Videogames as Commemoration
See abolitionproject.org and David Richardson, “Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade,” William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (January 2001): 69–92.
For the backstory on this incident, see Chandelis R. Duster, “Yale Janitor’s Act of Civil Disobedience a Stand against Racism,” NBC News, July 19, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/yale-janitor-s-act-civil-disobedience-stand-against-racism-n610416.
This is not like Fred Moten’s “break” but more like musical rest. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
See Stephanie Carmichael, “Empathy Game Thralled Explores Slavery through Love and Motherhood, not Violence,” Venturebeat, March 19, 2014, https://venturebeat.com/2014/03/19/thralled-empathy-game-ouya/.
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21, 35.
See Sarah Juliet Lauro, “Feel the Weight of These Chains,” Commemorating Slave Resistance (blog), https://slaveresistance.tumblr.com/.
One game not addressed here is Playing History: Slave Trade. The game was lambasted for a scene in which the player had to stack bodies in a slave ship in a manner similar to the game Tetris. The backlash, in which journalists took to calling the game “Slave Tetris,” forced the game manufacturer to remove the scene in question, but the rest of the game is still highly offensive and not worthy of a lengthy discussion. See Dexter Thomas, “I Played ‘Slave Tetris’ so Your Kids Don’t Have To,” Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2015.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 27.
Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 36.
Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman
See Lois E. Horton, Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom (New York: Bedford St. Martins, 2013) and Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).
See Petula Dvorak, “America’s Missing Slave Memorials: It’s Time to Truly Acknowledge Our Bloody Past,” Washington Post, August 28, 2017; Kiratiana Freelon, “Look at All These Monuments from around the World That Honor Those Who Fought against Slavery,” The Root, August 24, 2017; and Samuel Sinyangwe, “I’m a Black Southerner. I Had to Go Abroad to See a Statue Celebrating Black Liberation,” Vox, August 17, 2017.
Jonathan Beller, The Message Is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital (London: Pluto Press, 2018), 20. See also my forthcoming article “Digital Commemorations of Slave Revolt,” History of the Present 10 (October 2, 2020), which discusses this in more detail.
Beller, Message Is Murder, 20.
Paths to Freedom
Julian Stallabrass, “Just Gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games,” New Left Review (March–April 1993), https://newleftreview.org/issues/I198/articles/julian-stallabrass-just-gaming-allegory-and-economy-in-computer-games. On choice and limitation in videogames, see Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007) and How to Do Things with Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Videogames between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011).
Stallabrass, “Just Gaming.”
Kiel M. Gilleade and Alan Dix, “Using Frustration in the Design of Adaptive Videogames,” ACE 2004, Proceedings of the 2004 ACM SIGHI International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, 228–32.
Stallabrass, “Just Gaming.” On the issue of the slave’s lack of agency, see Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982) and Vincent Brown’s thoughtful address of the misuse of this abstraction, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” American Historical Review (December 2009), 1231–49.
Saidiya Hartman, “Response: The Dead Book Revisited,” History of the Present 6, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 208–15.
Edmond Chang, “Close Playing: A Meditation on Teaching with Videogames,” Edmond Chang (website), November 11, 2010, http://www.edmondchang.com/2010/11/11/close-playing-a-meditation/.
A Close Playing: Flight to Freedom
Alan Lomax, ed., Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, AFS L3). Sung by “Lightning” and a group of African American convicts at Darrington State Prison Farm, Sandy Point, Texas, 1934. Recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax.
This term has previously been applied to videogames in Holger Pötzsch, “Playing Games with Shklovsky, Brecht, and Boal: Ostranenie, V-Effect, and Spect-actors as Analytical Tools for Game Studies,” Game Studies 17, no. 2 (December 2017), http://gamestudies.org/1702/articles/potzsch.
See, for example, Taylor Gordon, “Innovative or Insensitive?: Videogame Simulating US Slave Experience Leaves Educators Divided,” Atlanta Blackstar (March 16, 2015), https://blerds.atlantablackstar.com/.
“Make History Yours”: An Introduction to Assassin’s Creed
For more on videogames from Brazil, see Lynn Rosalina Gama Alves, “Brazil,” in Video Games around the World, edited by Mark J. Wolf (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015), 88.
In an important article, Adrienne Shaw discusses problems in the series’s retelling of the American Revolution and the narrative limits of the game’s critique of history. See Adrienne Shaw, “The Tyranny of Realism: Historical Accuracy and Politics of Representation in Assassin’s Creed III,” Loading. . . . The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 9, no. 14 (2015): 4–24.
Here I use the word “metagaming” in a manner that is in line with Andy Baio, “Metagames: Games about Games,” Waxy, February 1, 2011, https://waxy.org/2011/02/metagames_games_about_games/. But see Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017) for a complete discussion of all that this term can encompass.
Kishonna Grey and Jordan Mazurek, “Visualizing Blackness—Racializing Gaming: Social Inequalities in Virtual Gaming Communities,” in The Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology, edited by Michelle Brown and Eamonn Carrabine (New York: Routledge, 2017), 18.
Here I am referring to Soraya Murray, “The Visual Poetics of Video Games” (talk, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Tex., February 16, 2016, http://www.depts.ttu.edu/ART/SOA/nav/landmark/speakerschedule.php) and Amanda Phillips, “Nothing Is True: Racial Hybridity, Manipulated Memory, and White Innocence in Assassin’s Creed III” (paper, Society for Cinema and Media Studies Annual Conference 2016, Atlanta, Ga.).
Avatar Trouble and Aveline
Jill Walker, “Do You Think You’re Part of This?: Digital Texts and the Second Person Address,” CyberText Yearbook 2000, edited by Markku Eskelinen and Raine Koskimaa (Saarijärvi, Finland: Gummerus Printing, 2001), 44.
Bogost, Persuasive Games, 45.
In this way, the games I’m looking at here seem to function like others that draw attention to themselves as games. For an example of this, see James Sweeting, “Illusions of Choice in Digital Narratives” in Transtechnology Research Reader 2015–2017 (Plymouth, U.K.: University of Plymouth, 2018), in which he discusses the game Spec Ops: The Line and its strategy of embracing “ludonarrative dissonance” to encourage players to reflect upon their role in playing violent military videogames.
Stallabrass, “Just Gaming.”
Murray, “Visual Poetics.”
Kimberly Manganelli, Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2012). See also Emily Clark, The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
See Boluk and Lemieux, Metagaming; their own use of the term “metagame” is broad, including games about games, games within games, and the worlds around games, to articulate a kind of ecology of play.
For a discussion of operationalized weakness, see Bogost, How to Do, 20. For a discussion on the uses of frustration in videogames, see Gilleade and Dix, “Using Frustration.”
A photograph is displayed at SlaveHaven Museum in Memphis.
Sarah Juliet Lauro, “Digital Saint-Domingue: Playing Haiti in Videogames,” sx archipelagos 2 (September 2017), http://smallaxe.net/sxarchipelagos/issue02/playing-haiti.html.
Laurent Dubois describes Makandal as an important precursor to the Haitian Revolution. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004). See also Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990).
In addition to Shaw, see also James Patton, “Colonising History: The Culture and Politics of Assassin’s Creed,” James Patton (website), November 29, 2014, https://james-patton.net/2014/11/29/colonising-history-the-culture-and-politics-of-assassins-creed/.
This is another hallmark of the franchise. For example, in Assassin’s Creed III, in addition to the use of the Mohawk language for which the game is famous, there are bits of French, German, Russian, and Portuguese. For a sense of how the gamer community views the AC series language options and the lack thereof, see Dustin Bailey, “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey won’t let you play in Greek,” PCGamesN, August 13, 2018, https://www.pcgamesn.com/assassins-creed-odyssey/assassins-creed-odyssey-greek-language.
See Jagger Gravning, “How Videogames Are Slowly, Quietly Introducing LBGT Heroes,” Atlantic, February 25, 2014. See also Murray, “Visual Poetics.”
The dangers of the game’s rendering ownership of black resistance to a wide audience is a thorny issue, and not one I’m equipped to tackle. This broad “problem of white gaming” is handled more deftly in Gray and Mazurek, “Visualizing Blackness.”
Evan Narcisse, “A Game That Showed Me My Own History,” Kotaku, December 19, 2013, http://kotaku.com/a-game-that-showed-me-my-own-black-history-1486643518.
Although it concerns the Lakota playing a game about the Mohawk people and therefore doesn’t share the language concerns, see Joe Flood, “Playing Assassin’s Creed 3 on the Pine Ridge Rez,” Killscreen, November 28, 2012 for a discussion of some of the same issues I explore here.
Failure and Freedom Cry
Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf, eds., The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (New York: Routledge, 2009), 6. Emphasis added.
Galloway, Gaming, 19. Pötzsch argues that “particular devices are deployed with the objective to de-familiarize, problematize, and challenge taken for granted perspectives and conventions” in videogames just as “Brecht’s plays use devices of estrangement” in theater (8).
Tom Bissell, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, rev ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 39.
Jesper Juul identifies rules as “the most consistent source of player enjoyment in games” (Half-Real, 55). Galloway writes of the controlling algorithm of the videogame structure, of the way that, on some level, all videogames are about control and the mechanisms of control in place in our contemporary society. When we confront the “algorithm” in games, he argues, witnessing their strict ordering, we are called to think about this aspect of our own world (gaming). On player choice and agency, see also Sebastien Domsch, Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Videogames (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013).
In Half-Real, Jesper Juul writes, “gameplay is an interaction between the rules and the player’s attempt at playing the game as well as possible” (56). See also Jesper Juul, “Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games” in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, edited by Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf (New York: Routledge, 2009), 237–52 and Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure. An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013).
For example, there are complications inherent in such games’ offering of the occupation of the black body to variously embodied gamers, allowing a kind of racial cross-dressing or even blackface in the form of avatars, what Lisa Nakamura called “identity tourism.” Lisa Nakamura, “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet,” Works and Days: Essays in the Socio-Historical Dimensions of Literature and the Arts, 25/26 (Fall 1995, Winter 1996): 181–93. See also Anna Everett, Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY University Press, 2009) and Anna Everett and Craig Watkins, “The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games,” in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), 141–66. Kishonna Grey seems like one of the most recent productive scholars on the topic of audience participation and race. See Kishonna Grey, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the Virtual Margins (New York: Routledge, 2014). For a discussion of game mechanics and race, see Alison Reed and Amanda Phillips, “Additive Race: Colorblind Discourses of Realism in Performance Capture Technologies,” Digital Creativity 24, no. 2 (2013): 130–44. Soraya Murray takes a critical race studies position within videogame studies in On Videogames: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender, and Space (London: I.B. Taurus, 2017), as does Tanner Higgin, “Gamic Race: Logics of Difference in Videogame Culture” (PhD diss., University of California Riverside, 2012).
Sweeting is discussing the way that Spec Ops: The Line uses illusory choice to make a point about videogame play; here, I have stressed the word real because the games that I’m investigating remind the player of his or her separation from the lived historical reality of the characters he or she digitally inhabits. In Sweeting, the line reads, “the player only has one real choice: whether to play the game.” Sweeting, “Illusions of Choice.”
For discussion on selective interactivity, see Bogost, Persuasive Games, 46; for operationalized weakness, see Bogost, How to Do, 20.
See Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005) in which the author sets out a theory of history derived from Édouard Glissant and Walter Benjamin, which he calls “accumulated history.” Baucom uses the Zong massacre as a pivotal point in this articulation. See also Ian Baucom, “Specters of the Atlantic,” South Atlantic Quarterly 100, no. 1 (Winter 2001).
Pötzsch writes that “A deliberate de-familiarizing of game controls is one viable option to achieve such effects.” Pötzsch, “Playing Games,” 10.
Frans Mäyrä, “Getting into the Game: Doing Multidisciplinary Game Studies,” in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, edited by Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf (New York: Routledge, 2009), 313–29. See also Frans Mäyrä, An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture (London: SAGE publications, 2008).
The authors elaborate on this point: “If videogames are agnostic to how they are played and every operation yields states of equal value, then there are no glitches, nothing is out of bounds, and the intentions of an author and audience are a completely arbitrary metagame in and of themselves.” Boluk and Lemieux, Metagaming, 46.
Perhaps this error has subsequently been fixed, but this was my experience when playing the DLC game in 2017. As of this writing, there are still several threads visible online in which gamers discuss this problem.
For a discussion of the magic circle of play, a concept first discussed by Johan Huizinga in his 1938 Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture and how this idea has evolved in game theory, see Dominic Arsenault and Bernard Perron, “In the Frame of the Magic Circle: The Circle(s) of Gameplay,” in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, edited by Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf (New York: Routledge, 2009), 109–31. See also Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).
A Digital Fragment
Evan Narcisse, “I Really Need This Haunting Game about a Runaway Slave to Get Finished,” Kotaku, August 2013, https://kotaku.com/i-really-need-this-creepy-game-about-a-runaway-slave-to-1184668918.
On Papers, Please, see Matthew Kelly, “The Game of Politics: Examining the Role of Work, Play, and Subjectivity Formation in Papers, Please,” Games and Culture 13, no. 5 (2015): 459–78. See also Bogost, Persuasive Games and Katherine Isbister, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016) for discussion of “serious games.”
For more on Brenda Romero’s work, see her discussion of her games both at “Gaming for Understanding – Brenda Brathwaite,” posted on August 21, 2013, Ted Talk, 9:23, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH83NyjoXbU and “G4C13 Keynote: Brenda Romero,” posted on June 26, 2013, YouTube video, 23:11, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzQMcKArcYU.
Gilleade and Dix, “Using Frustration,” 230.
That the reflection is specifically meant to represent “a dead version of the main character” is stated in Carmichael, “Empathy Game.”
See the discussion of the Kongolese vumbi in Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).
USC Gamepipe Laboratory, “2013 Spring Demo Day Thralled,” posted May 15, 2013, YouTube video, 15:30, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Flf0r00rZok.
On the labor of serious games, see again Matthew Kelly, “Game of Politics,” particularly for his discussion of “work-as-play”: “the ‘work’ of playing a game is the intellectual investment of continual self-reflection and self-modification of one’s actions or thoughts within a virtual space” (469).
Katherine McKittrick, “Mathematics Black Life,” Black Scholar 44, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 16–28.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), 6.
Isbister, How Games Move Us, xvii.
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 19. See also bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 21–39. On “ironies of empathy,” see Alisha Gaines, “A Secondhand Kind of Terror,” in From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life, edited by Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charise Pimentel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 159–69 and Alisha Gaines, Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy (Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
Andrew Webster, “Can an iPad Game Teach You about Slavery?” Verge, September 13, 2013, and Jess Joho, “How the Upcoming Thralled Could Help Us Better Understand the Atrocity of Slavery,” Killscreen, March 21, 2014. The game was also profiled on Huffington Post, Venture Beat, Gaming Bolt, Grabit Magazine, and J Station X. See the “media” tab on Thralled.org for a sampling of articles mentioning or profiling the game.
Zack Kotzer, “Motherboard’s 15 Games to Look Forward to in 2015,” Vice, January 2, 2015, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jp5aq4/games-to-look-forward-to-since-the-last-guardian-is-never-coming-out. See also Colin Campbell, “Ouya Slavery Game Thralled Now Coming to Multiple Platforms,” Polygon, April 24, 2015, which stated that the game was slated for release on PC, Mac, Linux, and Ouya, a failed console that was discontinued in the summer of 2015. The game’s official website still cites “exact date to be announced.” Some articles mentioned iPad and iPhone versions that were planned at some point.
In “Mathematics Black Life,” Katherine McKittrick writes of the “violent arithmetics of the archive” (19): “The asterisked archives are filled with bodies that can only come into being vis-à-vis racial-sexual violence; the documents and ledgers and logs that narrate the brutalities of this history give birth to new world blackness as they evacuate life from blackness” (16).
The question of representation and the archive, “its limits, its possibilities, its futures” propels the special issue of the journal History of the Present edited by Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes. Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes, eds., History of the Present 6, no. 2 (Fall 2016).
Beller, Message Is Murder, 5–6.