Tabletop Documentary: The Configurative Praxis of Train

Curator's Note

In 2009 Brenda Romero (then Brenda Braithwaite) launched her one-of-a-kind art-game Train, a table top board game that requires players to load their respective train cars with passengers in the most efficient way possible. On their turn, players roll a die and then either add that number in passengers to their train, or move the entire train that many spaces forward on the board. Play continues until, in a moment of devastating theater, players overturn their final destination cards to discover that their trains have been heading toward Auschwitz all along. Suddenly the other strange elements of the game paraphernalia come together into a horrifying system. The forties era typewriter that generates the location cards, the broken window upon which the train tracks rest, the tightly packed faceless figurines inside the trains themselves: it all takes on new semantic content in light of the trains’ destinations.

In its capacity to represent systems and structures, Train points, perhaps more radically than other examples of interactive documentary, to an alternative way of representing the real. Though interactive documentaries like Prison Valley (2009) and Out My Window (2011) both place spatial navigation and digital interaction at the center of the documentary experience, they nevertheless rely on conventional, lens-based modes of visual representation for their relationship to the real. Train on the other hand locates its documentary claim in the potential for rulesets to create experiential analogues to real-world systems. In other words, Train imbues its otherwise abstract elements with documentary heft by a process of procedural analogy via systemic representation. This is what it means to be a documentary game.

In his book Cybertext Poetics (2012), Markku Eskelinen suggests that games operate according to a set of configurative praxes - that they are engines that generate in their players particular modes of interaction and relationship. In Train, when players are thrown into a system of bureaucratic genocide, they must suddenly cope with their newly defined social roles. In the players’ struggle to adapt, Train fosters emergent gameplay from its players who upon discovering their complicity might resist by trying to sabotage their own or their opponents’ efficiency. Players, in other words gain a sort of embodied practice in recognizing and working against repressive regimes. This extends the documentary form’s relation to reality out from the screened container of lens based media and into an embodied space of configurative praxis.

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