I’m fairly certain I’ve seen Brenda Romero’s TED talk, Games for Understanding, before. At the very least, I’m aware of her game Train in which players maximize efficiency in transport by rail only to have it dawn on them they are in actuality playing a game about shuttling Jews to the death camps during World War II.
Coincidently, the tabletop game Secret Hitler happened to come up last week during my Contemporary Concepts in Board Game Design class. We were in the middle of a discussion with a prominent table top game designer, someone in the class mentioned Secret Hitler, and the designer immediately condemned the game. His reaction was visceral, unapologetic, and absolute.
It felt not unlike a personal reprimand. Secret Hitler was the first contemporary table top I played. The Kickstarter had recently concluded and someone at a board game meetup had brought a print and play copy. I clearly remember feeling uncomfortable but my hesitation was superseded by the thrill and excitement of a social deduction game. I admit to buying a copy on pre-sale when I got home.
About this time I started organizing periodic game nights with family. At the time there were children ranging from 8 to 12 and while it made me uncomfortable at the time, now it makes my skin crawl to think about how ecstatic they were, how energetically they decried “I want to be Hitler!” without understanding the incomprehensibly heinousness of such a thing. It made everyone else uncomfortable, to say the least, and we made repeated attempts to explain that no, in fact, you really do not want to embody – let alone emulate – evil.
Nonetheless, for a time I struggled with taking a definitive position on the game. It’s not a little embarrassing that for a time I justified repeated play under the auspices of exploring whether or not it was an example of the kind of careful design Uses of Discomfort is meant to investigate.
I can’t help but wonder whether Benedetto’s framework is brandished as a means to justify what is in actuality reckless – to say nothing of unethical – design.