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.

Some discoveries.

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?


Lula said...

Going down my RSS feed, which is covered with news from both diversity blogs (angry asian man, ill doctrine, etc.) and indie RPG and nerd news (D&D With Porn Stars, Lore Sjöberg, etc.), I was pretty surprised to see Steal Away Jordan, a popular indie RPG, mentioned here rather than there.

Most people have played RPG's like Star Wars or Vampire or D&D perhaps a couple of times during their lives, and look to television or video games or books or something as their primary mode of entertainment. If I'm one of these people, I'd find it surprising if my entertainment's subject matter NEVER dipped into difficult and troublesome experiences such as slavery or war. In fact, in choosing entertainment (or creating entertainment) I would consider it responsible to include such experiences, for purposes of understanding my world better.

Playing Steal Away Jordan usually (though not always) implies something different: this is a game almost no one has heard of outside of obscure indie RPG circles. It's an independently published RPG which hasn't got a fraction of Vampire or D&D's reach. Many of the people who play it consider role-playing games to be their primary entertainment hobby the way TV is for other people. I'm one of these people, and so I like my RPG's, at least sometimes, to involve more than just hitting the monster with my axe. I like them to involve complex and deep scenarios and characters, and often to involve many of the subjects I study academically and personally (martial arts, Black studies, religious studies, dance), just because that's what's going on in my head.

Steal Away Jordan is one of many indie games which deal with intense and messed-up subject matter. You might also want to look up Jason Morningstar's award-winning game Grey Ranks, in which you play doomed members of the Polish resistance to the Nazis; or Ben Lehman's Polaris, an allegorical game of tragic fairytale heroism whose dynamics are influenced by the heartbreak of aiding abuse victims.

Playing one of these games with the kinds of idiots I run into playing Call of Duty on Xbox Live will of course be a miserable experience which will bring out the worst in those people. But honestly that's one of the attractions of intense games like these for me: the kinds of folks who want to play Steal Away Jordan or Grey Ranks or Polaris as our weekly RPG generally like to think about diversity issues, they can call me on my bullshit in a productive Jay Smooth-like manner if I say something racist, and I can come away from the experience having enjoyed myself on a game level as thoroughly as if I'd been playing Vampire or something, except probably better because these indie games are better designed.

Ultimately it's like video games: you can't blame the video game for the kid shooting up a school after he plays it, because that's about how the kid was brought up. I trust myself to have a reasonable attitude about race and history before, during, and after the Steal Away Jordan game. If I say something fucked up during the game, that's my fault, not the game's fault; the game at most gave me an opportunity to reveal that. The game can't make me embody something that isn't already there. Parental advisory: explicit content.

Anonymous said...

Where did the 'slave' in the video get her hair straightened?

Did she use Oxyclean to get her toga? clean?

Clyde L. Rhoer said...


My name is Clyde, I'm the person who conducted the interview with Julia, and wrote the comment you quoted from Steal Away Jordan.

I think that the quote you're taking from me is out of context. The "experience" I'm referencing is from living in Black neighborhoods, not the game of Steal Away Jordan.

I'll give you that post is not an example of stellar writing. So I'd like to try again.

Before playing Steal Away Jordan and having the experience I talk about in that forum posting, I did not believe in institutionalized racism. I felt that kind of talk was excuses from people who wanted to blame not trying on something outside themselves.

After Steal Away Jordan I've changed my thought, and believe institutionalized racism is a lot stronger force than I realized.

Not having a game like Julia's might have meant that I never got to examine the issue. Thus I think your conclusion regarding at least Julia's game is wrong.

chaunceydevega said...

@Lulu--this is a good, albeit inside baseball conversation for us unapologetic role players out there. Maybe it is personal taste, or I feel particularly close to the subject (not making any judgments on you by the way). But, I can't imagine why one would want to make a "game" or "simulate" or "play act/improvise" around such a topic.

I am curious, are there roleplaying games based on the Holocaust? The Native American Genocide? How would one even gm such an experience and keep it in good taste.

This is what I was trying to get at in my post on sleeping in slave cabins. How do we honor our ancestors and are there some experiences that are just out of bounds for play and pretend?

@Clyde--I appreciate the correction. I apologize if I mistook the spirit of your comments. Please share, how was playing such a game transformative? What questions did it lead you to explore that to that point you had not?

Clyde L. Rhoer said...

Sorry. I had to break the link. I can't afford to send 60 MB every-time someone loads your page. If you can fix the problem, let me know. I'm not sophisticated enough to know how to just deny you access, so unfortunately my links to that episode are broken now too.

Elliot Wilen said...

>are there roleplaying games based on the Holocaust

There's one to my knowledge: Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah. It was the subject of this interesting article.

Apparently at the US Holocaust Museum, they give you a card with the name of an actual person who went through the Holocaust, and whose fate you can trace as you move through the museum. I think this has a tenuous connection to roleplaying and to the theme of this article.

One project called "We all had names" was begun but I don't know if it was ever finished. The designer engaged a number of critics of the concept (including me), which may have led to his rethinking the overall approach.

studpoet said...

@Chauncey, this fascinated me so much I actually went out and bought the handbook. I am reading it now and its fascinating. I think there's some things that she wanted to happen that probably won't happen.
My own take on this as someone who is a Diversity educator is complex. My hope is that she has some real language around this.
I have more to say but I'm not gonna hijack.

@Clyde, I can't even explain how I feel after reading your "explaination" on why now you "believe" in institutionalized racism. It quite frankly pissed me off. I would encourage you to fix your links because your "explaination" was a bit off putting. Let your interview speak for you.

Lula said...

@CdV: Thanks! To respond to your concerns point by point …

Maybe it is … such a topic.
That's totally OK. Many gamers have subject matter limits: for me it's rape, and I'll often tell my group, "guys, let's stop and rewind/fast forward/fade-to-black this bit, I don't wanna get triggered" if it comes up in a game … or a book, or a film. You might compare it to Modern Warfare 2’s infamous Moscow Airport Mission, which players get the option to skip because they play an undercover CIA agent mass murdering civilians.

You might ask yourself what the difference is for you between reading a book, watching a play, or playing a video game about slavery or the Holocaust; and playing a tabletop RPG about the same. Some find all these media equally engaging in terms of how much they identify with the characters and events portrayed. A well-written character in a book might immerse me more than a character in a RPG; but you might find the fact that you’re making decisions for a character in a RPG or video game to immerse you in the world more than in a book or movie. Be aware of what you expect out of a RPG versus what you expect out of other media—where do you go for entertainment? For education? Simulation? Challenge your assumptions as to where others go for the same: just because I’m deciding and speaking in-character, and rolling dice, doesn't necessarily mean Steal Away Jordan has more or less simulative or narrative content than, say, Kyle Baker's Nat Turner. Depends on who's playing.

I am curious … Native American Genocide?
Grey Ranks is probably the best Holocaust-focused game you’ll find. As for the Native American genocide, How We Came To Live Here might be able to simulate such a thing; European cultural encroachment drives much of the game, although I think genocide specifically is not the default threat so much as getting your cultural identity extinguished. I'll try to score a copy and let you know. These, like SAJ, are also independently published games, and have a similar target audience.

How would one … in good taste.
So, interesting side note: Grey Ranks, like many indie RPG's, hasn't got a GM. Players share that duty around amongst themselves. But, how did Toni Morrison write Beloved? How did the actors in Margaret Garner play their roles? How did Art Spiegelman write and draw Maus, or Kyle Baker write and draw Truth: Red White and Black? How do you write an awesome long-running blog about touchy pop culture race issues which the whole angry Internet is watching, waiting for you to screw up so they can teabag you for it? With difficulty and sensitivity; by drawing on values of diversity inculcated in you through an enlightened education; and by fucking up frequently and saying stupid shit which your friends call you on with a stern but ultimately productive "das racist." It's harder than making up fantasy worlds and playing there; but sometimes you tire Wheel of Time and realize it's for your own good to pick up The Autobiography of Malcolm X, even if it's a less relaxing bedtime read. We probably can’t all GM like Toni Morrison writes, but I don't think that should stop us from engaging our history.

SAJ is far from the first game or "entertainment" which we have created to preserve difficult times in human history. Me, I play capoeira, which includes in its curriculum songs, rituals, dance moves, and games which represent five hundred years of slavery, torture, coercion, and oppression in the Brazilian underclass. Every dedicated capoeirista must learn to embody, celebrate, and even make fun of this history as part of the self-defense process. As humans we've been doing this a lot longer than RPG's.

chaunceydevega said...

@Stud--Nice to have a new voice at the table. I have wanted to post on this for some time--I want to write an article on gaming and race and was waiting for the right moment, so your comments are timely. How would you integrate this into a diversity training session? How do you decided what is acceptable and reasonable with what is robbing, using, and cheapening?

I use the privilege walk in a few of my classes. I find it effective and insightful--not so much for what the students "learn" but for how many are resistant to even doing it. I love Elliot's brown eyes/blue eyes. But, when she does it with adults it remains powerful, but again I keep thinking "the white folk can just walk away and go back to business as usual. Will they think they have some special insight and can now speak for me?" Quite worrisome.

Pray tell, share your thoughts and don't worry about thread jacking...a good convo is a good convo.

Anonymous said...

You only need search a bit to find Holocaust and Native American Genocide RPGs and if you don’t find them now, you can be pretty assured they’ll surface soon. We’ve come to a terrible point where historians, academics and activists have to scamble after technology in order to appeal to the masses. “Look here! History is important! Slavery did happen! And it was horrific! Don’t believe me? Experience it for yourself so you know how important it is! Because we know you won’t read and think deeply about it!”

So in part, it’s hard to blame those folks – who goes to museums anymore? They’re so boring, so old. And educators feel forced as well, trying anything and everything to hold students’ attention, to draw them in, make them curious and engaged and invested in something. That takes so much time. And we know experiential education is catching on in this country – big time. Everyone talks about transformative learning through service, experience, and engagement. There is some serious weight to this, many of us know. I often think of Stefan Zweig saying, “It is the petty, personal experiences that are most convincing.”

But who exactly is it that needs to be convinced? I think that’s the big question here. I’ve talked a lot to students about racism, sexism, colonialism, systems of oppression. And I see some students easily nodding their heads, this stuff is old hat. Others look so confused, even after I’ve beat the horse dead with example after example. They’re still not convinced. I’ll leave it to you to figure out whose doing the nodding and who is confused. I think there would be many well-intentioned folk at the university where I teach who would jump at the opportunity to have students experience Steal Away Jordan. They’re already geared up about some other experiential activities. It’s the subject matter of these activities that I find instructive. At one recent meeting, RPGs were tabled for getting students engaged with “what it’s like to be a woman in a developing country”. Fun ideas for activities included “carrying buckets of water on your head in a race” and “pounding maize” contests. I wondered where the contest for “try-to-find-money-to-pay-for-your-kids’ education-or-health-care-because-the-World-Bank-is-STILL-imposing-structural-adjustment” game was. Or what about “experiencing what it’s like to be a woman refugee”? If I could think of a clever game, I’m sure it would be taken on board.

Another popular and “transformative experience” at this university is called “Faces of Homlessness”, where students can go and hang out with the local homeless folks (while they gear up in ‘homeless costumery’) and return with horrific stories from the field (mostly placing themselves in the center of the experience). These students often come away from these experiences thinking they ‘know’ or ‘can relate’ to the developing country woman or the homeless man. That is a concern.

It’s all nicely packaged, all very safe. All just for them (which “them”?) On the other hand, one of my students was recently kicked out of a nightclub by the club’s owner who had called the police on him for dancing with a white girl (he’s African). That got him booted. I’m pretty sure he’s not going to need an RPG to figure out what racism feels like. How much of this actually lends to experiential learning and how much is a thinly veiled program - the experience being people who are tickled by the voyeurism they’ve participated in and who come away with a nice little narrative about how enlightened they’ve become?

Jason Morningstar said...

I'm following along with interest. I'd encourage you to engage with Julia Ellingboe about Steal Away Jordan. I've read and played the game and it speaks for itself - it is good work - but a roleplaying game is difficult to assess outside of its tabletop context. If you feel affronted by it, you should read it and try it.

One tiny note: I wrote the RPG Grey Ranks and it is emphatically not about the Holocaust.

Lula said...

my bad Jason!

Lula said...

To clarify: I described Grey Ranks as a Holocaust-focused game while operating under the (not universally accepted) definition that the Holocaust covers non-Jewish victims such as Poles, in which case you might say Grey Ranks's subject matter is Holocaust-related, if not focused. That said, it's Jason's game and if he says it's emphatically not about the Holocaust, it's emphatically not about the Holocaust.

Michael Erik Næsby said...

It is very complicated and then again: it's not really.
I suppose we all agree that it is possible but not very easy to make things like movies or novels about serious and complex issues?
Schindler's list for example or Diary of Anne Frank.
The fundamental question here is: Why should role playing games be any different in that regard?
I might not like the specific game or I am not a good enough player to pull it off, my co-players may - you know - stink but I sincerely believe it's seriously limiting to exclude subject matter in advance on principle.
What I'm not saying is that a game has to be easy or necessarily for everyone but that's OK.

Anonymous said...


You may want to read my review of Steal Away Jordan- I found the game to be damn insightful and great commentary on institutionalized oppression:


Julia has mentioned in several interviews that her goal was making a game about the slave narrative- whether real or folklore, and the stories that come out of the heroics of survival.

While it's true that there's always going to be privileged-ass people who don't get it ( http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/figments-of-the-imagination/ ), it's still important for creators of color to make media, games, etc. for folks of color without having to self-silence for fear of what the white folks will do with it - after all, you can't even be a president without people acting foolish these days.

I figure the people who get hee-hee's fantasizing about slavery and genocide are doing it, already, and won't find anything of value in a game that emphasizes the humanity of the survivors of the American Slave Trade.

Clyde L. Rhoer said...

Thank You. I put the show with Julia back in place, your changes really brought down the bandwidth-load. I hope folks like it.

As for explaining, I'm doing a horrible job, and am going to cut my losses.

Chauncey, I would be interested in talking to you about this stuff, if you like, in a way that preserves your anonymity. I don't edit content, so there'd be no trickery. I'm much better at speaking than writing. If you put theoryfromthecloset together with gmail.com that's how you reach me. Otherwise, be well.

studpoet said...

@Chauncey I have used Crossing the Line (which is similar to Privilege Walk) numerous times and usually with good results. I think it really allows people to see themselves through the lens of privilege.

I remember one time I was a part of the Privilege Walk and there was a guy there who was a staunch Conservative Republican who bordered on some very racist, homophobic, sexist attitudes. At one point we said, "Cross the Line if you have ever utilized welfare" A large majority of students of color crossed the line and he sort of sneered at them as if he was saying, "Yeah, thought so." Then we said, "Welfare, is not only food stamps but also federally funded student loans etc. etc." Basically things that no one really knew were welfare. And he crossed the line with tears in his eyes. It was a big moment for him. An "A-ha" moment.

I'm saying all this to say that as I'm reading through the book I think that the game has potential for something very intriguing. But the reality is that if someone even wanted to use it as a training tool they'd have to be highly skilled and I think as a training tool if not used properly it could be severly damaging.

But as I'm reading the game reminds me a lot of a few wonderful touchstones that deal with alternative history (with some supernatural or scifi aspects): Cosmic Slop's reimagining of The Space Traders by Derek Bell, CSA: Confederate States of America with a little bit of Roots thrown in.

This game leaves a lot of options for the ability in some ways for everyone to walk away unchanged. By allowing it to be a bit more supernatural or sci fi in nature the pain of this period (that yes, still affects Americans to this day) is muted.

I do however, revel in the fact that Julia truly wants the players to see slaves as not victims but as heroes. As they should be seen. Yet, at the same time, this is the double edged sword. To remove the victimology can be seen as the opportunity to remove the understanding that this country was built on slave labor and many of the institutions and systems that still exist today are built around the reinforcement and oppression of black, brown and red peoples.

We have to be careful with what I call Edutainment. It is a fine line to cross.

@Clyde, thank you for putting your interview back up. I think that your interview will probably speak much better for what your intent and your own experience may be.

@bankuei, I am looking forward to reading your review. And I agree with you to a point. Unfortunately, we do have to be aware, in predominantly white situations in what we say and what we do. Unfortunately we do. I think we should be creative and celebrate our past however, we are not talking about blue elvin mages we're talking about the realities of an institution that some white people today even think was just some passing point in time and we should just "get over it." Ya know?

But as I said, I think it's wonderful that we are looking at slaves in this game as heroes. Taking control over their destinies amid lives of horror.

I'm personally looking forward to finishing the game book and trying it out for myself.

I will say this; it's the first off line RPG I've wanted to delve into since Vampire: The Masquerade.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of how ironic how education has evolved, yet people have gotten stupider.

A comment above mentioned voyeurism. That's exactly what this is. "Play your part in one of our nation's greatest dramas." "Play" and "drama." All I can say is holy fuck. This is like Survivor, but with history.

I've used the word "consternation" to describe how something has made me feel in the past, but seeing this makes me feel like I've never used the word correctly. This is nothing short of terrible.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher in an after-school program in Brooklyn. Most of our students are first generation Americans of Carribean decent. My current project for the middleschool kids is a process drama about the Underground Railroad. I want them to understand the heroics and courage that was embodied by the conductors and passengers. I want them to know the stories beyond the great and terrible suffering, I want them to also know of the nobility and character sustained through all of the hardships, to be proud of their history. Within the Carribean culture there is divisiveness, island vs island.....sigh..... there's always an us and them. As an educator I see where in-role activities play a big part in this, but they are not and should not be a game. It must be a journey of discovery.

Lula said...

To the most Anonymous: what in-role activities do you think should be games?

Lula said...

*"most recent Anonymous"

Anonymous said...

In role activities are not and should not be a game. I belive that is what I wrote. I see what this Museum is driving at.... education, perhaps commemoration, but would you create a holocaust game where you choose the character of nazi or jew? Hell no. Most people mean well, given the opportunity, they really do. We humans have a long way to go, but have also come so far.