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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?

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Comment Preferences

  •  it's the trivializing aspect... (8+ / 0-)

    games have to fun, or no one will play them. i'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest that the people who lived the underground railroad didn't consider it fun.

    books sometimes but not always play a similar role. movies more so. consider the standard wwii movie- the good war, and all that. my uncle who survived the battle of the bulge didn't consider it a "good" war, he considered it a necessary war. he was never nostalgic for it, he spent his entire life trying to get over it.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 12:56:46 PM PST

      •  The book (0+ / 0-)

        is peeking down at me from the shelf as I type. "The Good War" is a wonderful book!

        “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”

        by Marko the Werelynx on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:33:02 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Most games (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DaNang65

      involving combat wouldn't be considered "fun" if they weren't "make believe."

      Nothing human is alien to me.

      by WB Reeves on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:30:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  You're surrendering the power of identification (5+ / 0-)

      A significant part of the hyper militarization of American culture is the ubiquity of war-based movies and fighting games. Kids play as soldiers, and naturally come to think of themselves as soldiers and soldiers as the good guys. Those games don't depict anything like a realistic war experience, but they still work in altering player's opinions and knowledge.

      I really like the idea of an Underground Railroad game, because the slaves and the abolitionists were real good guys of the period. I like the idea of people learning to identify with them, and while no successful game could accurately depict how bad slavery was, players would still get that it was a very bad thing, which is much better than the way popular culture deals with slavery, which is basically by ignoring it.

      •  In a related vein (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        DaNang65

        Two of the seminal intellectual experiences of my early years were seeing dramatizations on TV of Harriet Tubman (Ruby Dee) and John Brown (believe it or not, Jack Klugman). These were part of a series titled "The Great Adventure" that I watched when I was seven years old.

        Nothing human is alien to me.

        by WB Reeves on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:54:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  TES: Skyrim had a similar, albeit smaller, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ontheleftcoast

    racial element depending on the type of character you built for yourself. Looking forward to Meriwether getting funded. If it does it will probably come out around the same time TES 6 comes out.

    Lo que separa la civilizacion de la anarquia son solo siete comidas.

    by psilocynic on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:00:05 PM PST

    •  i have to play skyrim, did your "race" influence (3+ / 0-)

      how characters treated you?

      •  It can (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        psilocynic

        The dominant culture are the Nords and they are some what xenophobic. Particularly to the Elven races. Apparently a few hundred years of war have left their mark on the culture. While there are dialog options and commentary from NPC's based on your race there are very few places where being a different race makes any difference in the game play. For example, everyone who isn't a Nord will occasionally be referred to as "a milk drinker". When you first enter the city of Windhelm you're treated to some Nords referring to Dunmer as "Greyskins who pollute our city with their stink". But even a Dunmer (one of the Elven races) can join the Nords in their fight against the Empire without penalty.

        What's wrong with America? I'll tell you. Everything Romney said was pre-chewed wads of cud from Republicans from the last 30 years and yet he managed thru a combination of racism and selling the (false) hope of riches to get 47% of the national vote.

        by ontheleftcoast on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:14:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I sided with the empire (2+ / 0-)

          because the Nords came off a little to Nazi for my liking. But then I killed the Emperor so I'm a bad Imperial.

          Lo que separa la civilizacion de la anarquia son solo siete comidas.

          by psilocynic on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:25:30 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  You're not the only one who saw them as Nazi (2+ / 0-)

            wannabes. There are some definite ubermensch qualities in Skyrim. But in the end the hero is judge on their actions, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. You've got to love a game where gay marriage equality was baked in from the start.

            What's wrong with America? I'll tell you. Everything Romney said was pre-chewed wads of cud from Republicans from the last 30 years and yet he managed thru a combination of racism and selling the (false) hope of riches to get 47% of the national vote.

            by ontheleftcoast on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:31:07 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  I played as an Imperial (best perks imo) (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ontheleftcoast

        and I was not treated as badly by the Nords (the blond viking separationists of the game, no offence to vikings) as some of the other races (khajiit and orsimer were treated especially shitty in Windhelm). My first week playing the game and hearing "Skyrim for Nords!" over and over again was a little weird. I might replay the game as an Altmer but they are kinda racist dicks in the game as well. You should definitely play this game though.

        Lo que separa la civilizacion de la anarquia son solo siete comidas.

        by psilocynic on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:22:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Mediated experience difference (7+ / 0-)

    Authors have a power inside of a narrative, of course, but readers construct, and the social coding of [author] and [reader] will alter the product that we call a reading. In other words, the instruction set is small in a book because it is a "cold medium." It employs super-signification (meanings above and beyond simple lexicality) to get to the "meaning," and these are always moving.

    There are gobs of approaches to the hermeneutics of reading, from Harold Bloom's "strong readings," where readers read "against" the author's instruction as an act of psychological freedom, to H.R. Jauss's notion of a changing "horizon of expectations," where readers have sets of conditions they carry as "normal," and texts always comfort and question these assumption sets. Because of historical change, the readings may be moderately stable while the value goes up and down.

    However, a video game is a "hot medium." The senses are engaged more and more, and therefore even a game that purports to be open-ended is still exercising a great deal of control. The control will betray the constructor's assumptions about value (and this is, ultimately, how we perceive the power -- someone telling us that this is good, that bad, that we should want to be him and not her).

    Games, as games, have two "plays." One play is to achieve the structured goals. The next is to subvert the direction of the game. Thus, people who ran over the hookers in Grand Theft Auto discovered it out of a desire to "beat the game" more than beat up women, and every game has players trying to set off a bomb by the hero figure or see if they can get to a hidden level. Consequently, games set up a direction of play that is overt power and then become a structural counter play.

    As for making a game of the Underground Railroad, it may fail simply because it cannot admit of any moral equivocation. The value structures can't allow for "playing either side" or battling the game itself, and the values are also such ongoing concerns that the game would have to lose its play to maintain its use.

    People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

    by The Geogre on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:02:40 PM PST

    •  fascinating, do you have any reading suggestions? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Geogre
      •  It's hard to say (0+ / 0-)

        Your interest shows that you'd probably be as unhappy with the current state of game scholarship as I am. Either it goes with popular cultural studies (1) or back to game theory (2) or is trying to make the games into metaphors. This last one is the least informed and the most common. It's what we see when people speak of online games, in particular, as micro-societies, etc. They keep saying that the game is a nation or community, but they never have any data or analysis. It's as if they're trying to validate the game -- which is fine, but we want analysis, not defense.

        If you want some of the cornerstone readings in popular culture studies, I can offer those up by Kos Mail or a reply tomorrow, when I get at my books in my office. Generally, though, it is a historicist approach, in that popular and commercial culture is charged with being a shadow social text. Thus, the proliferation of immasculated boyfriends in 1990's movies (Time Traveler's Wife, the one about the mailbox that crosses time -- all of these give "perfect" men because they can't be demanding; they're there for eternal admiration and romance, but they aren't nagging and bored or boring) say something about the nature of "man" at that time, just as images of "Japs" in comic books of WW2 did then. For this, one would need to add in the fact that games have the dual aesthetic of winning by the rules and against the rules.

        The people who revert to game theory are the best and worst, to me, because they can be really reductive. They assume that humans act rationally and do not seem to handle aesthetic responses very well or the weight of cultural attachments.

        Anyway, I dig the ancient Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes. It's short, enjoyable, and makes a case that a number of theorists have made about the openness of reading. Umberto Eco's even older The Open Work is good for refiguring how meaning is done. He argues that there is a "lexical" reading (each word in order, like a rope) and an "encyclopedic" (all words, and an ability to bounce across different potentialities in the words, a field of words rather than a string).

        I'll offer up names, if you want.

        People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

        by The Geogre on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 05:54:48 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  i teach in cultural studies so we should chat (0+ / 0-)

          i am more interested in the video game theory representation stuff you mentioned. but there are so many different approaches i am open to whatever readings you suggest.

          appreciated. good old barthes. is mythologies still read?

  •  Don't you think it's possible (6+ / 0-)

    that the players of this game might just go out and read the real history? I mean we played Oregon Trail in school as an addendum to learning about the Oregon Trail. Neither the game nor the real-life trail are particularly pleasent in their gameplay or reality.

    This doesn't offend me too much, and in this case, I think you're reading something into it that isn't exactly there. You're insinuating malice. I really don't see it.

    (FWIW, there is at least one game about the Holocaust and Nazis...called Wolfenstien 3D, but you mostly shoot monsters and not Nazis, although you shoot them too.)

    just a little bit bored.

    by terrypinder on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:05:50 PM PST

    •  not insinuating malice at all, notice my language (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, WB Reeves, luckydog, DaNang65

      in the post. I am curious about how agents make choices about what constitutes fair use for a game. In fact, I assume no malice all, these are likely folks trying to teach kids some history. That having been said, popular culture and these types of "educational" projects do political work.

      Dig deeper.

      •  Did you read the "Curriculum" section... (0+ / 0-)

        ... on the site?  I'd be interested in hearing your opinion after scanning what the educators thought 4th graders should know before they actually "played" the game.  Some of the exercises seem pretty terrible from my point of view, i.e., looking at slavery from the point of a slave-owner, and I can't quite figure out how the authors are presenting Liberia in the context of the lesson plans or the game.

        I'd be interested in your take.

        I haven't been here long enough to be considered a Kossack, does that mean that I'm just a sack?

        by Hey338Too on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 03:23:29 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  nazis are the go to bad guy, that is different (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, zubalove, DaNang65

      from a game about escaping a death camp.

      also, do reread what i wrote--there is no claim of malice. I am more interested in the political work being done here. That does not necessarily involve intention at all...usually doesn't.

      Could care less if it offends you. This is about meta questions about history, politics, power, race, representation...and yes, pleasure.

    •  If I had gotten dysentery ONE more time... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ogre, sayitaintso, Fair Economist

      ...well, I'd've had dysentery a whole bunch of times, I can tell you that.

      Playing that game taught me that it's a low probability event to actually make it to Oregon.  At least in covered wagons on the trail.  Today I'd hop a plane...dysentery free.

      (-6.25, -6.77) Moderate left, moderate libertarian

      by Lonely Liberal in PA on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:28:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good questions (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shahryar

    I am not a gamer.

    Like so many other creative works so much depends on artistic vision, sensitivity, point of view, etc.

    There are some books I will not read, some movies I will not see and some games I will not play. In this case someone other than me, will have to decide.

    I look forward to the discussion here.

  •  I don't play video games. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sebastianguy99, DaNang65, marykk

    But I like the idea of the history of partisan activism to correct injustice being taught through a game.

    "Til you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules" John Lennon - Working Class Hero

    by Horace Boothroyd III on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:14:58 PM PST

    •  Just from reading the title of this diary (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      marykk, shigeru

      I was right there with you, Horace, and might have made an extremely similar comment until I read through.

      Now, not at all certain.

      Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Monkeys kill people too, if they have guns.

      by DaNang65 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 03:19:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Not sure what I think about it (0+ / 0-)

    I clicked your link to check it out but the game didn't load, so I can't really form my opinion about it.

    I don't suppose I would like it because gaming is a trip away from reality for me. It's the only time I can get into fantasy. I hate fantasy/sci-fi movies and books. Harry Potter, Avatar, LOTR and others are a sure fire way to either annoy me or put me to sleep. It's impossible for me to get into those things. I couldn't even dig Hunger Games, even though almost everyone I know loved it. Too silly of a premise for me.

    For that reason I typically only read non-fiction books, taking a break for fiction with a select group of talented fiction writers. I'm not much of a movie person, either, with the exception, again, of some of my favorite screenwriters and/or directors.

    Gaming is the only time I can get into an alternate world, so at that point I don't want to play anything "realistic." No war games for me, if I want to shoot something I shoot zombies or trolls. I like my gaming to be unrealistic and in another world. It's really the only time I get away from this one.

    (Part of this probably comes from the typical liberal bleeding heart thing- I don't think war is a game or can be reduced to one, and I just don't like the idea that we glorify it via gaming.)

    All that being said, and to your point, no, I probably wouldn't play it. Is it offensive? My knee-jerk reaction is to say that yes, it is, but since I can't actually judge the game as it is, I can't comment on that.

    P.S. I am not a crackpot.

    by BoiseBlue on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:18:23 PM PST

  •  your narration pages are very well done (0+ / 0-)

    Exclusive Family Friendly PC Games to Give, Play and Share for Free. ProjectReindeerGames.org

    by MrBigDaddy on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:21:56 PM PST

  •  It's funny no one has mentioned.... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomorrowsProgressives

    Fallout 3.

    Fallout 3 had a fairly large slavery component to it, although it was not based on race. (Some of the Slavers were black, in fact).

    What's interesting is that you could accrue faction points by working with the Abolitionists or the Slavers. There wasn't too much of a plot thread in the main game dealing with it, but as far as sandbox games go, it was pretty interesting.

    I think The Pit, one of the downloadable chapters focused on fighting Slavers in Pittsburgh.

    •  The Pitt was one of the best written (0+ / 0-)

      sections of any game I've ever seen. It should be mentioned that while most of the slavers are just the same ol' superevil monsters the Raiders were, the Pitt's slavers were actually a fairly neutral/dark grey faction, while the slaves weren't much better, and led by someone MUCH darker than Ashur, the lead slaver. (Also, it's implied that siding with the slavers is the better moral option, particularly because the lead slaver genuinely values their contributions and is only keeping them enslaved because they need to rebuild Pittsburgh so that they can cure the "trog" disease that could wipe out humanity...)

      16 years old and fighting like hell to make a difference, Tomorrowsprogressives.com

      by TomorrowsProgressives on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 03:16:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the link (5+ / 0-)

    I'll definitely check it out and make a personal assessment.

    A point about your diary though. The story of the Underground Railroad is only one facet of the struggle for Black liberation in the US and a complex one at that. It is also a facet of the story of the Abolitionists.

    This is important to recognize, for while it's difficult to imagine making a game out of the fact of the Nazi extermination campaign, it's not at all difficult to imagine making a game out of instances of armed resistance by Jewish people to the Nazis.

    Or, to make a more accurate comparison, a game about the concealing and rescuing Jews during the Nazi occupation. For that matter, I can easily imagine a game based on the anti-nazi underground resistance in Europe.  

    It seems to me that your examples conflate the commission of historical crimes with the historical resistance to them.

    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:27:34 PM PST

  •  Thanks! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Fair Economist

    I hit the link and gave the game a "one quick attempt" it's just a very primitive Flash game. More or less just a text adventure but there doesn't really seem at first glance to be much of any real role-play or even logic to influence your decisions in choosing a path. As if I'm given any information about the towns ... not really.

    At a very superficial glance it seems to offer historical information about slavery. I liked the inclusion of many illustrations and photographs from that era-- including horrific photos of the scars on a man's back.

    I'd give points for aesthetics but it's not really much of a game-- certainly not much of a strategy game. The game seems to be deciphering the map or just clunking through it until you stumble upon the right path-- unless they actually added something as amazing and sophisticated [cough!] as randomization.

    I think just about anything that you can write a novel about can be the subject of a video game. It's a media with a lot of potential-- I just don't think the rather simplistic game of The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley is up to the level of what it pretends to be. I get the feeling that if I knew a heckuva lot about the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley I'd get through this maze on my next try. I might know where safe houses, the stations, were located-- but then, the game could be teaching me all that information instead of having me stumble around without a Harriet Tubman within a million miles of me.

    If the game is supposed to, as it says, give me some idea of the decisions a slave had to make to get to freedom then I feel cheated. Click on green town, click on red town-- decisions, decisions ...

    “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”

    by Marko the Werelynx on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:31:27 PM PST

  •  after playing through it (3+ / 0-)

    I think it would work very well if it were say on a touch pad and a part of a exhibit., say with some real life artifacts near it etc.

    Exclusive Family Friendly PC Games to Give, Play and Share for Free. ProjectReindeerGames.org

    by MrBigDaddy on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:32:28 PM PST

  •  One of the biggest (7+ / 0-)

    issues in thinking about any horrific human event, whether American slavery, the Jewish holocaust, the treatment of indigenous peoples during colonization, or what have you is our ability to ask questions about how and why these events happened, and how can we understand people and events better to prevent such a thing from happening in the future.

    If what the game does is turn the plantation owners, Nazis, or whoever into bad guys we try to run away from, outwit or shoot, I'm not sure how that helps people (particularly young people who tend to play these games more) think about and understand these events better. Maybe it gives a little bit of insight into what that experience was like for someone who never imagined it before, but not necessarily in a way that is going to provide a lot of historical insight. An important aspect of these events is that they were perpetrated by everyday people. Can a game really help somebody think about what that means? I don't know.

    I guess it could have a beneficial side effect if some people who play the game are inspired to learn and think more about the actual events, but it would depend on what the game was like whether that was likely to happen.

  •  I believe the interactive medium can handle (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Fair Economist, LucyandByron

    any subject matter and, done right, could be an incredibly powerful way of talking about complex, painful and / or horrifying topics.

    The "done right" part is, of course, the kicker there - and it's certainly just as personal and subjective a judgment as any other medium. What one smart, passionate person finds genuinely offensive may be a liberating, truth-telling experience for another, equally smart, passionate person. And while that divide may be drawn sharply along racial, class, gender or any other lines, it isn't always (hello, looking at you "Django Unchained"...).

    All mediums have to mature and come into their own, and as they do so, their ability to do justice to complex and painful subjects grows. Films used to be short, silent and slight novelties. Comics used to be the "funny papers" or superhero epics. We take it for granted now that film is one of the most powerful and rich mediums to tell stories (and histories) in, and graphic novels are now created that can talk eloquently and explore any subject in the world.

    Of course, artistic evolution isn't just a nice smooth line and some pretty amazing things can be produced early on in any medium's life. And what I'm talking about is an evolution of artistic capability - even in the era of "Black Hole," "Maus" and "Persepolis," we still have Beetle Bailey and Superman comics and we likely always will. What is certainly true is that both of these mediums have evolved in ways their original audience (and creators) may never have dreamed of.

    I feel strongly that this is what we've begun to see with videogames. Telling stories visually and sequentially on paper was never inherently only capable of giving you a daily chuckle or fulfilling your inner (or outer) 12-year-old's male power fantasy. And so the term "comics" became less and less descriptive and more of a vestigial term - there ain't a damn thing funny about Auschwitz, but "Maus" is one of the most powerful testaments to the Holocaust ever created. And so the term "comics" started to morph into "comix" or the more formal "graphic novels" or even just "sequential art."

    The same thing's happening with videogames. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some "Super Mario Brothers" and couldn't get enough of Ms Pac-Man back in the day, but they really are mainly really fun diversions for kids and inner kids. Now take a look at the hauntingly beautiful and mournful "Dear Esther," or the domestic trauma and healing that are at the center of "Papa & Yo" or the spiritual grandeur of "Journey." And, as you mention, even fantastic mainstream entertainments like "Bioshock" are capable of saying a whole lot about (in this case) ideological extremism and the way societies fall apart. Again the original term for the medium - "games" in this case - is starting to be a worse and worse fit for the medium's most beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking products. Hence videogame critics have stopped asking so often whether a single work is or isn't "a game" and have starting using more accurate (though less concise) terms like "the interactive medium."

    Is "Dear Esther" a game? Well, it's sure built out of a modification of sci-fi masterpiece "Half Life 2." How about "Journey?" Well, you are jumping and flying and solving puzzles to get from point A to point B. But anyone who came into either of these "games" expecting the quick, accessible fun of Ms Pac-Man or Space Invaders would sure be in for a surprise...

    "Republicans Vote To Repeal Obama-Backed Bill That Would Destroy Asteroid Headed For Earth." 2/2/11 The Onion

    by brooklyns finest on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:39:09 PM PST

  •  Ok, I went and played... (4+ / 0-)

    I deeply appreciate the concerns you're raising.

    And...

    I don't think this game is a bad thing. It's a "game" in the technical sense, yes. But it is more what I'd call a historical simulation. You don't make many choices, you're presented with a reality, and the game leads you through the kinds of experiences--most frequently to death, in my experience. Even not dying, getting to Canada, you're at death's door.

    It lacks most of the kinds of game-ness of what we think of as games. It's a device for drawing the player in, to feel a little of the urgency and desperation, to engage the "reader" in a visceral sense of the story, rather than just reading it, and being told how awful and scary it was... and how many people died.

    But they walked on perilous ground doing this.

    I suspect it would be very useful for teaching a class about the experience of slavery, running away, and the Underground Railroad. It would help make all of that more "real" to a student.

    But to reiterate--it's only technically a "game." There's no score. You only win (stay alive and get to Canada) or not (die, or are dragged back to slavery without further hope). There aren't the kinds of rewards and thrill features common to game games.

    "Be just and good." John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

    by ogre on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:40:11 PM PST

  •  Historical games have some tough choices to (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LucyandByron

    make in regards to some topics. For example slavery is rarely depicted even in games like Age of Empires or Civilization which span huge swaths of history where slavery was present. Though one of Civs offshoots, Call to Power, did have it as a significant game play element. Religion is another subject that is largely ignored. I'm guessing they do that because it's too damn hard to bring the right context to a game. When Civ IV added religion there was a huge disclaimer in the manual talking about it. Letting people know they meant no disrespect of any kind for any religion but just felt some mention of the impact of religion on history had to be made. Notably the feature was completely dropped for Civ V.

    What's wrong with America? I'll tell you. Everything Romney said was pre-chewed wads of cud from Republicans from the last 30 years and yet he managed thru a combination of racism and selling the (false) hope of riches to get 47% of the national vote.

    by ontheleftcoast on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:43:41 PM PST

    •  My impression... (0+ / 0-)

      was that it was dropped because the implementation was... grossly inadequate. Religion had a slight effect, but largely just played out as a complete side story with no real impact. (I once played, intent on pushing "my" religion out and creating an almost universal faith. And that didn't seem to matter to anything in the game, even though I succeeded in that objective.) Which is so ahistorical that yanking it was a better choice.

      Delicate subjects need NOT to be avoided. They need to be treated delicately, and very well.

      "Be just and good." John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

      by ogre on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 02:39:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Bookmarked. (0+ / 0-)

    I need to think about this one . . .

  •  But there ARE such other games. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG
    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?
    There's not one on the holocaust and rape of nanking per se, because how do you make a competitive game when there's no chance for one side to "win"?  

    But there's plenty of WWII games.  And WWI games, and civil war games.  In fact, people re enact civil war battles all the time, real people with realish looking weapons and uniforms.

    The Underground Railroad game, it seems to me, gives a chance to identify with good acting people without minimizing the evils of slavery and yet provide excitement.  

     

    One piece of free advice to the GOP: Drop the culture wars, explicitly.

    by Inland on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:48:46 PM PST

  •  Interesting concept (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ogre, jem6x

    though I agree the "game" aspect is troubling.  I grew up in a Quaker town in Indiana, and the house I grew up in was part of the Underground Railroad.  The Friend's Church will always have my great esteem for their fidelity to their beliefs, but the Underground was just a tiny band-aid on the gaping and putrid wound inflicted on our fellows.

    The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
    I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
    Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
    And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
    And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
    And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean
       clothes,
    And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
    And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
    He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
    I had him sit next me at table . . . . my firelock leaned in the corner.
    One could do that, at least, and yet the issue would not resolve itself based on individual acts of defiance; it reminds me of driving resisters to Canada during the war, it was something but not much.

    The real feat would be for the game to make the gamer FEEL:

    Again from Whitman:  

    The hounded slave that flags in the race and leans by the fence, blowing and
       covered with sweat,
    The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck,
    The murderous buckshot and the bullets,
    All these I feel or am.
    I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,
    Hell and despair are upon me . . . . crack and again crack the marksmen,
    I clutch the rails of the fence . . . . my gore dribs thinned with the ooze of my skin,
    I fall on the weeds and stones,
    The riders spur their unwilling horses and haul close,
    They taunt my dizzy ears . . . . they beat me violently over the head with their
       whip-stocks.
    Make a game that causes its players to feel that and you will have taught them something.

    "I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man.'" J. R. Robertson.

    by NearlyNormal on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 02:00:15 PM PST

    •  Yeah. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NearlyNormal

      Boston raging on the edge of open revolt as the federal slave return law (headache--the name of the act is escaping me...) was enforced, and a captured person returned to slavery.

      Of course, it'd be awkward not to ALSO include the vicious, racist, horrific actions elsewhere.

      But if it's uncomfortable, it's probably something that ought to be done. Avoiding things because they make it awkward and uncomfortable is a powerful device for insisting that we just shove it all under the bed and pretend it didn't happen.

      And that's worse.

      Among other things, it empowers all the horse crap from the right about the nature of the Confederacy, that slaves were well treated and loved their lives....

      "Be just and good." John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

      by ogre on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 02:45:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  What a wonderful heritage for your family. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NearlyNormal

      I wonder if you are familiar with the novel Redfield Farm, which tells the story of a Quaker family that is part of the Underground Railroad.

      Pretty good book.

      "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our values." Barack Hussein Obama

      by jem6x on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 07:22:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Um, compared to games on hate group sites... (0+ / 0-)

    ...these games mentioned are tame stuff indeed. I think a bit of absurdity is required for most gaming.

    On another note, I couldn't help but wonder if you caught Pike County, Ohio: As Black as We Wish to Be?

    I found it fascinating and challenging listening.

    "There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.".. Buddha

    by sebastianguy99 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 02:02:51 PM PST

  •  Harriet Tubman Unchained? (fist pump) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomorrowsProgressives

    I always imagined her as an Action Girl.   She led Union troops in the Combahee Ferry Raid .  

    In a written report to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Union Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton stated, "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted."
    I think there are two main reasons why the Holocaust isn't a game: #1, the Holocaust industry defends its brand as fiercely as Disney does theirs (the word can't be used for any other meaning, even though it had been for centuries) and #2, it would be completely depressing, as everyone knows the odds of survival and possibility of any sort of reward are virtually nil.   There are no even slightly happy stories, even Europa Europa or Life is Beautiful, because the protagonists' families, friends and neighbors were killed.  Which leads to #3, being still within living memory (my MIL is in her late 80's) and so intensively covered on TV, film and books doesn't leave much room for the imagination, though Cthulhu knows Tarantino tried.

    "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity" -W.B. Yeats

    by LucyandByron on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 02:05:44 PM PST

    •  You ID'd biggest diff between Holocaust and Und RR (0+ / 0-)

      The Underground Railroad can have a happy ending, while a Holocaust game really can't.  Given the age group of the target audience, the game has to support a curriculum that can't be portrayed too graphically.

      All the subthreads, so far, don't seem to really answer the diarists question on why we see games for some historical events, and not others.

      I think there are many factors that go into it.  When certain events appear in the curriculum, how it's covered, etc.  

      Dont Mourn, Organize !#konisurrender

      by cks175 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 03:46:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I searched playinghistory.com (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk

    The internal search engine seems weak, but there was 1 result for the search holocaust, a game about life in Holocaust era Croatia.

    Searched "abolition" and found none.

    Searched "civil war" and found games titled,

    JUST CHANGE: Expanding Civil Rights  (about the Supreme Court)
    Explore Sherman's March

    1066: The Game

    among others.

    I think part of the answer is that educational games are not very profitable, so there just aren't alot of games developed from that perspective.  As an upthread poster noted, the most well known games with historical bent are either first person shooter war games or fantasy games.

    Dont Mourn, Organize !#konisurrender

    by cks175 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 03:53:40 PM PST

  •  I don't know if I'm ready to answer this (0+ / 0-)

    but my kids did play"Oregon Trail" and "Yukon Trail" when they were young, and they did offer some history lessons that might not come so easily from books.

    Now those games did not have the added, and overriding, human rights dimension, which is why I'm more equivocal, but still, they probably remember more of what they learned there than what they did in some history classes.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 04:36:46 PM PST

    •  You never know (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      marykk

      what might spark an interest into a life-long obsession.

      A really badly done documentary sparked an interest in me in a certain aspect of history that led to a 20 year quest for knowledge on the subject that has now made me a leading expert in the field.

      Not one of us can truly understand anything we did not experience first hand.  We can't, although some of us try harder than others.  History is not one thing.  It is a multitude of different experiences, and today we are all outside of it, although some of us experience some similar aspects more than others.

      But we never know what will trigger an interest in knowing more.

      And it is that desire to know more that will allow people today to bring forward voices from the past, instead of letting them sink into obscurity.

  •  My perspective on this. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catesby

    I often read Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, and one theme that comes up quite often over there is that one huge problem we have with how we all learn about slavery and the Civil War in this country is that the African-Americans are usually portrayed as passive, suffering in silence and waiting for someone to come and rescue them.  This is a gross distortion, and in fact there were a million small acts of rebellion, including sabotage, murder and arson on the part of slaves, in addition to the thousands who ran away before the war and the thousands more who ran away during the war and joined the Union army, the untold numbers who spied for the Union during the war, and so on.

    The fact that this stuff is usually left out of the story is a disaster.  I loved the movie "Lincoln" dearly, but that is a deep flaw in that film that is characteristic of our country's telling of the Civil War story.  One history professor said she can't get many black students to take her course on the pre-Civil War South because they say they are ashamed that their ancestors did nothing to free themselves.

    So (as a white American who cares a lot about this stuff but I'm always a bit of an outsider to the issues), I am happy with anything that makes people more aware of stories like the Underground Railroad.  There is a wonderful current of heroism that needs to be told and retold, remembered and celebrated.  My gut reaction is to be happy about attempts like this game to do that.

    "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our values." Barack Hussein Obama

    by jem6x on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 07:18:19 PM PST

  •  Already been done. I played such a game back (0+ / 0-)

    in the days of the Apple II though it was a pure text adventure (might have even been Z-Machine based).

    You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

    by Throw The Bums Out on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 09:46:07 PM PST

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