THE CENTRAL PROBLEM with the historical study of slavery is its reliance on documents written by the slaver (ship logs), the manager (plantation records), or the master (journals and letters), especially when an algebraic function turns a human into a nonliving number. As with the history of slavery, our knowledge of slave resistance is likewise limited by our reliance on documents written by the oppressor, such as wanted ads for fugitive slaves penned by those who would recuperate their “property,” contemporary accounts of slave revolts from a biased perspective, and even the occasional mentions found in plantation records. The reduction of human beings to ciphers in a ledger is one issue that scholars like Katherine McKittrick discuss at length. Another is the fact that, if the slave appears in these records, it is most often an indication of violence suffered.1 How to study these histories without repeating the violence of the reduction of people to statistics is a major concern, and scholars have taken various approaches to address this lack.2 I would add here that it is equally imperative that we find a way to represent these histories without further commoditizing historically enslaved people by either reducing them to an object of play or an empathy exercise.
By withholding the subject position of the rebel slave from the player in important ways, such as interrupted immersion, the form of the videogame can acknowledge the broader insufficiency of the historical record. This might be achieved, in other media, by making use of the white space of the canvas, or the blank page, or aural silence, or a narrative gap, or a breakdown in meaning. But here, the medium can underscore the player’s separation from the historical subject through its use of false or limited interactivity. I would like to suggest that the videogame is an apt space in which to acknowledge the epistemological gap concerning the historical reality of slave resistance; it points to the insurmountable distance between the historical person and the player.
Digital resources offer a way to contemplate the limits of the archive, the unknowable aspects of enslaved lives that were not recorded, and how society as a whole has been based on the metrics put in place during the transatlantic slave trade. Jonathan Beller writes in The Message is Murder:
what passes today for digital culture (and therefore as a kind of radical break) is actually digital culture 2.0. Global commodification, settler colonialism, the mercantile system, the middle passage, slavery, plantations, and industrial capitalism instantiated a first order digital culture . . . with universalizing aspirations through the globally expansive assignation of quantity to qualities from the early modern period forward.3
Beller argues that the digital form is inherently based on the type of data collection achieved in slave ship cargo logs and in plantation account books. The medium of the digital might therefore be the most productive location to wrestle with how digital culture is “built on and out of the material and epistemological forms of racial capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and permanent war” (2). Beller explicitly connects contemporary digital culture to the transatlantic slave trade:
In dictating the exact dimensions of the slave ship cargo hold during the middle passage and in pricing the slave on the Mississippi auction block, this digitization of living persons and their qualities lay its representational code upon bodies. Price, it turns out, was a digital message, though not the only one. . . . It shows the convergence of a digital calculus on space, on movement, and on bodies and the ability of this calculus to marginalize or eliminate any sympathetic relation (20).
Productively, the digital form’s limitations point not only to the problems with the archive but also to digital culture as the heir of the captain’s log, the plantation ledger, and the overseer’s labor records: the quantification of people’s lives, which coded human beings as commodities.
On the whole, this slim volume has articulated how interactivity is a complex element in depictions of slave revolt. The struggle between the player’s control of the digital avatar and the game’s resistance of the player—in the challenges he or she must surmount in order to advance the narrative—is redirected to critique not merely the mechanisms of control and resistance to which the enslaved were subjected but also to highlight our own epistemological limitations, as if to say, we can’t win slave resistance; we can’t even really know it.
Narratives about slave resistance should be reevaluated, as the work of understanding our culture’s relationship to the history of slavery and resistance and its enduring legacy is all the more urgent in the contemporary political climate. The digital texts that I’ve presented here use their very form to underscore this quandary: inhabiting the subject position of the historical rebel slave is ultimately bracketed as an impossibility by the games’ formal devices. This study has attended to the usefulness of the figurative gap in the middle of these game narratives—whether the aporia is brought about by obstruction, a break in immersion, or an unachievable objective. This study has focused particularly on those moments where the interactivity of the narrative breaks down—interruptions which serve to remind the contemporary player that she is merely playing a game. In that desynchronized space between character and player, these games call into question the stakes of rendering this history playable.
In this study, we’ve examined various formal devices, such as limited interactivity and operationalized weakness, disorienting uses of perspective, and the illusion of choice. We’ve interrogated the playable character’s shifting abilities, the uses of untranslated language in videogames, and aspects of the game that are beyond either the player’s or the developer’s control, like glitches and fan-shared rumors. We’ve looked at educational games intended for use in the classroom, mainstream videogames that aim to entertain, and an incomplete videogame that lives only online in demos and the articles that anticipated its ever-deferred release. This last example may be the best embodiment of the digital narrative that withholds itself from the player, stillborn. Just as the historical rebel slave resisted her own commodification, these games (over and above the intentions of the developers) productively refuse to allow the player mastery of the subject.