Playing the Powerless in Videogames about the Powerless
In the 1993 afterward to The Bluest Eye (1970), Toni Morrison explains the origins of her devastating debut novel. It began in 1962 with an examination of racial self-loathing. “I focused,” Morrison writes, “on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take hold inside the most delicate member of society: a child.” And not merely any child member of society, but “the most vulnerable member: a female” (210). From this vantage point, Morrison explores the multiple ways, at home and in the world, that young, delicate, vulnerable Pecola is broken, both physically and mentally.
It was someone like Pecola, whose desperate yearning for blue eyes gives the novel its name, that I had in mind in my previous Play the Past post, where I had wondered about the limits of playing the powerless and the doomed in historically-inspired videogames. Fragile, abused, and discarded, Pecola is a victim without hope. And though novels and movies routinely—and I mean routinely in all its senses—portray such victims, they are astonishingly scarce in videogames.
I wasn’t asking a question in my post about narrative or fun, which is where the discussion in the comments tended to go, drifting toward marquee titles like Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption. I was asking a question about ethics and representation. So let me reframe my initial inquiry:
What are the limitations of playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless?
In my post I gave the hypothetical examples of Anne Frank or 9/11 casualties. In order to give this question traction, let me turn to a real example, a bona fide videogame about a victim potentially as delicate and vulnerable as The Bluest Eye‘s Pecola. This is Flight to Freedom, the second “mission” of a suite of historically-minded videogames called Mission US, developed by WNET and funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In Flight to Freedom, the player assumes the role of Lucy King, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky. The year is 1848, and the game charges the player with finding “a path to freedom.”
I ask Play the Past readers to play Flight to Freedom and revisit the questions that prompted this post. What are the limits of playing the powerless? What is lost and what is gained in portraying—and playing—a situation that has been well represented in other media? And what considerations should developers and players alike have with regards to responsibility and accountability?
Play the game and please comment below. I’ll add ideas from this discussion to my own thoughts about Flight to Freedom in an upcoming Play the Past post.
Runaway Reward Poster courtesy of DC Public Library Commons