Brenda Romero: “The Mechanic is the Message”

The current “serious gaming” trend in both electronic and traditional play uses games to increase awareness of significant cultural, historical, and current events. Game designers Brenda Brathwaite Romero and John Romero recently visited The Strong and provided a compelling demonstration of this trend to staff.

Brenda began work in the gaming industry at 15-years-old, and in 2009, Edge magazine identified her as the woman with the longest continuous service in video game development. Best known for her work on the electronic game series Wizardry, which heavily shaped the development of computer role-playing games, Brenda currently spends a portion of her time designing non-electronic board games that focus on sensitive historical events. Brenda began work on this series of games entitled “The Mechanic is the Message” in 2008 with The New World, a game about the slave trade. She then created Train, a game that instructs players to efficiently load yellow figures into boxcars, only to later discover the trains are destined for concentration camps.

During Brenda’s visit to The Strong, I had the opportunity to play her 2009 game Síochán leat, which is Gaelic for “Peace be with you.” Síochán leat re-creates Oliver Cromwell’s mid-17th century invasion of Ireland.

Before Brenda set-up the board, several of the staff present for the demonstration pulled out our smart phones to determine cardinal directions—one corner of the board represents Northern Ireland and needs to face the correct direction. As she set-up the game, Brenda explained that she feels strongly that only people with Irish blood may set up the game board. In creating this game, Brenda paid meticulous attention to every detail.  Since she originally intended only family and friends to play it, she imbued the board with personal messages. For example, she sewed items such as her grandfather’s spoons and her mother’s rosary into the burlap sack that makes the base of the game board.  She also used green yarn to knit the grass sections on the game board. Each green section represents a county in Ireland.

After she set-up the game board, Brenda explained the game’s instructions. She noted that her grandfather often said that anything worth writing should be written in blood, so she had mixed a vial of her own blood into the ink used to write the instructions. Artists often use the old saying that they put their “blood, sweat and tears” into their work and I saw this firsthand with Brenda.

I played the game with ICHEG Director J.P. Dyson. Brenda explained the significance behind each of our plays. She informed us that the game does not produce traditional winners. “You’re playing the Irish,” she said. “You’ve already lost.” A successful game meant that we lost the fewest amount of game pieces possible—each piece represented thousands of Irish people. The game began with each square of the board holding two game pieces, one green figure and one white figure. During each turn, we placed an orange cube that represented Cromwell’s army into one of the spaces, thus displacing the Irish people (game pieces) onto other squares. Each square could hold up to four figures, which demonstrated the tale of the Irish losing their land and huddling together in increasingly crowded areas. If no free spaces remained, we placed the Irish figures off to one side of the board. These figures, Brenda explained, would be shipped to Barbados to serve as slaves.

By the end of the game, Cromwell’s orange cubes marked more than three-quarters of the board, and both J.P. and I possessed a sizable contingent of figures bound for Barbados. Only a small amount of land remained for the Irish figures, which crowded so tightly against one another that it became difficult to tell where one square ended and another began. I wondered about how many families split up, how many lost parents or children to slavery, and whether the English officers felt any remorse for their actions. I felt guilty when I looked at the large groups destined for slavery and I wondered if I could have made any better moves to protect them. Brenda knows that traditionally games are supposed to be fun, but she had no intention of making that the focus of her current series. Many players walk away from her Holocaust game Train crying, and while I didn’t see any tears during this game, several of my fellow staff members spoke of how much it had affected them. I had a difficult time getting the game out of my mind for the rest of the evening.

Brenda’s “The Mechanic is the Messenger” series continues with three more games based on what she terms “human-on-human conflict.” One Falls for Each of Us centers on the Trail of Tears, Mexican Kitchen Workers details illegal immigration, and Cité Soleil focuses on violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. If my experience with Síochán leat is anything to go by, her games will no doubt leave players haunted by these tragedies and hoping for a future that will someday end similar violence.

Brenda generously loanedSíochán leat to The Strong for two years, and it will be on display in The Strong’s Game Time! exhibit beginning July 2013.