Dream Game: The Underground

The following is a guest post from Sun Tzu:

Tzu is a mixed race gamer who has been involved in the gaming scene since Doom. He enjoys writing about social justice, feminism, a wide variety of game genres, and writing about himself in the third person. Any personal inquiries or comments can be sent to Tzuofthesun@gmail.com.

       Edutainment. Let’s all take a moment to look at that monstrosity of a word and let the horror of what it entails wash over us. It’s a Portmanteau that for many brings derisive laughter, dismissive sighs, or painful groans. I don’t know about you, but I’m having flashbacks of low quality elementary school programs that were employed by my parents to try to bridge the gap between my interest in gaming and lack of interest in school. However, despite my prior experiences, I believe that games can educate and enhance both intellect and social consciousness. All that is required is the right narrative to go along with the game itself. To that end, I believe that a game based around the underground railroad in the deep south would present an interesting opportunity for education about racial privilege and oppression.

       Let us start at the foundation: genre. While strong narratives are not bound to a particular genre of games, a Turn Based Strategy game (TBS) is what I had in mind for my theoretical game-let’s call it The Underground. A squad based TBS would allow for a diverse cast that the player could both interact with in game and watch within the context of the narrative (dialogue, cut scenes, etc.). The gameplay itself would be objective based, like many other squad based TBS’s, and task the player with freeing slaves, intercepting hunters, escorting VIPs, etc. Also typical of squad based games, the characters the player employs would be specialists in their own fields and bring a unique set of skills to the table. While all of this may seem rather unimportant when it comes to how race can be presented and explored, the truth is quite the contrary. Imagine this scenario: you, the player, are tasked with rescuing an important abolitionist from the clutches of a wealthy plantation owner. He/she is being held in the antagonist’s grand mansion during a lavish dinner party. What do you do? Send in your combat specialist, a recently freed slave with a sharp eye and a steady hand? No, there are too many guards for a loud operation. So, you look to your stealth character-a black woman who has lived like a hermit in the back country ever since her escape. Unfortunately, the mansion is well lit and the guests are packed in like sardines. The situation might seem insurmountable between the tight security and many prying civilian eyes-that is, until you look at one of the white characters in your squad. Dress him/her up, and they can easily blend in with the crowd. Situations such as those present racial oppression as it is: being white instantly unlocks a whole slew of options unavailable to people of color. In the context of a strategy game such as this, race becomes a constant tactical consideration. Some of your characters can walk around in broad daylight with their weapons at their sides, while others have to hide or disguise themselves just to walk down the street.

       This gameplay integration of a social message (such as: racism is bad) gets the point across better than a pop quiz (I’m looking at you, Jumpstart) and leaves breathing room in the narrative for plot where heavy handed messages might have resided. The big question remains, however, whether this could be an effective way to provoke serious thought and project a positive message. Let’s look at this from two extreme angles: great success and total bomb. The way I see it, a narrative like this could either be pathetically repetitive (Slavery was bad? No way!) or produce a stage for nuanced black and white characters.

       The easy way out would be to paint all abolitionists and black freedom fighters as saints, and while positively portrayed black characters are mildly progressive, they don’t break much ground. As action figures dukeing it out on a historical playset, they are hard to write realistically and flat-two factors that can lower sympathy and interest from players. A better approach would be to make the characters dramatic and conflicted. An example for a black character could be entertaining the notion of escaping to Canada and abandoning the struggle, while a white ally might not have the mental fortitude to take in the horrors of war and slavery on such a personal level. While this is all Literature 101, it is of particular concern for this topic and these characters, because black people in many creative mediums are often relegated to either despicable villains or immaculate saints and white allies placed on a pedestal of moral superiority because of their charitable spirit. In reality, however, people be people. A white person aligned with a minority cause make a very insensitive remark without even knowing it or hold racist misconceptions simply because they are “common knowledge” and people of color aren’t all bastions of righteous rebellion who have infinite understanding of the mechanisms of their own oppression. People, no matter how well intended, make mistakes and can be misguided. Putting these realistic traits into the narrative of The Underground lends gravitas to the story, the setting, and keeps the player interested in the characters as more than just chess pieces at their command. Without such investment in the characters and narrative, racism and slavery lose their social significance. The long lasting and deviously pervasive psychological damage that both systems inflict upon black and white people can only be expressed through characters that feel real and relatable.

       Games that market their socially progressive values overtly have been met with lukewarm reception and, honestly, it’s not a big surprise. Would you rather play a game about a badass space marine escaping a military facility infested with aliens/demons (a la Doom) or a game about a socially conscious bureaucrat trying to penny pinch and micro manage a sluggish, ignorant world out of a climate change disaster (a la middle management)? Those types of games, while well intended, miss the entire point of being a game-that is, to be fun and interactive. And in losing the strength of their genre, their arguments and information fall before hands just itching to ALT F4.

      However, through engaging gameplay and (hopefully) well written characters, racism can be dissected, examined, and presented to the player in every minute of the game without resorting to giant walls of text that would be more at home in a sociological study. That is why, in the ideal game of my dreams, racism isn’t just seen in boring quotes on the loading screen, but experienced through gameplay and humanized through dialogue in a sublime wedding of what I would like to say and what I would like to play.

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6 Responses to Dream Game: The Underground

  1. Gunthera1 says:

    I think this could be an incredibly good game. It could certainly fall flat on its face depending on how it was done, but it could also be a nuanced and interesting narrative that helps bring home some of the reality of that period in American history.

    For those that might be interested in this concept –>
    Brenda Romero actually made a game to help teach her daughter about the slave trade in a more interactive way: The New World http://romero.com/analog/ She did a TED talk discussing this idea of using games to better understand and connect emotionally to events http://www.ted.com/talks/brenda_brathwaite_gaming_for_understanding.html

  2. Christina Nordlander says:

    Very interesting post, and sounds like it would make a great game.

  3. Doug S. says:

    Situations such as those present racial oppression as it is: being white instantly unlocks a whole slew of options unavailable to people of color. In the context of a strategy game such as this, race becomes a constant tactical consideration.

    This sounds like the kind of thing that lends itself to misinterpretation – you probably don’t want to make a game where players are tempted to think things like “oh no, I have to play a black character, they’re all so useless in this game.”

    • Matt says:

      This.

      Some brainstorming on advantages that could even it out for gameplay and not have that Unfortunate Implication:

      Stealth: the oppressor assumes you’re stupid and unfit for any more than menial work. You pass through many interactions without suspicion if disguised.

      Communications/Intel: If your team leader is a freed slave, they will likely know more about the local area around the target than a white abolitionist from out of town. You may randomly start any given mission with some combination of detailed area map, guard schedule, key, secret exit detection, or 1-2 people “inside” who will let you through crucial bottlenecks.

      A white person aligned with a minority cause make a very insensitive remark without even knowing it or hold racist misconceptions simply because they are “common knowledge” and people of color aren’t all bastions of righteous rebellion who have infinite understanding of the mechanisms of their own oppression. People, no matter how well intended, make mistakes and can be misguided.

      Again comm/intel: different dialogue options may be open. A black player character from the area may have more options that can open up some possibilities, and fewer options that are doomed to accomplish nothing but a foot in the mouth. The white player character may be subject to the same vulnerability to the stealth advantage described above.

      • Matt says:

        Also, a thought: Multiplayer?

        How bad an idea would it be to allow people to play as the “defenders” in a game like this? (the last decade saw a whole slew of games that let you play as Axis soldiers in WW2, but generally removed you quite a ways away from the Holocaust or the various Japanese atrocities, while here your entire immediate purpose would be to defend slavery.)

    • Tzu says:

      I can see how this could be mishandled. A better way to put it might be:

      Black characters and white characters can be in different locations without arousing suspicion. Still, I would definitely want white characters to have more “undercover” options than black characters because that would be realistic by the standards of the times. White people were under less scrutiny and as fully privileged persons would probably be afforded more wiggle room in a tight spot (I was just admiring the disposition of your slaves, not delivering crucial intelligence to the plants working undercover!). The tricky thing would be balancing the abilities and limitations of white and black characters-if a white character’s only asset is their race, gameplay is a bit boring. However, if a white character gets their race as a perk on top of skills/abilities on par with black characters, that would create a problematic power differential. To solve this problem would require a convergence of number tweaking, testing, and brainstorming, but I think it could be done smoothly.

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