into tools for changing perceptions and for coming to terms with a historical legacy of guilt and shame.

And then there is Black Box. A game that can only be played by a single player – the artist herself. And just once – ‘then it will be done’. What we thought would be the ultimate work in progress, the never to be released  ’game à clef’ with which the designer is processing her own pain and difficult emotions is apparently about to be done. Brenda Romero has just told that she expects to finish it next week!


If this piece of news means that the ‘administrator’ has regained control over the trauma infected ‘system’, we can only rejoice for her and join in the plea of one of her fans: please, Brenda, make one happy game next!


Featured image and all other photos:

Brenda Romero is currently developing MSc in Game Design & Development at University of Limerick.

And if you want to see her work, invite Brenda as a speaker and she might bring one of her creations, or plan a trip to Yorkshire, UK,  where she will be showing Train at the National Media Museum in November.


One thought on “Engineering Cathartic Experiences with Game Mechanics: Brenda Romero”

  1. So to me, that’s something you can act out that’s true to life — if in life you don’t work with anyone else, if you’re a lone wolf, life will be incredibly difficult, but you can manage it. To me, that’s the kind of story a game can best tell.

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