Our conversation on role-playing games, race, and historical memory was a pleasant surprise. I am always impressed by the range of folks that follow We Are Respectable Negroes and the breadth and intelligence of their comments. In my post on Steal Away Jordan I mentioned Bill the Lizard, one of my fellow travelers in the journey that is ghetto nerdness. Consequently, it is only fitting that he offers some closure--and provocative questions--for this topic.
I read Chauncey's post and the responses which followed with great interest.
I've long felt that role-playing games (and the communities that play them) are very deserving of serious study from cultural anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists.However, as someone who for many years was a hardcore gamer (playing AD&D, Pendragon, Cthulhu, Vampire, Star Wars, and many others), the suggestion that Follow the North Star or Steal Away Jordan can help us better learn the historical lessons of slavery (the worst shame on our nation next to the American Indian genocide) is interesting...to say the least. Like Chauncey, I too applaud the convictions, creativity, and effort of those who have created these games.
And I seriously question the morality of their endeavors.
To quote the old adage: “Just because you can, doesn't mean you should,” and while both role-playing opportunities seem to be well-intentioned, my fear as a long time gamer, cultural critic, and anthropologist, is that these games have the potential to trivialize historical suffering and what were crimes against humanity.
I also had an Anthropology teacher in college who taught about the difficulties of cross-culture communication by separating the class into two groups and having each group develop it's own fake “culture” independent of the other. Once both groups were ready, the class then simulated “first contact”, where (more often than not) both groups left the meeting with negative feelings about the “other” group. The implications of this exercise helped us understand the intricacies of culture and how important it is to be respectful of difference.
However, these exercises were very broad and not morally complicated. We were not, for example, role-playing human misery and/or suffering. This is an important distinction that separates my role-playing/learning experiences from those offered by Follow the North Star or Steal Away Jordan.
Of course, role-playing can help people deal with difficult topics. Moreover, in role-playing games, I don't necessarily have a problem with using historical settings as backdrops for larger narratives (provided these settings are integral to the story). Nevertheless, putting people or "player characters" into a “slave owner/slave” role with the sole purpose of "teaching" them about the unimaginable barbarism that was chattel slavery in the New World is, in total, quite irresponsible.
Some Thoughts and Questions on Gaming
A role-playing game is just that--a “game.” It is designed for enjoyment first and for potential educational benefits second. For example, King Arthur: Pendragon taught me a great deal about medieval life and British mythology. But I can't forget the fact that I played Pendragon because it was fun. Hence the "game" aspect. Thus, to label Steal Away Jordan a role-playing game is problematic. How do you take enjoyment away from the misery of others, even if there is some purported educational value in the gaming experience?
I also have practical concerns about the limits of role-playing games. Primarily, a game master cannot force the players to view a role-playing game experience in the way they would like them to. Players have agency and will act according to their own motivations, moods, and agenda. These personal quirks often push players to “go off script” or “out of character.” Game masters can only suggest the courses of action and then hope for the best. Ultimately, it's the player that determines the outcome within the framework provided.
In freestyle games (i.e. those without a game master) group rule is the norm. Is this setting the most appropriate place to seriously explore the antebellum South and the plight of enslaved African Americans?
How do you, the game master, make sure that the people playing your “game” really take away with them a sense of slavery's long-term impact?
How do you, the game master, make sure that they just don't reinforce their own misinterpretations of history? Or inject into their “character” their own 21st century political or cultural biases or outright prejudices?
How do you, the game master, re-enforce the seriousness of the issues without minimizing the real-life horrific events? Would the people you're role-playing, the people who really suffered 150+ years ago, understand what you're doing?
I ask again: is this really the best way to remember the suffering of millions of people and 400 years of bigotry and racial hatred?
When people are encouraged to take on roles that they normally would find morally challenging and stressful, very strange things can happen – especially when you're dealing with the interpretation of people's real-life pain.
Some echoes of the real world where role-playing has gone horribly wrong:
24 undergrads at Stanford were selected to play the roles of both guards and prisoners in a mock prison environment. Roles were assigned at random. After six days, the experiment was quickly stopped because the professor, Dr. Zimbardo lost control of it. The “guards” became sadistic and the prisoners began showing signs of severe emotional disturbance.
The Third Wave:
A high school class was learning about Nazi Germany. They didn't believe that the German people could have been complacent and allowed the Final Solution to take place. So the history teacher, Ron Jones, decided to show them what fascism was like by creating the fake “Third Wave” organization and pushing anti-democratic concepts in his class room. After only four days, the teacher abruptly ended the experiment because things were quickly slipping out of control. The students showed themselves to be far more malleable to extremism than Jones ever expected.
The Milgram Experiment:
Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, set out to show people's willingness to obey an authority figure, even if that authority figure told them to do things that they would normally find morally reprehensible. One student was assigned the role of “teacher” and one of “learner”. The “learner” was a plant, while the “teacher” thought the events were real. The “teacher” then used what he thought was electroshock to punish the “learner” for not correctly answering questions. In reality there were no electric shocks, but 65% of the “teachers” were able to administer what they thought was a 450-volt shock to the “learner” just because the facilitator told them to.