In an unusually redemptive reading of the widely disparaged Atari VCS game E.T. (1982), Ian Bogost observes that the game perfectly (though perhaps not intentionally) captured the essence of Spielberg’s hit movie. “It was a film about alienation, not about aliens,” Bogost writes in How to Do Things with Videogames. The film was about the weak, the powerless, the hunted. And the videogame, with its frustrating mechanics and bewildering topology, reenacts this dynamic. The game continually puts the player in a position that dramatizes E.T.’s powerlessness, the opposite of most games, which are fantasies of limitless power.
Bogost goes on to suggest that videogames should associate more frequently with the vulnerable of this world. Games such as Darfur is Dying (2006) and Hush (2008) offer “a compelling invitation to empathize with an actor” in a “geopolitical system” characterized by hardship, injustice, and often, invisibility.
How far can videogames go toward this goal? What are the limits of playing the powerless and the doomed in videogames? Are there historical events or figures that should be off limits to games?
We have tended to respond “no” on Play the Past. Adopting the role of the victim is exactly what happens when one hacks Colonization (2008) in order to play the otherwise unplayable Native Americans, as Trevor and Rebecca describe. I have likewise seen the potential of playing a Japanese American internment camp inmate in Drama in the Delta (2011). But both of these cases portray generic figures, abstractions of the real men, women, and children who underwent those ordeals. What happens when games become more historically specific?
As a thought experiment, imagine Anne Frank: The Game. The player in Anne Frank would assume the role of the doomed girl, navigating the deadly hazards of Nazi Europe in the 1940s. In “Videogames of the Oppressed” (2004), Gonzalo Frasca suggests that such a game “would be perceived as immoral, since the fact that she could survive or die depending on the player’s performance would trivialize the value of human life.” The story of Anne Frank ends only one way, and any game that suggests otherwise would, as Frasca imagines popular sentiment, dishonor both her memory and the memory of all Holocaust victims.
If Nazi Germany is too far removed from today’s world, consider a more recent event, much smaller in scope but still palpably real for many Americans. What about a September 11th game, in which the player must escape from the burning towers? Or a United Flight 93 game, in which the player must overcome his or her hijackers on the ill-fated airliner that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania?
I imagine that even if such games were to conform to the historical record—say, no matter what the player does, Anne Frank is captured by the Gestapo in 1944—many people would find these games to be repugnant. At the very least, the games would be judged as distasteful, like other ludic representations of tragic events (for example, the controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG! or the reviled JFK: Reloaded, though in both of these instances, the player adopts the role of the powerful aggressor rather than the helpless victim). Yet the Holocaust, 9/11, the Columbine shootings, and the Kennedy assassination have all been the subject of highly praised films and novels. What makes a game about these historical events different?
Why can we watch the forever weak and wounded but not play them?
Why can we read about victims in hopeless situations but not virtually be them?
Why can we bear witness as detached observers but not do anything?
These are not rhetorical questions. I seek theories and answers. I want to understand the outer edges of our empathy and our imagination. I want—and I’m asking you to help me—to know the limits of playing the powerless and the doomed in videogames.
Image Credit: Abraham Bosse (1602-1676), Gentry Visiting a Prison, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art