UP TO THIS POINT, we’ve looked at how specific games hold open an aporia that can productively be read as safeguarding the untraversable space of history. But for this study to be complete, we must also account for the complication inherent in rendering this history in an interactive form. This demands that we climb into a thorny thicket: we must question, if only to ultimately disagree with, the supposition that the videogaming form speaks to the themes of slavery and revolt. Or, more succinctly put, we must ask, is the videogame an apt space in which to dramatize this history?
As Bernard Perron and Mark Wolf note in their introduction to the second Video Game Theory Reader, this is a medium that “actively resists analysis by withholding itself from those who do not have the skills to keep their avatars alive.”1 Therefore, the mode of the videogame may offer something that a text like literature or film cannot: it will push back against the player in a felt, concrete matter. One might argue that typical functions of the videogaming form echo the strict restraint the enslaved faced and that the tension between the player, who would deftly navigate the world of the game, and the game developer’s algorithm, which limits and challenges the player, acts as some kind of formalist analogy to enslavement. Maybe, in some ways, these games recall in their form as well as in their content the restrictions placed on the historical slave. But it’s only a game.
Nonetheless, here is how this argument goes: when the player bumps into immovable objects or feels the frustration of a disenabled button, (no, that object on the table cannot be picked up, but this one can), he or she feels like a disempowered figure within the larger institution of the programmer’s world, “experiencing the algorithm,” in Galloway’s parlance, or the defamiliarizing effects of the videogame, in Holger Pötzsch’s terms.2 When the player fails a level and must repeat it for the fifteenth time by going rote through the steps (cut the rope, jump across the loose board, grab the lasso and swing to the other side of the bridge before its collapse)—what the kids today call “grinding”—the player performs a kind of labor to get to the next level. All videogames are about both power and powerlessness and work and play. As Tom Bissell says, in videogames, “You get control and are controlled.”3 The dyad of the player’s control and lack of control has been much discussed by videogame scholars, but as I’m not trying to argue here for its importance to videogames about historical slavery, I’ll leave this aside for the moment, with one last note.4 I concede that videogames about slavery and slave revolt showcase the medium’s inherent dialectics (between puissance and impotence, pleasure and pain, work and leisure) as we experience our own push and pull as subjects within the computer system in a new, troubling, light.
I want to be clear here that I am not arguing that the form of videogames approximates slavery and revolt—though I can see how one might interpret this element of videogame construction as conducive to dramatizing narratives about slavery. Videogames about slavery and revolt operate in a peculiar register because to play a videogame is to be incarnated into a world simultaneously in one’s control and not in one’s control. To play a videogame is to explore the borders of its structural mechanisms, to identify its rules, and to find the power to overcome its limits.5 The dialectics of power inherent in gameplay regarding the struggle between the game developer and the player, or the gamer and the game, might seem to take on new resonances when the narrative at hand concerns the agency of the rebel slave. However, I would emphasize that the performance of slavery in such games offers a richer—in that it operates within both the narrative and ludic registers—but also more potentially problematic, experience of role-playing.6 Instead, I’m arguing that these same limitations inherent to the form can be seen as productively withholding history from the player, prohibiting a complete absorption into the character.
It is as if the rigid gaming structure presents the possibility of the player’s identification with the historically enslaved person only to ultimately refute this as a viable option. The games about historical slavery that interest me are those that work on the level of the closed door, the blocked path, the interrupted mission, the failed level. These devices, what Soraya Murray would call the games’ poetics, represent the potential of the player’s occupation of the historical personage of the slave-in-revolt but, ultimately, obstruct in important ways the completion of that transformation. Therefore, my conclusion is this: the player’s sense of his or her own limitations within the system is not meant to mirror the enslaved person’s real-life oppression, but rather to resist the contemporary player’s occupation of that role. Although the restriction of choice and other aspects of gameplay may seem to work to particular effect (and affect) in games about slavery and resistance, I want to paraphrase James Sweeting’s discussion of the game Spec Ops: The Line: “the player . . . has one real choice: whether to play the game.” Any conflation between these ludic texts and the reality of the enslaved is patently absurd.7
On this front, we might consider moments of “selective interactivity” (for example, when pushing a certain button on a controller suddenly stops having the desired effect) and “operationalized weakness” (like Aveline’s limitations when wearing a particular guise) as reminders of the player’s distance from the PC. But even more importantly, some of these games withhold mastery from the player tout court.8 This has already been alluded to in the discussion of some games’ lack of a satisfying conclusion, but it is evidenced most concretely in the end of Freedom Cry.
Strikingly, Freedom Cry denies the player the possibility of accomplishing the task at hand in a heart-wrenching scene near the end of the game. Adewalé and the Maroons have begun to attack incoming slave ships to the island with the hope of freeing the slaves even before they arrive. The embattled French Gouverneur de Fayet, angered by the major losses in his workforce that the rebel slaves have cost him by breaking into cages in the public square, interrupting slave auctions, and the other such “missions” that comprise the gameplay, orders the French to fire on and sink a slave ship, causing major loss of life rather than allowing this human cargo to go free and be, as is Adewalé’s goal, recruited to the ever-growing Maroon army. The governor’s act of immense cruelty may call to mind the Zong massacre of 1781, in which the captain threw 132 enslaved people overboard so that he could seek reimbursement for their value by filing an insurance claim.9
Adewalé boards the sinking ship, but he cannot possibly save all the slaves. This is a deeply unsetting part of the game, as it rapidly switches back and forth between scripted cut-scenes over which the player has no control and shorter episodes in which the player retains command of the PC. In this part of the game, the second to last mission, the hero is bound to fail, as it is impossible to unlock all of the slaves’ shackles before the boat sinks. Although Adewalé later assassinates the governor as retribution for his heartless act, this penultimate mission tinges the rest of the game with a sense of failure and loss.
In this part of the gameplay, after boarding the sinking ship, the player moves to the hull and attempts to free as many slaves as possible. Frustratingly, each set of slave’s irons requires a different manipulation of the buttons, which must be learned on the fly. This is a perfect example of the kind of defamiliarization device that Holger Pötzsch describes as creating estrangement in the world of the videogame.10 His reading of these devices emphasizes the player’s separation from the game as resulting in “a source of innovative player engagement beyond a ludic or immersive attitude that makes the very rules and mechanics structuring interaction and perception the potential object of critical inquiry, politically inflected discussions, and formal intervention.” That is, as in Brechtian theatre, the estrangement from the world of the game may bring about the most essential aspects of its critique. Moments where the game becomes visible as a game break the player’s immersion to remind him of his distance from the PC. Otherwise, this can be achieved through frustration, as previously noted, and even failure.
Tension mounts as the people shackled to the sinking ship scream in terror and the water level rises. After freeing some of them, the player is forced by the programmed directives to escape, leaving behind the rest. No longer capable of interacting with the doomed figures, the player must leap or swim over the drowning people to climb through the ship, now vertical in its pitch, before it submerges. The mission ends with a cut-scene on the beach, where the PC meets with his fellow renegades to bury the dead. There, Adewalé admits to feeling guilt since it was his action that caused the governor to behave so drastically and vows to kill him. This is fulfilled in the next and last mission, in which the governor is assassinated in the act of torturing a slave with a branding iron. In the denouement, Adewalé tells Bastienne that he has determined to devote the rest of his life to fighting for the freedom of his people, but there is little sense of victory permitted. As the final credits roll, the mood is sorrowful. This example may seem similar to the case mentioned previously from the educational game Mission US, where options are foreclosed when the PC is sold on the auction block, giving the player an approximation of the lack of choice involved in slavery and no course of action for defying it. Therefore, one answer to the question raised above about what makes videogames an apt form in which to discuss such a difficult historical topic, is that they can refuse the player admittance to certain aspects, withhold identification with the historic subject, or deny victory and thereby refuse to yield mastery over the rebel slave.
Freedom Cry, like other games we’ve discussed here, seems to willfully deprive the player any celebratory rhetoric in a manner befitting a game about slavery. We might think of the Maroon leader Augustin Dieufort’s last words in the game, spoken on the beach as he helps bury the drowned slaves that Adewalé could not free, as an indication of how it operates in relation to the history it represents. Dieufort says of the dead, “We will always mourn them.” As much as this game celebrates a legacy of slave resistance, it is at the same time an act of cultural mourning for the transatlantic slave trade. The game’s mechanics, including the type of operationalized weakness on display in this mission, drive home the nuanced difficulty of creating a game that takes as its subject matter the historical modes of oppression and resistance of the enslaved. It risks, in its formal composition, a collapsing of the player and the historical character he or she pilots across the landscape. To make a game such as this one winnable would risk offering the player a catharsis. Refusing this possibility is a productive acknowledgment of how we remain haunted by the “specters of the Atlantic,” in Ian Baucom’s phrase.
Therein, the game defies players’ expectations and forecloses the possibility of triumph. My, perhaps charitable, reading of this conclusion is that it safeguards the history of the rebel slave as one ultimately inaccessible to the player, but I can imagine an alternate reading that could accuse the game designers of cowardice. The same company allowed the feminine, mixed-race Aveline to conquer her foes, but the black male character is denied either optimism or victory in the end. However, I would argue that aspects of the game are even more intriguing when they reveal effects unplanned by the designer.
Freedom Cry, a game about personal agency and the prehistory of the slave revolt of Saint Domingue (which, as we know from Susan Buck-Morss’s foundational essay “Hegel and Haiti,” was the spark for Hegel’s theory of the Master/Slave dialectic) may seem an apt setting for the articulation of the videogame player’s dialectic of power and powerlessness, to which all videogames might be said to contribute. As Frans Mäyrä has said, games are “not static objects,” so this boundary line—that slash between controlled/controlling—is ever in flux.11 This dialectic seeks to define the boundary between the player’s capacity for co-creation of the game narrative and the rigid compartmentalization of his role by the game designer. But it’s more complicated, even, than this. Aspects of the game like unavoidable failure, operationalized weakness, and selective interactivity are plainly part of the algorithm installed by the developer, but more broadly, videogames are complex texts that not only restrict the freedom and movement of the player but sometimes exceed the developer’s control in a manner that further problematizes the dialectic of control and controlled.
The line between the controlled and the controlling will shift within a game as it will from player to player, and it is determined not merely by the developer’s choices or the player’s skill but also by external circumstances. Mods, hacks, glitches, and other phenomena that exist in the broader space of online fan community are part of play. A brief digression on the subject of glitches and fan communities in Freedom Cry highlights the complexity of player agency, making clear what Boluk and Lemieux write in their book Metagaming: “there are no glitches, nothing is out of bounds.”12 Identifying such moments, where the game exceeds not only the player’s abilities but also the developer’s intentions, illustrates another way in which the videogame seems uniquely suited as a venue to stage discussions of the complex history of slave revolt.
For example, in one sequence of the game Freedom Cry, the player is instructed that the next mission will be to liberate Wellington plantation in the Caribbean. For some reason, though, the mission icon, an exclamation point directing the player to the site, is greyed out and the mission therefore reads as locked. Previously in the game, there was a similar challenge where the player had to liberate 150 slaves before advancing to the next mission.13 Although the only thing that the player actually must do is to set a course for the plantation and destroy the slave ships encountered on the way in order to reach Wellington, there appears to be a kind of design error here. Whereas the typical convention is that a mission unlocks when the player is ready to undertake it, the Wellington plantation mission only visibly unlocks after it is liberated. Staring at the icon, I made the assumption that I did not yet have the capacity to attack the plantation, and I was not alone in my confusion about what to do in this situation.
An internet rumor states that you must liberate five hundred slaves in order to unlock the mission, and I, and many other poor rubes whose lamenting I found in online gaming forums, undertook to do just that. By falling prey to this trap, the act of liberating slaves becomes horribly tiresome. Five hundred is a lot, especially as there are only a set number of scenarios that can be replayed in Port-au-Prince, each garnering one or two or, most of the time, a handful of emancipated slaves. The player must run around the island, encountering the same few sequences over and over: buying slaves (with money looted from kills, mainly), violently freeing slaves on the auction block, letting captives out of a locked pen, chasing down an overseer following a fleeing slave, carrying a sick person to safety, or freeing a plantation without the guards sounding the alarm bells. Though this rumor is not a planned part of gameplay, it nonetheless works well for the theme of the game, on several levels. Firstly, it encourages a feeling of frustration from the forced repetition and powerlessness and maybe a sense of irony, if the player lamenting the fact that the act of freeing the enslaved has become tiresome work is capable of enough self-awareness to realize that he or she is feeling constrained and oppressed by a digital game played as a leisure activity.
Interestingly, then, games seem to work subversively (in this instance and others) by not working. At one point, in my personal experience with Freedom Cry, there was a level in which I fulfilled all the obligations to succeed in my mission to free a plantation’s worth of slaves, but I was glitched out of the reward I was due. The game system refused to recognize that I had the key I needed to open the door to the slaves’ prison, and I was unable to save the level without resolving the issue. We might read this unfairness as the game’s seditious malfunctioning, which works to highlight the injustice of the system against which the protagonist struggles. But even more profitably, such moments reveal the ghost in the machine—by which I mean, the game itself taking on life beyond the game developer’s plans—and becoming a kind of third author of the game. The glitch is a part of the magic circle.14
As such, this medium may offer us a useful space in which to have a conversation about the representation of slave resistance in art. Who is qualified to author narratives of slave resistance, particularly when a fiction dialogues with historical reality? The level of care that must be demonstrated in treating the subject matter is exemplified in the case of William Styron’s highly controversial 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Although Styron’s book earned a Pulitzer Prize, it was followed by an immense backlash that resulted in the publication of a book called Ten Black Writers Respond. In brief, Styron’s depiction of Nat Turner as a man whose motives for his infamous rebellion were contaminated by his obsession with a white woman was seen as trafficking in stereotypes. The communal production of videogames, which may include not only a team of designers and developers but also the metagaming of fan communities and even design flaws, complicates the issue of who is qualified to depict slave resistance in art. The fact that this medium allows not only for pushback against the player but also, in some cases, resistance to the developer’s intentions, signals that no one owns slave revolt. The game not only resists the player’s absorption in the narrative, but it also rebels against the developer’s construction of it in a manner that is suited for such a fraught history.