Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Of Follow the North Star and Steal Away Jordan: Would You Play a Roleplaying Game Set During Slavery in the Antebellum South?
This ain't Darkon.
One of my favorite joys as a teenage ghetto nerd was playing hour upon hour of Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars with my friends (most notably our guest blogger "Bill the Lizard"). In particular, I loved running an epic Star Wars campaign where through my machinations the players all ended up in a moral conundrum (one impossible to resolve) that would inevitably tempt one of them to embrace the dark side of The Force.
Ultimately, role playing games are an exercise in theater, friendship, and conviviality. At their root, they--at least for me--are about escaping reality and not engaging in the heavy day to day struggles of negotiating one's identity and its relationship to structurally embedded relationships of power.
To that point: Over the weekend I continued to meditate on the question of historical memory, tourism, and respect for our honored ancestors. During that time, I did a little more research and stumbled upon some interesting--and disturbing--finds. Apparently, the African Holocaust and slavery in the Americas is entertainment mated with education in some circles.
1. As seen in the leading video, Conner Prairie, an Indiana based living museum, offers a range of experiences for its visitors. One of these is "Follow the North Star" where visitors navigate The Underground Railroad to freedom. As Conner Praire's website notes: "This interactive glimpse into our shared past will affect you in ways that reading a book or watching a movie about it cannot." Be weary though as many dangers are afoot as Follow the North Star is not for everyone. "You should be prepared to take on the role of a runaway slave; you'll be walking outside on rough terrain in all kinds of weather, told to keep your eyes focused downward and spoken to in an abrupt manner."
I wonder if visitors can be whipped, branded, physically disfigured, manacled, or raped and defiled to complete the "historical" experience? Question: who would react more strongly to this live action role playing experience? Young "post-racial" black people or their white peers of the same generational cohort?
2. There is apparently a pen and paper role-playing game called Steal Away Jordan. In this game, you can play any number of "characters" in the antebellum United States. One can be a slave owner, a master, a runaway, a free person, etc. The only limit is your imagination and the boundaries imposed by your fellow players. But once more, I don't see how there is any pleasure to be had in reenacting such suffering (perhaps therapy, but joy and entertainment?).
For the curious, here is an in-depth interview with Julia Bond Ellingboe, the creator of the game.
As an example of my worry about how these types of "reenactments" can go oh so wrong because they trivialize the experience of what was then a heretofore unimaginable historical tragedy, see this post where a white gamer concludes following a session of Steal Away Jordan that:
This experience has always made me not accept the 400 years of oppression argument. As an individual there is no way society can stop you from achieving. The problem is you have to not give in to people who want you to stay where you are. That's difficult. Anyway... that yes masta moment has me reexamining some of my thoughts as that's the first time in my life I've ever felt wrong, like I'd done something racist.
3. Insert finger into throat and induce vomiting. I only have questions. Abolition News Network? A high school project gone wrong? Just all around poor taste? Is this people's exhibit number one of how a well-intentioned "diversity" training session can go very very wrong?