This is part of a series of research/industry snapshots, capturing the work of those affiliated with the Bristol Digital Game Lab. For the first post in the series, we are delighted to showcase the work of Claudia Jones, Bristol Digital Game Lab intern.
When history meets game experiences, players are virtually transported to an event in time, a setting once long forgotten but remembered, and characters that enliven the story. If historical games grant access to the past and engage with our history, whose history are we accessing? Who is allowed to grant this access? How can games act as a digital archive of our collective memories?
My dissertation for the Master of Arts in Black Humanities explores these questions, and many more during the course of my continued research this summer. I am currently conducting autoethnographic analyses of three historical games that focus on the Black American experience within historical contexts, while using secondary sources to critically evaluate them. One of the titles is Freedom!, a 1992 educational game that centered around characters escaping slavery in the United States. It was published through the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, famous for its work on The Oregon Trail. After the title was tested at selected schools in the United States, but was subsequently pulled from release after receiving complaints.
I found it incredibly important for this to be the starting case study due to its sensitive content in an educational setting. Through an emulation found on the Internet archive, I was able to download Freedom! and play through its entirety three times. Each time, my character attempted an escape but was recaptured and sent to the deep south, where further chances of escape were slim.
As I played, I returned to the question of “whose history are we accessing?” and it slowly morphed into “is this the type of history that games should access?” While on the surface, it seems obvious as to why Freedom! would not be released for the general public. However, as I played with these characters, there is a multitude of symbols that inform my experience within Freedom’s game world. The use of vernacular. The feeling of hopelessness and confusion as you navigate. The anxiety in encountering violence. These characteristics are common in a multitude of games, but coupled with events such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, ethical implications come in play.
Rather than the question whether these games should exist, which is valid, there should be an expansion of and why representation is vital in game worlds and how to ethically portray people of colour in these spaces. After over 30 years since Freedom’s creation, the work continues to be done to examine these questions, and I am thankful to be a part of it.
Claudia Jones is the Bristol Digital Game Lab intern studying in the Master of Arts in Black Humanities. She is a former librarian from the United States of America. Her research interests include Black historical narratives in video games, Black digital bodies, and games as archives.