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 socialization. They reflect the tenor and tone of the society which created them. Video games are also relatively empowered as a type of mass culture by virtue of their relative novelty, while also being limited by the attitudes and values of their creators.
At present, 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?