Brenda Romero
592,653 views • 9:23

When we think of games, there's all kinds of things. Maybe you're ticked off, or maybe, you're looking forward to a new game. You've been up too late playing a game. All these things happen to me. But when we think about games, a lot of times we think about stuff like this: first-person shooters, or the big, what we would call AAA games, or maybe you're a Facebook game player. This is one my partner and I worked on. Maybe you play Facebook games, and that's what we're making right now. This is a lighter form of game. Maybe you think about the tragically boring board games that hold us hostage in Thanksgiving situations. This would be one of the tragically boring board games that you can figure out. Or maybe you're in your living room, playing with the Wii with the kids, and there's this whole range of games, and that's very much what I think about. I make my living from games, I've been lucky enough to do this since I was 15, which also qualifies as I've never really had a real job.

But we think about games as fun, and that's completely reasonable, but let's just think about this. So this one here, this is the 1980 Olympics. Now I don't know where you guys were, but I was in my living room. It was practically a religious event. And this is when the Americans beat the Russians, and this was — yes, it was technically a game. Hockey is a game. But really, was this a game? I mean, people cried. I've never seen my mother cry like that at the end of Monopoly.

(Laughter) And so this was an amazing experience.

Or, if anybody here is from Boston — So when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series after I believe, 351 years —


when they won the World Series, it was amazing. I happened to be living in Springfield at the time, and the best part of it was, you would close the women's door in the bathroom, and I remember seeing "Go Sox," and I thought, really? Or the houses, you'd come out, because every game, well, I think almost every game, went into overtime, right? So we'd be outside, and all the other lights are on in the whole block. And kids — the attendance was down in school, kids weren't going to school, but it's OK, it's the Red Sox, right? I mean, there's education, and then there's the Red Sox, and we know where they're stacked. So this was an amazing experience, and again, yes, it was a game, but they didn't write newspaper articles, people didn't say, "You know, really, I can die now, because the Red Sox won." And many people did.

So games, it means something more to us. It absolutely means something more.

So now, this is an abrupt transition here. There was three years where I actually did have a real job, sort of. I was the head of a college department teaching games, so, again, it was sort of a real job, and now I got to talk about making them as opposed to making them. Part of the job of it, when you're a chair of a department, is to eat, and I did that very well — and so I'm out at a dinner with this guy called Zig Jackson. So this is Zig in this photograph, this is also one of Zig's photographs. He's a photographer. And he goes all around the country taking pictures of himself, and you can see here he's got Zig's Indian Reservation. And this particular shot — this is one of the more traditional shots. This is a rain dancer.

And this is one of my favorite shots here. So you can look at this, and maybe you've even seen things like this. This is an expression of culture, right? And this is actually from his Degradation series. And what was most fascinating to me about this series is just, look at that little boy there, can you imagine? We can see that's a traditional Native American. Now I just want to change that guy's race. Just imagine if that's a black guy. So, "Honey, come here, let's get you a picture with the black guy." Right? Like, seriously, nobody would do this. It baffles the mind. And so Zig, being Indian, likewise it baffles his mind. His favorite photograph — my favorite photograph of his, which I don't have in here — is Indian taking picture of white people taking pictures of Indians.


So I happen to be at dinner with this photographer, and he was talking with another photographer about a shooting that had occurred, and it was on an Indian Reservation. He'd taken his camera up there to photograph it, but when he got there, he discovered he couldn't do it. He just couldn't capture the picture. And so they were talking back and forth about this question. Do you take the picture or not? And that was fascinating to me as a game designer, because it never occurs to me, should I make the game about this difficult topic or not? Because we just make things that are fun or will make you feel fear, that visceral excitement. But every other medium does it.

So this is my kid. This is Maezza, and when she was seven years old, she came home from school one day, and like I do every single day, I asked her, "What did you do today?" So she said, "We talked about the Middle Passage."

Now, this was a big moment. Maezza's dad is black, and I knew this day was coming. I wasn't expecting it at seven, I don't know why, but I wasn't.

Anyways, so I asked her, "How do you feel about that?" So she proceeded to tell me, and so any of you who are parents will recognize the bingo buzzwords here. "The ships start in England, they come down from England, they go to Africa, they go across the ocean — that's the Middle Passage part — they come to America, where the slaves are sold," she's telling me. But Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and then he passed the Emancipation Proclamation, and now they're free.

Pause for about 10 seconds.

"Can I play a game, Mommy?"

And I thought, that's it? And so, you know, this is the Middle Passage, this is an incredibly significant event, and she's treating it like, basically some black people went on a cruise, this is more or less how it sounds to her.


And so, to me, I wanted more value in this, so when she asked if she could play a game, I said, "Yes."


And so I happened to have all of these little pieces. I'm a game designer, so I have this stuff sitting around my house. I said, "Yeah, you can play a game," and I give her a bunch of these, and I tell her to paint them in different families. These are pictures of Maezza when she was — God, it still chokes me up seeing these. So she's painting her little families. So then I grab a bunch of them and I put them on a boat. This was the boat, it was made quickly, obviously. And so the basic gist of it is, I grabbed a bunch of families, and she's like, "Mommy, but you forgot the pink baby and you forgot the blue daddy and you forgot all these other things." And she says, "They want to go." And I said, "Honey, no, they don't want to go. This is the Middle Passage, Nobody wants to go on the Middle Passage." So she gave me a look that only a daughter of a game designer would give a mother, and as we're going across the ocean, following these rules, she realizes that she's rolling pretty high, and she says to me, "We're not going to make it."

And she realizes, we don't have enough food, and so she asks what to do, and I say — remember, she's seven — "We can either put some people in the water or we can hope that they don't get sick and we make it to the other side." Just the look on her face came over — now mind you this is after a month of — this is Black History Month, right? After a month, she says to me, "Did this really happen?" And I said, "Yes." And so she said — this is her brother and sister — "If I came out of the woods, Avalon and Donovan might be gone." "Yes." "But I'd get to see them in America." "No." "But what if I saw them? Couldn't we stay together?" "So Daddy could be gone." "Yes." She was fascinated by this, and she started to cry, I started to cry, her father started to cry, and now we're all crying. He didn't expect to come home from work to the Middle Passage, but there it goes.

And so, we made this game, and she got it. She got it because she spent time with these people. It wasn't abstract stuff in a brochure or in a movie.

And so it was just an incredibly powerful experience. This is the game, which I've ended up calling "The New World," because I like the phrase. I don't think the New World felt too new worldly exciting to the people who were brought over on slave ships.

But when this happened, I saw the whole planet; I was so excited. I'd been making games for 20-some years, and then I decided to do it again. My history is Irish. So this is a game called "Síochán Leat." It's "peace be with you." It's the entire history of my family in a single game.

I made another game called "Train." I was making a series of six games that covered difficult topics, and if you're going to cover a difficult topic, this is one you need to cover, and I'll let you figure out what that's about on your own.

And I also made a game about the Trail of Tears. This is a game with 50,000 individual pieces. I was crazy when I decided to start it, but I'm in the middle of it now. It's the same thing. I'm hoping that I'll teach culture through these games.

And the one I'm working on right now, which is — because I'm right in the middle of it, and these for some reason choke me up like crazy — is a game called "Mexican Kitchen Workers." And originally, it was a math problem, more or less. Here's the economics of illegal immigration. And the more I learned about Mexican culture — my partner is Mexican — the more I learned that, you know, for all of us, food is a basic need, and it is obviously with Mexicans, too, but it's much more than that. It's an expression of love. It's an expression of — God, I'm totally choking up way more than I thought. I'll look away from the picture. It's an expression of beauty, it's how they say they love you. It's how they say they care, and you can't hear somebody talk about their Mexican grandmother without saying "food" in the first sentence. And so to me, this beautiful culture, this beautiful expression is something that I want to capture through games.

And so games, for a change, it changes how we see topics, it changes our perceptions about those people in topics, and it changes ourselves. We change as people through games, because we're involved, and we're playing, and we're learning as we do so.

Thank you.