ALTHOUGH HARRIET TUBMAN ranks among the top ten most recognized figures of American history, what most people know about her is the legend and not the reality of her lifelong work in the antislavery movement, the Civil War, and the struggle for equal rights.1 I began with a claim that the United States displays a visible discomfort with commemorations of slave revolt, and, in the wake of increased attention to confederate monuments, many others have noted this contradiction.2 Yet, memorialized in two public sculptures, in Boston and New York, Harriet Tubman may be our national icon of the resistive slave. As an embodiment of the Underground Railroad, Tubman is often the synecdoche by which we can openly talk about slave resistance without having difficult conversations about the white casualties of violent slave revolts.
In the United States, overtly violent rebel slaves like Nat Turner remain highly divisive. In 1831, Turner led an uprising in Southampton, Virginia, that would swell to (by some accounts) over eighty rebels, attacking various plantations across the region and resulting in the assassination of fifty-one white slaveholders and their family members. As is noted in the documentary Purge This Land (2017), efforts to place historical markers at the sites important to Turner’s revolt, including the cave where he hid—evading capture after the revolt for more than three weeks—have been resisted on the grounds that this “terrorist” should not be commemorated in any way. As can be seen in comments sections and the talkback pages of historical websites devoted to Turner’s revolt, the execution of women and children during the rebellion remains a bone of contention. Instead, Turner is memorialized in diverse forms, like Kyle Baker’s graphic novel adaptation of the highly dubious “historical document” Nat Turner’s Confessions and Nate Parker’s 2016 film Birth of a Nation. Nonetheless, it is plain that, in the United States, discomfort persists with strategies of slave resistance that resulted in the bloodshed of white people, particularly of those who were complicit in the mechanisms of oppression rather than its direct operators, like the wives and especially children of slave owners. In the United States it is Tubman, rather than Turner, who represents the history of slave resistance in a multitude of forms, including the type of digital narratives I’ll profile here.
The first exhibit on our tour of digital, interactive narratives about slave resistance is a spate of educational games that seek to inform schoolchildren about the horrors of slavery and the self-emancipation of the enslaved. Some readers might have hazy memories of a 1992 game called Freedom! that was created by the same company that produced the widely known Oregon Trail, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC). In the game, the player steers a runaway slave either northward or toward an Indian Reservation to seek freedom, confronting various challenges such as slavecatchers, hunger, and natural obstacles. The player’s success in this mission will depend on the slave’s skills, which appear to be randomly determined by the computer, including literacy and the ability to swim, as well as diligence in the first level on the plantation, in which the player can amass various objects to help with the quest and key pieces of advice from “Elders.” Although Freedom! doesn’t appear to have attained the level of popularity of some of MECC’s other offerings, it may have left its stamp on a cache of more recent productions aimed at schoolchildren that were created in a similar vein. There are hints that the playable character of Freedom! may be able to fight back against the slavecatcher, and he or she can obtain a butcher knife from a house-slave in the first level, but I personally have had little success initiating any play that didn’t involve running or hiding, nonviolent means of escape. This seems to be true of these educational resources more broadly: they may enumerate various resistive strategies, but they privilege the nonviolent option of flight from the plantation as the player’s central quest. As such, these games are much more in the sphere of Harriet Tubman rather than Nat Turner.
For example, in an online Scholastic resource called “The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery,” a text box in a supplemental slideshow includes a picture of Nat Turner’s arrest, though the accompanying text does not mention him or his rebellion specifically. It reads: “Sometimes [enslaved people] acted out with force, leading revolts, burning crops, and even poisoning their masters.” It adds, “They fought back in more subtle ways, too. Some simply worked slowly, quietly damaged property, or took goods from their owners.” This passage acknowledges that escaping slavery was but one of the many ways that enslaved people resisted their lot on a scale from armed revolt to feigned ineptitude. Although the information is delivered here without judgment, Turner’s revolt is not mentioned directly in the text, and that is telling. The majority of this Scholastic resource, including printables for teachers and other exercises, privileges narratives of flight, and several similar pedagogical resources feature Tubman. Because educational games often put the player in the role of the historical enslaved person, it is perhaps too obvious why Tubman is the preferred representative, but the issue of what level of interactivity is permitted to the schoolchild is also at issue.
The central feature of the pedagogical resource described above, “The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery,” is a simple, semi-interactive Flash animation consisting of historical photographs with an accompanying narrative about a young, skilled woodworking slave named Walter who chooses to flee enslavement. The story includes an option to have the story read aloud, and the images are dotted with hyperlinks to other resources and teacher activities. This digital narrative differs from the others I’m examining here because the student is put neither in a position of power over the runaway slave’s decision-making process, nor is she explicitly occupying Walter’s perspective through the use of subjective camera angles or narrative positioning. Interactivity is limited to clicking certain designated spots on the image to bring up windows with further information, like historical images, bits of slave narratives, and even mini-slideshows with additional information (including the image of Turner’s arrest). The banner on the top of the screen consists of several tabs: “Begin the Journey,” “On the Plantation,” “Escape!,” “Reaching Safety,” “Reaching Freedom,” and “Tell the Story.” There is a spectrum of playability in this type of educational resource that ranges from those that directly put the student in the position of controlling a runaway slave to those that merely encourage interaction with a set narrative. This Flash animation’s limited interactivity and positioning of the interlocutor as a spectator of Walter’s story situates it at the lower end of the spectrum, but the rhetorical injunction of the tabs, with verbs like “begin,” “escape,” and “reach,” invites the student to become a participant in Walter’s journey. The lone exclamation point after the word “Escape!” is similar to the tone of interactive narratives that hail the student to play as the resistive slave, in games both real and imagined.
A 2009 web animation by Brad Neeley called “American Moments of Maybe” darkly imagines an alternative. Dramatizing an advertisement for a videogame based on the real life slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831, part one of the animation depicts children playing a violent console videogame called “Nat Turner’s Punchout,” with the tagline, “Make It to the Whitehouse and You Fucking Win the Game.” Points are allocated for freeing enslaved friends and for stabbing a white man in the neck with a pitchfork. Advertised in the animation as “The Game about Freedom!” and “The Game that Makes History Come Alive!,” Neely’s animation lambastes the tastelessness of the industry, and it seems eerily prescient when compared to some recent games created by videogame manufacturer Ubisoft that we will attend to later in this volume.
A detailed analysis of this fragment of a web comic is not needed here, but Neeley’s parody provokingly asks questions that are pertinent to the study of interactive narratives about slave resistance, which can only be suggested here for future study: What kind of catharsis is offered the player through his or her ability to remediate slave revolt through play? How is emotional investment and, in particular, empathy created or, importantly, refused by the mechanisms of play? To what extent do games about slave resistance commoditize the darkest parts of our history, including the commodification of fellow humans? Does the digital rendering of the history of the transatlantic slave trade in games speak back to the origins of digitality, in the account books and shipping logs of those who transported human cargo?
On this last point, as I have argued elsewhere, the medium of the digital might be the most productive location to reckon with our culture being built atop the foundation of transatlantic slavery. As Jonathan Beller writes, “What happens in the digital ether is not, as we have been sold, immaterial, fully abstract, or free, but rather ineluctably linked to the material conditions of the info-sphere’s emergence and sustenance.”3 Beller asserts that the digital form is inherently based on the type of data collection preserved in slave ship cargo logs and in plantation account books, which first reduced human beings to a series of ones and zeroes.4 Suffice it to say here that, overwhelmingly, digital resources that invite student participation emphasize escape above other forms of resistance, highlighting Tubman’s history rather than Turner’s. Of particular interest to my study is the use of perspective, the foreclosure of interactivity, and moments when games defy expectations to highlight the separation between the player and the character. The next section profiles several games at this level, those aimed at schoolchildren, asking what type of interactivity is afforded the player and interrogating what effect (and affect) the player’s limitations achieve in rendering history playable.