In a recent post on Play the Past, entitled Playing the Powerless in Videogames about the Powerless, Mark Sample poses the following questions: “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?”
Sample asks readers to use Flight to Freedom, a free browser game, as a reference point. Flight to Freedom is part of a compilation called Mission US, which aims to “immerse players in U.S. history content through free interactive games.” In Flight to Freedom, you play as Lucy, a 14-year-old girl who escapes a plantation in Kentucky, a slave state, and journeys to the free state of Ohio. The game seems to target a middle-school age demographic, providing an alternative to traditional textbook approaches to learning. It’s geared for a classroom setting. Throughout the game, the player is given a series of choices meant to encourage debate and analytical thinking, instead of fact-memorization, and there is a significant variety of outcomes. The Mission US website cites a study showing the game has been successful in facilitating this kind of learning.
I could provide short answers to Sample’s questions in the comments section of his post, but my immediate instinct is not to provide any answers, but to burden the discussion with more questions. What Sample’s post did for me is spark internal dialogue and allow a number of related questions I’ve been wrestling with for a while to resurface.
- Can games portray victimization without trivializing the victims?
- Does the portrayal of a historical atrocity as an obstacle that can be overcome trivialize that atrocity?
- Even if it does, is it equally insensitive to portray an atrocity as insurmountable?
Any work that attempts to communicate the experience of something as abhorrent as slavery in the American South faces steep odds. Slavery is a thing that defies logic. The words we use to attempt to describe it feel meager and flimsy because it eludes the grasp of human language. Flight to Freedom takes on the unfortunate duty of relating something that defies communication. Sample’s questions are excellent because he accepts that videogames have limitations at face value. This may seem like an obvious thing to accept, but since games can encompass so many different forms of expression (prose, poetry, drawing, animation, interactivity), it’s easy to get swept away in their potential and forget that there are some things games just aren’t very good at. Getting better at recognizing these limitations could prove enormously liberating, as developers learn to work within and around them.
Flight to Freedom is a point-and-click, graphic adventure that allows players to explore and make decisions from Lucy’s perspective. The presentation includes competent voice-acting, artwork and animation and implies a kind of personal connection. The game could have opted for something with more distance, but instead makes it clear that it’s not just a vocabulary quiz or memorization game, or even a resource management exercise like The Oregon Trail, though all of these elements are present in the complete package. The game tries to invest players in the plights of its characters by allowing them to make affecting choices, just like you would in something like Mass Effect. Flight to Freedom is not a difficult game. Most of the gameplay involves selecting different dialogue options, clicking on things and deciding where to go next. The game offers some moderately trying dilemmas and setbacks throughout Lucy’s journey, but despite its attempts to facilitate some sense of emotional investment, the experience remains starkly impersonal. The result is something that’s not particularly affecting but just engaging enough to provide a nice distraction from your standard middle-school history textbook.
Empathy would be an enormously helpful, if not essential, emotion to tap in creating an experience that allows one to “play the powerless.” Empathy is one of those things that videogames aren’t very good at, even though it seems like something they should be best at. In games, the protagonist is supposed to serve as a vessel, through which the player is transported. But empathy is a difficult thing to convey. Humans are pretty cynical, so it’s not an emotion that can be taken for granted. Cart Life is a game that understands empathy, intentionally frustrating the player with time constraints and lack of direction. The characters are exhausted, yet resilient, and the same is expected of the player. Empathy is the result. There’s this nagging insecurity that keeps most games from even taking a stab at this kind of mechanical connection. They’re terrified at the idea that we might fail to figure out how to do something for ourselves and just give up. As a result, we’re coddled and given limited access to the compelling results that well-executed failure or hard-fought victory can produce. Granted, Cart Life is a game for adults, and it probably wouldn’t go over too well in a middle-school classroom, but maybe there’s a happy medium somewhere.
There’s a mechanic in Flight to Freedom that really shines, or perhaps it’s just its potential that shines. Lucy’s illiteracy carries over to the player. When you pick up a letter or look at a flier, the text appears blurred and illegible. The player can improve literacy by making certain choices and clicking on highlighted vocabulary words within conversations. The ability to read text is something that nearly every person familiar with this sort of game would take for granted. Flight to Freedom uses this expectation to create a sense of vulnerability. When you see one of these walls of text, you can make out just enough letters to begin to speculate on what it says. The effect is maddening. It drives home the idea that literacy is power, and the withholding of this power is part of what perpetuated the institution of slavery. The literacy mechanic is closer to the game’s periphery than its center, and I can’t help but wish it were more heavily emphasized, or that the game had incorporated more elements like it.
In Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison, the protagonist, Sethe, chooses to murder her children to prevent their recapture into slavery. Throughout the novel, Sethe is haunted by her past and her daughter’s ghost. In a foreword, Morrison writes about her approach with Beloved: “The figure most central to the story would have to be her, the murdered, not the murderer, the one who lost everything and had no say in any of it. She could not linger outside; she would have to enter the house. A real house, not a cabin. One with an address, one where former slaves lived on their own. There would be no lobby into this house, and there would be no “introduction” into it or into the novel. I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population–just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”
Morrison intentionally deprives readers of a clear introduction into the world she presents. She wants her audience to feel “kidnapped,” in order to better relate to the characters. She takes expectations of how a novel is supposed to introduce itself and uses them against the reader, and as a result, the reader feels confusion, discomfort and eventually empathy. So there’s the impersonal exposure to slavery that we get from textbooks, which Flight to Freedom does pretty well, and then there’s Toni Morrison’s portrayal. Morrison’s slavery is a dense, suffocating cloud that follows its victims even after they’re no longer under the institution’s direct supervision. Faced with something like that, one can only feel powerless. I have many, many hours of playing videogames under my belt, but I can’t think of one moment in a game that made me feel “kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment,” even though games specialize in making us feel like we’re in another world. If a game wanted to achieve some sense of “playing the powerless,” then Morrison’s approach could be helpful.
So why are we talking about Toni Morrison in the same breath as Flight to Freedom in the first place, when the end goal of this game clearly isn’t artistic merit? It would be reasonable to call that an unfair comparison because it is. Beloved is a personal, challenging literary work, while Flight to Freedom is an educational tool; an interactive textbook. I hope I don’t come across as saying “Look at what Morrison does! Why didn’t this game do that?” My hope is simply to continue and encourage the dialogue that Sample initiated. “It’s not a game” is an expression we use to mean “It’s not trivial.” The expression emphasizes the fact that we’re talking about something serious, so in a way, a game about slavery defies an indoctrinated system of logic. Most games are power fantasies about starting from nothing, mastering a set of skills and emerging the victor. Powerless still feels like something that contradicts the medium. But is the power fantasy something truly inherent to the medium, or is it a limitation we’ve placed on games by thinking about them in a certain way?
Flight to Freedom doesn’t really challenge this notion because it doesn’t try to make the player feel powerless. In the first few minutes of the game, you’re presented with a check-list of tasks and allowed to complete them in any order. This list is comprised of Lucy’s day-t0-day chores around the plantation, as well as some personal assignments from family members. On plantation chores, you’re given the option of cutting corners or doing a thorough job. On my first chore (doing the wash), I elected to do the job well in order to test out the system. Would the game make me choose between family and plantation owner, or would it let me please everyone? After finishing the laundry, I was confronted en route to the next chore and scolded for working slowly. From then on, I cut corners. Before long, I was rewarded with a “Resistance Badge” and an encouraging message.
The game clearly encourages resistance. There’s almost a sort of can-do attitude that permeates the atmosphere. The subject matter is as bleak as it gets, but there’s not much bleakness in the game’s bright, colorful presentation. I had to make some tough decisions but completed the game without making any real sacrifices. I felt vulnerable at times, but never powerless. The game’s title implies victory before you even start playing, and the badges you earn throughout the game aren’t just for decoration. Once you complete all five chapters, an Epilogue unlocks, and you can use the badges to affect Lucy’s fate. If you make all the right choices, it’s implied that Lucy lives a rewarding life to the end of her days. It feels problematic to criticize the game from this angle because the approach it takes is probably necessary for the story it wants to tell. And it’s not as if all slaves were completely powerless. They were oppressed, but they found ways to resist. Sure, the game could have more heavily reinforced a sense of powerlessness, but to what end?
There’s a comment in one of Sample’s earlier posts that asserts “for better or for worse, no one really wants to play a hopeless game.” It’s an interesting point, and it might be true. Last month, the Brainy Gamer examined a project in which developer Margaret Robertson failed to deliver a game that was supposed to address an immensely serious topic. The game was meant to serve as a companion piece to Dreams of a Life, “a documentary about a woman named Joyce Vincent who died in her flat and lay unnoticed there for three years, her television still on.” Robertson said that the failed project “wasn’t really a project about death, but about ‘a death,’ which is a much harder thing.” As Robertson suggests, perhaps it’s an issue of specificity; of biography verses history. When it comes to tragic historical and current events, perhaps games should only work in broad strokes. Playing as a fictional slave isn’t inherently problematic because a variety of outcomes are historically plausible, but allowing players to alter the fate of Frederick Douglas or Harriet Jacobs is another matter entirely.
For the sake of coming full circle, I’ll return to Sample’s original questions:
- What are the limits of playing the powerless? Games generally present an experience in which players can learn a skill set, master it, and eventually achieve victory. But confined within certain circumstances, skill, persistence and determination just isn’t enough.
- What is lost and what is gained in portraying—and playing—a situation that has been well represented in other media? What is lost is a sense of complete authorial control. What is gained is player agency.
- And what considerations should developers and players alike have with regards to responsibility and accountability? Developers and players might consider that certain topics defy logical systems, and in some conditions, a traditional, clear-cut “win condition” might not be appropriate. Some problems can’t be solved by leveling up.
In Beloved, Sethe’s memories are complex. She is haunted by the memory of “Sweet Home,” the plantation where she used to live and work, its “shameless beauty” sprawled out before her: “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves.” Sethe remembers a beauty that is full of ugliness. We expect games to be logical, and if their systems don’t appear logical, then we consider them poorly designed. But some experiences defy logic. Most works that deal with these sorts of issues include some redemptive quality. If a game’s win state could be presented in a way that felt less like victory and more like finding that redemption or glimmer of hope, then perhaps it could start to address this issue of “playing the powerless.”