A short while ago, a trailer and site appeared for Slavery: The Game. As one can imagine, there was some confusion and horror based around the trailer and the premise it offered:
What I find intriguing is Latoya Peterson's take on the matter over at Racialicious, however. Namely, that the trailer that is shown above is problematic in that it is one-sided. As a counterpoint, Peterson mentions Age of Empires: The Conquerers, where you could take on the role of both conqueror and conquered, thereby learning a bit about the needs and progression of either side.
The issue is not a game about slavery, essentially. Games very often seem limited in what territories they can explore, with every war game that tries to discuss current events causing an uproar while we praise and give accolades to films and memoirs that do much the same. The difficulty is the perception of games, and the above trailer for a fake game, seems to bring forth painful realizations of how others may well perceive games.
Yet, looking at many games, do they really offer many better alternatives? While they may not go into detail about our history of slavery, how many strategy games allow you to assimilate other cultures, bring down revolts with increased military presence, and commit genocide in order to remove an opponent from the playing field? I think the key in this instance is that it isn't personalized, and often it happens to these blobs of civilization for whom we have no real connection.
While it is no longer contemporary, I still recall playing Colonization, and in retrospect, the fact that I could not ever play the Native Americans seems a shame as well as largely disappointing at a missed opportunity. After all, Colonization is already playing with history, in that you can decide someone other than the English take control of the area of land we now know as the USA. How much more interesting would it have been to have the Native Americans in that mix? Perhaps this is why I loved Alpha Centauri so much. While you couldn't play the native lifeforms present on the planet, you could work with them. You could herald their cause, or completely subvert it.
Among the great things about games are their ability to allow each one of us to see something different because of how we play. While we may always pick up something different in films or literature or a painting on the wall because of what we perceive and our own experiences, games add the element of what we have actually done.
In the case of an actual Slavery: The Game? This passage from Peterson's piece linked above asks some pertinent questions:
Great civilization games not only explore history as it happened, but also the way it could have been. If Slavery: The Game was realized as it exists in the clip, it would be an epic fail. But if someone felt like working with the nuances and complications of the practice, it could also turn into something amazing. Many African American history museums have a permanent installation on slavery as part of the story of blacks in America. Most recently, when I visited the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, I checked out their "And Still We Rise" exhibit. We started in an exhibit dedicated to the African continent, then walked through a recreation of a slave ship designed to explain the rigors (and horrors) of The Middle Passage. I couldn't help wondering how we could create a game from this experience, something that is interactive on a different scale. What stories would we follow? Where do we start? What are the motivations of European slave traders and African slave traders? What types of betrayals occurred? How do we program to show the difficulty of surviving the middle passage? How does a person other someone else so completely as to sell them? How does one stoke the fires of an uprising? Could we play as a policy maker debating the merits of abolition? Of entry and escape? Is the main character Harriet Tubman or John Brown or Fredrick Douglass Game or Nat Turner?
These sorts of concepts are ones I would like to see some games explore (I realize games are often about making money at the top levels, so not every one could explore these issues). There are many types of concepts that could be explored here. Starting from the Stonewall Riots and affecting political change for the LGBT community? The difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.'s ways of achieving parity and deciding to choose one or the other for a different campaign (note: not one in which the other is your direct opposition). The various disputes and issues surrounding any number of other continents or countries?
It's certainly an intriguing concept about which to think.