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TEDxPhoenix

Brenda Romero: Gaming for understanding

November 11, 2011

It's never easy to get across the magnitude of complex tragedies -- so when Brenda Romero's daughter came home from school asking about slavery, she did what she does for a living -- she designed a game. She describes the surprising effectiveness of this game, and others, in helping the player really understand the story.

Brenda Romero - Game designer
Brenda Romero designs games that turn some of history's most tragic lessons into interactive, emotional experiences. Full bio

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When we think of games, there's all kinds of things.
00:15
Maybe you're ticked off, or maybe you're looking forward
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to a new game. You've been up too late playing a game.
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All these things happen to me.
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But when we think about games, a lot of times we think
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about stuff like this: first-person shooters, or the big,
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what we would call AAA games,
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or maybe you're a Facebook game player.
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This is one my partner and I worked on.
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Maybe you play Facebook games, and that's what we're
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making right now. This is a lighter form of game.
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Maybe you think about the tragically boring board games
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that hold us hostage in Thanksgiving situations.
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This would be one of those tragically boring board games
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that you can figure out.
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Or maybe you're in your living room, you know,
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playing with the Wii with the kids, or something like that,
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and, you know, there's this whole range of games,
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and that's very much what I think about.
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I make my living from games. I've been lucky enough
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to do this since I was 15, which also qualifies
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as I've never really had a real job.
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But we think about games as fun, and that's completely
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reasonable, but let's just think about this.
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So this one here, this is the 1980 Olympics.
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Now I don't know where you guys were, but I was
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in my living room. It was practically a religious event.
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And this is when the Americans beat the Russians,
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and this was -- yes, it was technically a game.
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Hockey is a game. But really, was this a game?
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I mean, people cried. I've never seen my mother cry
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like that at the end of Monopoly.
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And so this was just an amazing experience.
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Or, you know, if anybody here is from Boston --
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So when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series after,
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I believe, 351 years,
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when they won the World Series, it was amazing.
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I happened to be living in Springfield at the time,
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and the best part of it was -- is that --
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you would close the women's door in the bathroom,
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and I remember seeing "Go Sox," and I thought, really?
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Or the houses, you'd come out, because every game,
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well, I think almost every game, went into overtime, right?
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So we'd be outside, and all the other lights are on
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on the whole block, and kids, like, the attendance was down
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in school, and kids weren't going to school.
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But it's okay, it's the Red Sox, right?
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I mean, there's education, and then there's the Red Sox,
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and we know where they're stacked.
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So this was an amazing experience, and again, yes,
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it was a game, but they didn't write newspaper articles,
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people didn't say -- you know, really, "I can die now
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because the Red Sox won." And many people did.
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So games, it means something more to us.
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It absolutely means something more.
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So now, just, this is an abrupt transition here.
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There was three years where I actually did have a real job, sort of.
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I was the head of a college department
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teaching games, so, again, it was sort of a real job,
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and now I just got to talk about making as opposed to making them.
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And I was at a dinner. Part of the job of it, when you're
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a chair of a department, is to eat, and I did that very well,
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and so I'm out at a dinner with this guy called Zig Jackson.
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So this is Zig in this photograph. This is also one of Zig's
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photographs. He's a photographer.
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And he goes all around the country taking pictures
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of himself, and you can see here he's got
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Zig's Indian Reservation. And this particular shot, this
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is one of the more traditional shots. This is a rain dancer.
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And this is one of my favorite shots here.
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So you can look at this, and maybe you've even seen
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things like this. This is an expression of culture, right?
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And this is actually from his Degradation series.
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And what was most fascinating to me about this series
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is just, look at that little boy there.
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Can you imagine? Now let's, we can see that's a traditional
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Native American. Now I just want to change that guy's race.
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Just imagine if that's a black guy.
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So, "Honey, come here, let's get your picture with the black guy."
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Right? Like, seriously, nobody would do this.
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It baffles the mind. And so Zig, being Indian,
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likewise it baffles his mind. His favorite photograph --
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my favorite photograph of his, which I don't have in here is
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Indian taking picture of white people taking pictures
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of Indians. (Laughter)
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So I happen to be at dinner with this photographer,
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and he was talking with another photographer
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about a shooting that had occurred,
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and it was on an Indian reservation. He'd taken his camera
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up there to photograph it, but when he got there,
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he discovered he couldn't do it. He just couldn't capture
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the picture. And so they were talking back and forth
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about this question. Do you take the picture or not?
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And that was fascinating to me as a game designer,
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because it never occurs to me, like, should I make
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the game about this difficult topic or not?
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Because we just make things that are fun or, you know,
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will make you feel fear, you know, that visceral excitement.
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But every other medium does it.
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So this is my kid. This is Maezza, and when she was
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seven years old, she came home from school one day,
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and like I do every single day, I asked her,
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"What'd you do today?"
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So she said, "We talked about the Middle Passage."
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Now, this was a big moment. Maezza's dad is black,
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and I knew this day was coming. I wasn't expecting it
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at seven. I don't know why, but I wasn't.
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Anyways, so I asked her, "How do you feel about that?"
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So she proceeded to tell me, and so any of you
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who are parents will recognize the bingo buzzwords here.
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So the ships start in England, they come down
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from England, they go to Africa, they go across the ocean --
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that's the Middle Passage part — they come to America
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where the slaves are sold, she's telling me.
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But Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and then he
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passed the Emancipation Proclamation, and now they're free.
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Pause for about 10 seconds.
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"Can I play a game, Mommy?"
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And I thought, that's it? And so, you know,
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this is the Middle Passage, this is an incredibly significant
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event, and she's treating it like, basically some
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black people went on a cruise, is more or less
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how it sounds to her. (Laughter)
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And so, to me, I wanted more value in this, so when
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she asked if she could play a game, I said,
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"Yes." (Laughter)
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And so I happened to have all of these little pieces.
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I'm a game designer, so I have this stuff sitting around my house.
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So I said, "Yeah, you can play a game," and I give her
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a bunch of these, and I tell her to paint them
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in different families. These are pictures of Maezza
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when she was — God, it still chokes me up seeing these.
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So she's painting her little families.
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So then I grab a bunch of them and I put them on a boat.
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This was the boat. It was made quickly obviously. (Laughter)
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And so the basic gist of it is, I grabbed a bunch of families,
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and she's like, "Mommy, but you forgot the pink baby
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and you forgot the blue daddy
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and you forgot all these other things."
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And she says, "They want to go." And I said,
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"Honey, no they don't want to go. This is the Middle Passage.
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Nobody wants to go on the Middle Passage."
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So she gave me a look that only a daughter
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of a game designer would give a mother,
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and as we're going across the ocean, following these rules,
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she realizes that she's rolling pretty high, and she says
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to me, "We're not going to make it."
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And she realizes, you know, we don't have enough food,
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and so she asks what to do, and I say,
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"Well, we can either" -- Remember, she's seven --
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"We can either put some people in the water
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or we can hope that they don't get sick
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and we make it to the other side."
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And she -- just the look on her face came over
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and she said -- now mind you this is after a month of --
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this is Black History Month, right?
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After a month she says to me,
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"Did this really happen?"
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And I said, "Yes." And so she said, "So, if I came
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out of the woods" — this is her brother and sister — "If I came
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out of the woods, Avalon and Donovan might be gone."
"Yes."
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"But I'd get to see them in America."
"No."
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"But what if I saw them? You know, couldn't we stay together?"
"No."
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"So Daddy could be gone."
"Yes."
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And she was fascinated by this, and she started to cry,
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and I started to cry, and her father started to cry,
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and now we're all crying. He didn't expect
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to come home from work to the Middle Passage,
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but there it goes. (Laughter)
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And so, we made this game, and she got it.
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She got it because she spent time with these people.
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It wasn't abstract stuff in a brochure or in a movie.
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And so it was just an incredibly powerful experience.
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This is the game, which I've ended up calling
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The New World, because I like the phrase.
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I don't think the New World felt too new worldly exciting
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to the people who were brought over on slave ships.
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But when this happened, I saw the whole planet.
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I was so excited. It was like, I'd been making games
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for 20-some years, and then I decided to do it again.
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My history is Irish.
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So this is a game called Síochán Leat. It's "peace be with you."
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It's the entire history of my family in a single game.
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I made another game called Train.
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I was making a series of six games
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that covered difficult topics, and if you're going to cover
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a difficult topic, this is one you need to cover,
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and I'll let you figure out what that's about on your own.
07:57
And I also made a game about the Trail of Tears.
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This is a game with 50,000 individual pieces.
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I was crazy when I decided to start it,
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but I'm in the middle of it now.
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It's the same thing.
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I'm hoping that I'll teach culture through these games.
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And the one I'm working on right now, which is --
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because I'm right in the middle of it, and these for some reason choke me up like crazy --
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is a game called Mexican Kitchen Workers.
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And originally it was a math problem more or less.
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Like, here's the economics of illegal immigration.
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And the more I learned about the Mexican culture --
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my partner is Mexican — the more I learned that,
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you know, for all of us, food is a basic need, but,
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and it is obviously with Mexicans too, but it's much more than that.
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It's an expression of love. It's an expression of —
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God, I'm totally choking up way more than I thought.
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I'll look away from the picture.
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It's an expression of beauty. It's how they say they love you.
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It's how they say they care, and you can't hear somebody
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talk about their Mexican grandmother
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without saying "food" in the first sentence.
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And so to me, this beautiful culture, this beautiful expression
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is something that I want to capture through games.
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And so games, for a change, it changes how we see topics,
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it changes how our perceptions about those people
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in topics, and it changes ourselves.
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We change as people through games,
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because we're involved, and we're playing,
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and we're learning as we do so. Thank you. (Applause)
09:14
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Brenda Romero - Game designer
Brenda Romero designs games that turn some of history's most tragic lessons into interactive, emotional experiences.

Why you should listen

For decades, Brenda Romero has been a major figure in the field of game design. Famous for her work on the role-playing series Wizardry, she’s also known for her work on Def Jam: Icon, Playboy: The Mansion, and Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes. Inspired by her daughter in 2008, she began work on her non-digital series, The Mechanic Is the Message, dedicated to expressing difficult subjects through interactive media. Train, a game derived from the events of the Holocaust, won the Vanguard Award at Indiecade in October 2009.

Read TED's interview with Brenda Romero: "To understand inequality, let's play a game."

The original video is available on TED.com
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