IN A FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE GAME created by National Geographic for the iPad called Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom, the playable character, who is never named or shown to lend to the student’s immersion in the game, runs away from a Maryland tobacco plantation with a friend called Amos, meeting Harriet Tubman on the way. The gameplay features 3D animation, and the mechanics of play mostly involve mousing over objects and clicking dialog boxes as the player makes choices to advance a successful escape. While the first part of the game mentions the difficulty of toiling in the fields, the threat of the lash, and the fact that the playable character’s mother was recently sold off, none of this is depicted visually. The game’s focus feels like it is on the thrill of escape, on the choices faced (like whether to take the river or the road), and on the application of objects in the playable character’s bindle (like forged papers or a pocket knife) to challenges that reveal themselves. If the playable character gets caught by slavecatchers, he or she is returned to the plantation and sold further south. If wise choices are made, in addition to well-known figures like Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the player and Amos are introduced to other abolitionists like Thomas Garrett, William Still, and Jermain Wesley Loguen as they journey north to Canada; as such, the game clearly has educational aspirations. Though it is possible to get caught and return to bondage, Journey to Freedom offers two paths to freedom, one in which the playable character stays and works with Frederick Douglass, eventually buying his or her freedom, and another in which he or she successfully escapes to Canada. But importantly, the game concludes, “You’ve come to the end of this journey” and offers a “Play Again” button no matter the outcome—whether the playable character is returned to enslavement or escapes and attains freedom—suggesting that this is a game that cannot be won.
The use of the first person perspective is a common choice for digital activities of this variety, but identification with the enslaved person is engineered through diverse means in other games. The Flash animation game Following the Footsteps on the website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad, for example, draws upon the second-person address. Following the Footsteps appears to be geared to the young child; it is written at an elementary reading level, with simple imagery and passages read aloud. Early on the narrative explains the daily lot of the slave child with whom the player is called to identify: “You spend most of your days in the big house, doing chores like hauling firewood and taking care of the master’s children. They can play whenever they want. But you can’t. You have to work.” The appeal to empathy is obvious here. “You” are told that your family has died, and only one brother and one sister remain with you. After constructing a narrative conflict in which the slaves are being sold off, the game forces the player to make the first of several choices: do you want to stay on the plantation with your brother, or run away with your sister? Decisions are selected by clicking on either side of a divided screen, depicting the outstretched hand of one sibling and a palm calling for pause, respectively. If the player opts to stay with the brother, they are subsequently sold away from each other, and the story ends. If the player goes with the sister, the narrative continues, providing more choices, such as whether to hide during the day or continue the journey in daylight. The game highlights the historical reality of family separation by presenting the player with a heart-wrenching choice.
In contrast to the colorful animation of the National Geographic game but similar to Walter’s story in the previous example from the Scholastic website, “The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery,” the visuals in Following the Footsteps are black-and-white photographs, lending to the realism of the narrative. Some of the photos are grainy and appear historical, while others are artistic recreations fabricated for the game that incorporate simple animations, such as silhouettes or words that flow across the screen. The photos themselves make effective use of light and shadow and depth of field; objects are often out of focus or cropped strangely. We see a pair of feet walking in the sand in one, a person’s face and hands clasped in prayer in another. In most places, there is just a still, black-and-white photograph and the text box to the left of it, creating a hauntingly spare aesthetic. In some cases, though, the player can mouse over objects in the picture to bring up text boxes with more information, revealing the story behind things like the significance of the big dipper constellation, called “the drinking gourd” by the narrator, the use of a lantern in a window to indicate a safehouse for runaways on the Underground Railroad, and hidden messages acting as signifiers in quilt patterns. We are told, for example, that the enslaved used the monkey wrench pattern to signal an eminent escape attempt.
Following the Footsteps is a serious, somewhat interactive narrative; suiting the subject matter, its feel is pervasively heavy. The home screen depicts the game title accompanied by striking audio: a woman singing a spiritual, “Steal Away to Jesus,” a cappella. Unlike the flat narration of Walter in the previous example, the tone of voice in which an actress reads these passages is plaintive and poignant. Although the production values seem comparable to the interactive educational activity on the Scholastic website, with black-and-white photography, player motion limited to cursor control, and voice-over narration, the use of the second person address along with the player’s limitation highlight a purposefully frustrating affect for the player situated in the protagonist’s place.
In an article called “Just Gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games,” Julian Stallabrass reiterates what many videogame scholars (like Sid Meier, Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Jesper Juul) have stated previously regarding the strict regimentation of the player’s conformity to rules as the chief mechanism of gameplay: “In computer games, the player not only identifies with the image but controls it in conformance with strict rules of conduct (or else!): conformity has been extended from assent to action.”1 For Stallabrass, “the goal is utter illusionism . . . and an ever greater immersion in the unreal,” but I’m arguing here that games about slave resistance work by emphasizing a frustrating breakdown of the player’s expectations of the medium, highlighting the player’s separation from the lived historical reality of the playable character.2
Gameplay frustration is a common device, however. Gilleade and Dix identify videogame frustration as “that which arises when the progress a user is making toward achieving a given goal is impeded.”3 Though these scholars argue that frustration “is a negative emotion,” they identify two different types: at-game and in-game frustration. They identify in-game frustration as resulting from “a failure to know how a challenge is to be completed . . . as when an objective is not given,” whereas “at-game frustration arises from a failure to operate the input device . . . in a manner that would give the player the potential to progress.” Neither of these categories seems to entirely encompass the type of frustration elicited by these types of digital narrative, however, where the lack of choice and mobility departs from traditional expectations of the medium for the deeper purpose of historical reflection. Nonetheless, their description of at-game frustration is useful here:
at-game frustration is similar to the concept of breakdown in the user-interface design. The concept of breakdown stems from Heidegger and relates to that moment when a tool in some way ceases to be invisible, instead of invisibly being used to accomplish a purpose it becomes the focus of attention. In a computer system when the user has to focus on the interface rather than the task at hand this is breakdown. In “work” interfaces this breakdown is always viewed as bad, however, in playful or ludic designs breakdown may be deliberate in order to encourage reflection or experimentation.
The games I’m interested in defy player expectation, permanently inhabiting the space of the breakdown, in order to force the player to reflect on his or her position in relation to the historical subject of the resistive slave. Setting up player identification with the character, the game mechanics then thwart expectations of the interactive text’s function, making the game visible as an object, one that productively illustrates the separation of the player from the playable character.
In Following the Footsteps, aside from the few moments where the player is given a choice to make between two options to advance the narrative, the only option is to click the button labeled “Next” (or “Previous” to revisit the last slide). The game emphasizes the weight of choice by dividing a screen down the middle when the player is presented with a dilemma, and it highlights the lack of options in other cases, such as when the player must explore the visual space to discover where images can be interacted with and where they are inactive. Thus, the game puts the player in the position of the slave narratively and visually, and the game mechanics also seem to parrot this by placing limits on the player’s control. This is not to say, however, that the game achieves a ludic approximation of the enslaved person’s lack of choice—firstly, such a position would risk undermining the agency of the slave, and secondly, we need to be mindful of the fact that, as Stallabrass cautions, “The labour forced on the player is not real.”4 By addressing how digital games allegorize economy, Stallabrass argues that computer games blur “the use of people as instruments in the world and in the game. . . . Computer games perform simulated acts of reification where slices of immaterial code act as living beings arranged and treated as objects.” However, we must ask how this function is affected when the commodity referent is the human commodity of the transatlantic slave trade. I would argue that rather than creating an immersive illusion, at-game frustration works in these instances to highlight not only the historical reality behind the game but also the insufficiency of the medium to translate this into gaming form.
Can any contemporary artwork—cinematic, literary, visual, or performative—depict what Saidiya Hartman calls the “abject sublime,” the unfathomable horror of the transatlantic slave trade?5 Various artworks seek to translate the experiences of those who lived under slavery, and most effective are firsthand accounts like those of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrup, or Zora Neale Hurston in her recently published Barracoon, in which she records the testimony of Kudjo Lewis, one of the last slaves brought over from Africa to the United States. The impossible choices of the enslaved person—losing one family member, or leaving behind another, for instance—can be depicted visually, narratively, or, here, ludically, but the place where the text breaks down, refusing the player’s participation in the narrative, holds open an aporia that admits the broader impossibility of representation of the “abject sublime.” In much the same way that the white space of a page can signal what cannot be captured in words or abstraction can stand in for the ineffable in the visual arts, these videogames use interruptions of immediacy to break the illusion of play.
By interrupting the player’s complete absorption into the playable character’s identity, such as by refusing a satisfying conclusion, these games highlight the impossibility of representing this history in an interactive form. Even if the player of Following the Footsteps successfully makes it to Philadelphia, the action doesn’t conclude in a celebratory manner: “The first part of your journey is over. But the freedom of Canada is still days, weeks, even months away. Perhaps you’ll never see it at all. But for now, you give thanks.” The lack of a conclusion in Footsteps strands the player in Philadelphia, short of attaining freedom in Canada. We can compare this to the more decisive last words of the other online Underground narrative, “The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery,” in which the “player” is situated more firmly as a spectator of Walter’s narrative: “I don’t know for sure what awaits me in Canada. But I do know this . . . I will not die a slave.” Also of note is the iPad game’s infinite loop, with the same ending offering the player another turn, no matter the outcome. Importantly, it does not feel possible to win these games.
I have elected not to include a thorough address of the aforementioned game Freedom! by MECC in this section, chiefly because its outdated technology makes it difficult for me to tell where the boundary between intentional limitations and my own frustration as a player with twenty-first-century expectations for graphics, gameplay, and maneuverability lies. Most simply put: I have had little success navigating the playable character more than a few millimeters across the map, and I feel incapable of determining whether this is due to a clever game design that highlights all of the various difficulties that a fugitive slave would encounter (as the “game over” screen boasts, when the player dies of snakebite, drowns, or is recaptured, for instance) or whether, frankly, I just suck at this game. But one final note: the designers of Freedom! made an odd choice.
If the playable character is literate, he or she can forge a pass and read signs along the way. If, however, the playable character is illiterate, the signs appear as indecipherable, squiggly lines. This would seem to be a strategy to heighten the player’s immersion in the character. However, because these ciphers are shown on the same screen as all of the instructions and options from which the player must choose to advance the narrative, which are relayed to the player in legible writing, this visual depiction of illiteracy is an unconvincing and even ironic device that may only remind the player of his separation from the character. Nonetheless, I want to attend to where, in other games, such formal devices create definitive effects. We take our final example of a game aimed at elementary schoolchildren from Mission US: Flight to Freedom. In the spirit of Edmond Chang’s method of “close-playing,” I’ll devote the next section to the analysis of this game’s “intersection of form, function, meaning, and action.”6