Playing the Powerless in Videogames about the Powerless

Apr 17, 12 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

4 Comments

  1. I really liked these questions, so much so that I wrote a piece about it that is much too large to fit into the comments section here. My apologies, then, for the external link (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/157776-/).

    Keep up the good work!

    • Hi Jorge, really enjoyed your post, especially the point about illiteracy carrying over to the player, and I agree that the game doesn’t make players feel powerless, but I disagree that the game doesn’t foster a personal connection.

      I felt very emotionally invested, actually. I regretted not leaving things open with Henry enough that I want to replay the game and get that ending. I also regret that I didn’t make my brother (wanted to erase “my” when editing my comment, but decided to keep it as it sort of illustrates my point) go to Canada when he had the chance. I made sure I visited my father and my uncle before I escaped to Ohio, and in the epilogue I tried to find my mother. Not sure if I’m particularly susceptible to emotional devices, but it did work for me!

  2. Flight to Freedom struck a cord with me for a few reasons. I’ve always been interested in the history of slavery in the United States, I’ve worked at the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) as an educator and once helped facilitate professional development for school teachers on the underground railroad, and I’ve taught slavery and underground railroad outreach programs to K-12 and college students. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make something like slavery more immediate and personal to students, especially students that have learned this history and have found a way to make themselves desensitized to the horrors and pains. Other teachers have tried to do this by staging slave auctions in their schools and have been (perhaps rightfully) criticized for it.

    I think Flight to Freedom shows that representing the history of slavery and the underground railroad in a video game can be done well, and done in a way that (referring to your previous post) wouldn’t be considered “immoral” or controversial. That’s because there are so many different runaway slave stories, there’s no “one story” that people believe must be played out in a video game (as with Anne Frank). Additionally, the developers chose to include some of the lesser known variations on anti-slavery movements, including people that didn’t support civil rights for blacks and advocated sending all blacks back to Africa (Free Soil). And (I believe) they did a wonderful job in selecting voice actors, taking caring in selecting voices for slaves, freed blacks, whites, slave owners, and slave catchers. I don’t think this game would be controversial for those reasons, even though you’re playing as a female slave.

    Additionally, the main character is a female, and it was exciting to be able to play such a strong character – or at least make her a strong character in my version of the game. While Lucy is in an awful predicament as a female slave, she also has many opportunities to make her own life for herself. She is able to run away, she is able to save her brother (I messed that up toward the end, though – I have to go back and replay it), and she is able to become a famous abolitionist and write her own book! And I can finish the game without marrying a man, too! Or marry one if I want. Those are all options available to me – I didn’t feel “powerless” at all. I felt empowered both as a player and as an abolitionist character. Throughout the game I strove to collect badges that represented who I wanted to be as a runaway slave and as a person – someone interested in education, family, and community. I played things safe and wasn’t always openly resistant. Little did I realize that in doing so I was determining my future in the outcome – the first brilliant and meaningful usage of badges that I’ve seen. I replayed the epilogue over and over, trying to find every ending that Lucy could have. This also meant that because of the way I played the game I could go far as a writer and speaker, but *not* as a conductor on the underground railroad.

    There were endings in which I stayed on plantations in the south or the west forever. Those were obviously less desirable, and they had much less impact on me. I think that because of the way the epilogue was set up, I was able to explore all of those different options, but I still understood that some options were closed to me *because* of the decisions that *I* made. No matter what your situation in life or in any video game, you are going to have limitations. The structure of Flight to Freedom did not feel powerless, either as character or as player. I felt empowered, emboldened, and deeply attached. I felt the closest to Jonah, especially when I ran away the first time without him, and told him goodbye (full disclosure: I started to tear up, probably because I have a very strong relationship with my own little brother IRL). That’s the kind of emotion and response that video games about the history of such atrocious human events should elicit. That’s the strength of the medium, done right.

    So thank you very much for sharing Flight to Freedom. I think I’ll play again and try to be a better conductor and more openly resistant, and see where that leads me. I think the answers to some of your questions are that as players (and as human beings), we want to have efficacy, we want our hard work to have tangible outcomes, and when we don’t have that possibility, we desensitize ourselves and shut down. It’s very hard to watch a situation or play a character that can’t make any difference. If Flight to Freedom didn’t have the opportunity for success…well, that wouldn’t be as engaging, because as a player you couldn’t *explore* or learn the consequences of your actions. There’s no “figuring out” the algorithm or design of the game, and it’s just not as engaging.

    But if perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you mean by playing the powerless, and Flight to Freedom still counts, then I’d say that the limits of playing the powerless in games are the limits that the game designers place on you, and the limits that you assume about that history. If I assumed that I knew the ending of Anne Frank’s story, or the story of Lucy in Flight to Freedom, then I might impose limitations on myself as a player. That’s where the designers have a responsibility to make the game choices a bit more obvious and varied, and to make it clear that the player can have a chance to explore one or many stories.

    In conclusion, I think there’s much to be gained in portraying and playing a situation that’s been well represented in other media, if it’s done well. Flight to Freedom does that IMHO, because the game designers made it clear to the player that s/he can make many different choices and have many different outcomes (both in the main game and in the epilogue section). It also does this well because the makers took the time to represent many different characters uniquely and with great care. They also made allusions to different real historical figures – like Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, and real historical documents like the runaway slave ads, free papers, and the fashion of the day.

    I haven’t quite formulated all of my thoughts – but I’m hoping that we can have a good conversation about it! I wonder what types of best practices there are out there, other than having game developers work directly with historians.

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