Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Whistlin' Dixie

There’s been some delays on posting blog stuff since I wanted to clear writing activities with the new employer. Now that I have, here’s some backlog. :-)

I first visited New Orleans when I was a kid. I don’t much remember the details of that trip, but I came away with a mild-to-moderate distaste for the place. But I figured it had been well over a decade since then, so I decided to give it another chance on my recent trip across the country.

Man am I glad I did. Stayed in a little spot in the French Quarter, wandered the lonely streets, and had the best food and drink of my entire trip.

My lord, the food. So good it deserves its own paragraph. And those folks know how to make a Bloody Mary.

But I digress.

As I wandered the streets, I started thinking about how it might fare as a gamespace. At several levels, New Orleans would make a fantastic setting for an open world RPG. Very few tall buildings (fewer interiors to develop), a party district, narrow alleyways with character, wide boulevards, music floating in from far away, docks, travelers from all over, foreign languages, multiple religions, etc. It would be even better if you jumped back 150 years or so to, say, the period just before the Civil War. Then you’d have a wide countryside to explore, could play up voodoo magic, have guns that were fun to play with but not semi-automatic, various backwater settlements.

As I walked back to my hotel from dinner, I thought about it more. There’s such potential to make a compelling game! Why have there been so few games set in New Orleans? As a matter of fact, why hasn’t the Old South been used in an open world setting?

And then I remembered — oh right. Slavery. Something no reasonable game developer wants to touch with a 39-and-a-half foot pole. Rightly so. It’s an incredibly dicey topic that would be near-impossible to present in a sensitive manner while giving the player freedom.

You could, of course, let the player free slaves, join the Underground Railroad, maybe even start as a slave themselves. But if you care about player choice, you’d also want to give them the ability to suppress the slaves, capture escapees, etc.

Oh, man. The headlines would be horrible. How would the forum moderators even begin to know what was appropriate? You think games get negative attention for violence

And one of the arguments that would inevitably brought up from the enthusiast press is that slavery has been dealt with in games before, and this should be no different. You have a choice to enslave people or free the slaves in Fallout 3; Civilization makes it into a mechanic with tradeoffs as you build your cities.

But of course, this is different. There is a substantial, fundamental difference interacting with completely fictionalized slavery and interacting with a recreation of very real historical oppression.

It’s kind of unfortunate that this is sort of an untouchable area for games, because I think there’s tremendous power to educate people about the time period and those attitudes, beyond what you can learn from reading or watching movies with similar settings and themes.

I chose to free the slaves in Fallout 3 (I seem to always play goodie-two-shoes as much as games will support it), but I’d be interested to hear from people who took a more evil track. Do you think you would feel any differently about your actions if you had been tracking down runaway African-American slaves in 1850’s Louisiana than you did in the 2277 Capital Wasteland? Would it make you question your actions more? Would you be able to turn off the bad behavior detector in your conscience the same way I do every time I kill hundreds of people over a lunchtime session of Team Fortress 2?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I don’t think there are. Maybe someone reading this will have some answers, or at least more articulate questions.

6 archived comments Why no more comments?
  1. Ben Cummings wrote:

    I’ve been wanting to play this for a while, although I fully expect it would be incredibly uncomfortable: . Of course, pen and paper RPGs and videogame RPGs are two very different things with different challenges, abilities, and places in our culture. Regardless, Steal Away Jordon is notable for being unique (to my knowledge) across both media.

    On an entirely different note, and a more ancillary one: I’m not sure there’s much of a bad behavior detector, turned off or otherwise, at play while playing TF2. That game (as with most games of its genre) doesn’t really have a consistent enough fiction to make any sort of moral judgments. Surely it has character and characterization, but the game does not ask players to interact with a fiction more detailed than the fiction of space and reasonably-Newtonian-like physics, and I would posit that that’s not enough to build a moral system out of. The characters in the game are themselves instruments of the players, seeming more like a tool we use to compete with each other than characters in a social context.

    That’s my long-winded way of saying that I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. However, people regularly do deactivate that bad behavior detector in RPGs and the like all the time, and I agree that that would be a lot harder in a game set in the un-emancipated south.

    Posted April 29, 2009 at 10:19PM
  2. sjml wrote:

    You make some really good points. I’d be up for trying out “Steal Away Jordan” as well. This is one of those areas that non-indie game devs will probably never touch (it would be a cross between Six Days in Fallujah and the Bioware anti-gay forum mods), and we, as a culture, are weaker for it.

    I’ll concede that TF2 was a bad example. The cartoon style also helps with that symbolic disconnect, and it’s so purely competitive (with so few long-term consequences) that it’s hard to have any kind of emotional response.

    I’m honestly curious as to how it would feel to try and turn off the BBD… in a story about slavery. The holocaust is another potential setting, but there would be far fewer player handles for how to interact with it at a direct level.

    Posted April 29, 2009 at 10:34PM
  3. John Swisshelm wrote:

    I’d love to see games that tackle racial issues, but perhaps slavery isn’t something powerfully relevant to address in the action/adventure sort of way. I mean, is anyone pro-slavery?

    More interesting to me is the fallout from the abolition of slavery, and the way it affected the social and political lives of people of both races in the South, leading up the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.

    I remember being shocked visiting the MLK Jr museum in Atlanta during college – it was the first time I actually realized just how recently all that went down. I’d spent my entire life in the south and never really made the connection that my parents were kids, and my grandparents were adults, when marches, sit-ins, lynchings, and firehoses were on the evening news.

    Maybe games could help us today connect with those struggles in a way that text books and black history month can’t.

    I imagine an open-world game set in a fictitious small southern town, a faux Selma, Alabama in the mid 60s. Allow players to create a middle-school aged character from different races and classes and build a narrative about the interplay between morals, race, and fear.

    Let the player choose which groups to back through standard GTA-style missions – since the player character is just a boy, you’re not asking him to actually join white or black militant or peace movements, but can construct scenarios in which the player aids these groups and sees the effects in carefully constructed scenes.

    Basically “Do the Right Thing” meets “Malcolm X” crossed with “Bully” – the videogame.

    Posted April 29, 2009 at 10:35PM
  4. sjml wrote:

    To me, John, that’s the beauty of it — the game has the ability to make things powerfully relevant. And while few people will admit to being “pro-slavery” in real life, many of those same people will happily enslave wastelanders in Fallout.

    When I was a young lad in school, we were given the standard “slavery is bad” spiel, but it was accompanied by an assertion that “back then, they thought black people were like animals.” It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how wrong that was — that whites fully understood that blacks were people like them, they just genuinely believed them to be lesser people. Yet a lot of those people weren’t bad, per se. Things are more complicated than that. And I think games would be a great way to explore and express that complexity.

    I’m intrigued by the hypothetical game you propose — would would you see as a mission for the peaceful groups? I worry that there’d be the typical game problem that we make “bad” behavior much more fun than “good” behavior. That’s why I think going back pre-Civil War would be good, since the “good” behavior was pretty adventurey.

    Posted April 29, 2009 at 11:02PM
  5. Borut wrote:

    Yeah, I think to me the power of setting a game in that time period involving slavery is to explore what racism exists in society today. By highlighting attitudes of that time, how things have and haven’t changed, you can make people question their own assumptions about their hidden racial prejudices. Or so I boldly claim.

    Now what about a game that involves making the best bloody marys anywhere, ever? :)

    Posted April 30, 2009 at 1:55AM
  6. sjml wrote:

    @Borut: Clearly that would be part of the crafting mini-game. You could also find recipes for mint julep and whiskey sour.

    I’d play the hell out of that game.

    Posted April 30, 2009 at 7:20AM