The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Game Design and Mechanics

Do games have to be just fun?

When was the last time you watched a movie that left you shaken? When was the last time you read a book that changed your perspective? And when was the last time a game had that impact on you?

We commonly expect games to be fun and light-hearted. But what if games could do more than provide solitary entertainment or satisfy power fantasies? What are we missing out on?

These were the questions award-winning game designer Brenda Romero set out to explore in “The emotional power of games to teach difficult topics” at the V&A (the whole talk will be youtubed soon and I’ll post the link here).

Brenda is one of my heroes.

Her work challenges every convention about what games could/should be, tackling subjects like genocide and slavery with incredible courage.

And she’s doing all that through boardgames! She sees them as low hanging fruits: “the (board)games I’m making could have been done in the last 3000 years, but haven’t”. Not because we lacked the technology, but because we forced fun onto games.

It all started when her daughter came back from school and told Brenda she learned about the slave trade, but in such dry and dehumanised terms that it felt like she was talking about “black families going on an Atlantic cruise holiday”. Brenda knew she had to do something, right there and then. As a game designer, she decided to make a game to talk to her daughter about the slave trade. She gave the kid a bunch of wooden meeples and asked her to paint them different colours, to give them names and “make them into families”. Then Brenda put them all on a make-shift ship and revealed the brutal rules of the system.

Her daughter started crying. “We’re not going to make it cross the ocean mum”.

This simple game Brenda whipped up on the spot gave her daughter a deeper understanding of a human tragedy. She felt personally connected to those families, in a way that textbook facts & figures couldn’t foster.

As Brenda teaches, this is the untapped expressive potential of games.

It’s more than just playing games. We can have the most transformative experiences when we make games. Brenda’s daughter now understands the immense violence and pain of the slave trade because she’s the one who brought those meeples to life.

So, what games would you like to play? And could you make them yourself?

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