Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Would You Play a Video Game about Black Slavery and the Underground Railroad?

If you want to play a video game about the Underground Railroad click here.

One of my favorite conversations here on We Are Respectable Negroes was about race and role-playing games. Since that very instructive and spirited dialogue, I have tried to keep my eyes open for related stories.

As a ghetto nerd, I love a good game in any form. As someone who thinks a great deal about the relationship between pleasure and the politics of popular culture, those distractions which are supposedly just "fun" or "harmless," are of particular interest to me. How we choose to play is never "neutral"; rather, such choices are mediated by culture and Power, tell us a great deal about a given society, and are powerful lenses for thinking through questions of political socialization.

Several months ago, I became aware of a video game for elementary school children that would teach them about the underground railroad and the American slaveocracy. This game is now complete and has been released online. For those of us who are interested in power and social identity, the role of technology in society is of great importance as we try to grapple with how such categories as race, class, gender, and sexuality are imagined, taught, reinforced, contested, shared, and learned.

There are technologies of race. For example, the mass media was integral to the creation of the racial state and also its relative dismantlement. The Internet and social media are tools for political socialization. Racism has moved to the "backstage" and online. As such, cyber-racism is one of the most recent means through which white supremacist and colorblind racist discourses are disseminated to the public.

I am not a Luddite. However, I am deeply fascinated with the piss poor state of technological literacy in the United States. Just as too many people believe that if they see a thing on TV it must be true, there are sad foolish legions who trust the Internet to be a bastion of "truth," when in reality it is an organ of Power and mass culture--disseminating lies, half-truths, disinformation, and other intellectual chaff to the collective social (sub)consciousness.

Moreover, video games have a mixed history as a type of mass entertainment in regards to questions of race, identity, politics, and political socialization.

The most recent iteration of the game Assassin's Creed has dealt with such issues as the genocide of First Nations' peoples, chattel slavery, and presenting a more "realistic" version of Colonial America.

There is also a new game in development about the Lewis and Clark Expedition which does not ignore York, the black slave, fellow journeyman, intrepid explorer, history maker on that famed expedition, and the particular issues of freedom and bondage embodied (quite literally) by his role in that adventure.

And the very latest Bioshock game promises to offer loads of thinking material about libertarianism, technology, and questions of power and identity--I cannot wait for it to debut in a few months.

And then there is The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley. On the surface it is relatively benign. I am sure that the intentions of its creators are also noble. Yet, sometimes the sum impact of a given innocent endeavor can be extremely problematic and outsized.

As I said about role-playing chattel slavery in the game Steal Away Jordan, I do not know how to make a game out of the struggle of black bondsmen and bondswomen to be free. I do not know how to present their struggles in the context of a game, where the "characters" are awarded health points and bonuses as they try to follow the North Star to freedom. I do not know how to present slave patrols and slave catching dogs in the context of a video game. In all, I am not interested in coming up with the game mechanics for such scenarios, as that effort mocks and minimizes my/our ancestors great freedom struggle.

The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley is the result of many decisions by a range of individuals to create a product with an explicit purpose, design, and end goal. At some point, the creators of The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley talked with one another and said, "yes, a game about the Underground Railroad and American slavery makes perfect sense!"

I am very curious about the thought process that lead these good folks to decide that the Black Holocaust was a fitting setting for a game, while the Holocaust of Jews and many many others in Europe was not. Why not make a game about the Armenian Genocide? What about an action adventure set on the Trail of Tears? What about the Rape of Nanking? What decision rules are involved? Why are some horrors fair play, and others are considered bad taste for an exercise in educational technology?

Apparently, there is something about the murder of millions of black people in the centuries-long Transatlantic Slave Trade and Western slaveocracy which apparently makes it reasonable source material for speculative fantasy movies and video games. I wonder that it is?

The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley can be played online at this link. I am very curious about your reaction to it. How do you reconcile the good intentions of its creators with the game's aesthetics, structure, and narrative? Ultimately, are there some historical events that cannot be reduced to the premise of a video game?

A provocative question: how are books any different in terms of mediated experiences? Are my objections rooted primarily in form as opposed to content? How do we bridge the gap between how different types of texts communicate meaning?


CNu said...

Thus, there are little consequences for playing games with living history.

Where is this history living outside of folks imaginations CDV?

There are no consequences attendant to the development of any mediated cognitive object involving black folks.

One need only consider the fortunes amassed by folks trading and trafficking in fictional musical and cinematic narratives to gauge the truth of this statement.

A more interesting game would be situated in James Crow 20th century America - with stakes involving the successful preservation of blackness and black institutions absent the artificial pressure-cooker constraint of segregation.

Make the good guys vs. bad guys parameters less obvious..., Black Simm church, school, enterprise, city, movement, nation - pick your scale and laissez le bon temps roulez!

Unknown said...

CDV: " I am deeply fascinated with the piss poor state of technological literacy in the United States. Just as too many people believe that if they see a thing on TV it must be true, there are sad foolish legions who trust the Internet to be a bastion of "truth," when in reality it is an organ of Power and mass culture--disseminating lies, half-truths, disinformation, and other intellectual chaff to the collective social (sub)consciousness."

Hmm. I often wonder how many people who behave as if the above is true really are just choosing to find information presented on TV and the 'Net that reinforces what they already believe, rather than going in "neutral" and being shaped by what they see, hear, or read.

That is, I am suspicious of the notion that TV will "make" someone fundamentally racist, conservative, mean-spirited, etc., who was not leaning heavily in that direction to begin with. It may help shape, constrain, or otherwise limit our views, but I believe it's a two-way street for most people: they WANT to see the world to be as it is most convenient for them to see it, and if media does so, then such people are happy to cooperate with ingesting just the sort of diet they wanted all along. People don't eat McDonalds for lack of options. Even poor people can find nutritious affordable food. But McDonalds has figured out how to play on our worst impulses and instincts, and to reinforce them until they become dominant.

Similarly, Fox News and right-wing talk radio and websites have figured out how to take what people want to hear, see, or read and feed them a steady, unwavering diet of informational fast food, and again, that diet becomes dominant and habitual, so that people will shun something of higher quality.

It feels like a mistake to me to suggest that many people are convinced against their will that the world view of Fox, et al., is reality.

chaunceydevega said...

@cnu. I always enjoyed play Civ and having my afro-chinese empire conquer the world. Nurturing the imagination is important.

@mpg. with food deserts, the sad reality is that many poor people can't find better options. the dollar menu is a way of life for too many.

there is alot of evidence for selection bias in how consumers use the news. people seek out what they want to have confirmed.

conservatives are more prone to this both because of their political personality type, i.e. afraid of change, less creative, hierarchical thinking, and their media sphere is much more sophisticated in terms of creating epistemic closure.

but ultimately, this is just a con game on a basic level as the "4th estate" figured out long ago how to hustle the masses. Check out some of Lippman's writings decades ago on what he called "the newspaper man." Orwell has some great insights there too.

Weird Beard said...

CDV- Just curious about a hypothetical Django video-game. I think some of the arguments you presented here could also directly apply to a Django video-game, yet I wonder considering your previous praise of the film if your feelings and support for this hypothetical game could take another side of the argument.

The Sanity Inspector said...

A provocative question: how are books any different in terms of mediated experiences?

A game is a game, a pastime. But a book is a transmitter of events, of inspiration even. Just cast your memory back, and consider what a flame Uncle Tom's Cabin lit under the abolition movement in the U.S. Or how some decades before, the memoir of Olaudah Equinao did the same for the abolition movement in Great Britain. We're in uncharted waters, with the explosion of complex online games nowadays. But it's still difficult to imagine such a game having the same impact as the Great Books.

Invisible Man said...

Any thing to get Black kids to think about our history, especially if you could buck off a few shots at some white folks, I might even play that my damn self and I don't even play video games

wavenstein said...

Funny you writing a posting about slavery depictions in video games today Chauncey. Scrolling across the the internet today, I happen to run into this crap

I never thought I would see something like this in my life but yes ladies and gentlemen. It's a damn slave doll.

Historiann said...

wavenstein: I know! My advice is buy it now, as it may become a collectable, kind of like that African American "Oreo Barbie" that I found in an antiques shop a few years back.

But Chauncey, as someone who lived and taught history briefly in the Ohio Valley in the previous century, I'd like to shift the conversation a bit by asking the question: why are white people so fascinated by the Underground Railroad? It's the one thing in slavery times that doesn't upset or offend them, because they can point to the tiny minority of whites who fought against slavery and assisted self-emancipated blacks. People in that region love to talk UR history, and there are dozens and dozens of completely fake UR "historical sites" there, because people North of the Ohio River desperately want to forget the true history of Copperhead country.

That said: I don't know about the game format. I can see IM's point about using any tools to reach young people (or not-so-young people), but I remain uncomfortable with the promotion of a format in which white people cast themselves as the real heroes of abolition & emancipation.

*I will admit that I looked at the game website, but I didn't want to download the flash player they want me to take on. I will do that and check out the game itself later, which looks like it was designed by historians and educators to make serious points & to make it a learning tool rather than pure entertainment.

D. said...

In movies the maxim is to "Show, don't tell". In video games the maxim is "Do, don't show." The flashgame fails in both respects: it simply tells me how I should be feeling and thinking instead of stimulating those thoughts and emotions through playing the game itself.

On a related note Assassin's Creed III does mention slavery, but it isn't very central to the narrative. There's a mission where you free enslaved Native Americans, and another mission where Conner points out the hypocrisy of the Patriots with respect to the slave trade, and that's all when it comes to the main story. Conner's impetus is a very high concept of freedom, which comes across as naive. I have no doubt this aspect of his character is meant to reflect the same sort of idealized history that is legion in the US, which makes Haythem's brutal truth-telling all the more satisfying.

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, on the other hand, features slavery as its central narrative theme. Almost every facet of the game is related to slavery in some manner or another. Aveline's motives and goals are as fervid as Conner's but more concrete: "There are slaves, I will free them". But slavery is so monolithic that even the player's primary means of making money is thanks in no small part to the institution: Aveline is motivated to free slaves not only because she could have been one, but also as repentance because she and her family benefit from them.

D. said...

*Haytham's brutal truth-telling*