I can remember the first time I watched Rosewood. It was a visual representation of what I read about in school. About the evil that one race of people can inflict on another. I remember finishing that movie and side-eying White people for about a week. I was young, but the truth was out, and I then knew what many people would try to forget. Racism, discussions of race and the way in which we treat those of color today share many of the similarities of the period in which Rosewood takes place. And while many forms of media attempt to depict the racial climate of America and our history, video games struggle with the idea that you can be entertaining and push boundaries.
When I initially decided to write this, I wanted to focus on my recent experience with Mafia III, one of the latest games to depict America during a time of civil unrest. However, I’ve found that in trying to discuss one game that I would leave out games like Bioshock Infinite and Freedom Cry, an expansion to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Games that left marks on me as a black man who also loves playing games. Video games have the power to move us in a way that we have yet to experience, placing us in the center of racial encounters. Unlike movies, we are in control of the characters in these situations. We are active participants, and it is this shift that gives developers great power in moments they create, but many of these moments feel like the team lacked the conviction to push the envelope.
Carnival Games In BioShock Infinite
I remember playing Bioshock Infinite, walking through another steampunk world built by a group of designers that dreamed of a world similar to the ‘good old days,’ but in the sky. It’s in the first moments of exploring this new world that you’re prompted to play a game. You’re given a baseball and prompted to either throw the ball at an interracial couple or throw it at the host. The game gives you a time limit, forcing your hand. I will always remember this event. It stuck with me. It was the first time I could remember not only being in control during a racial situation but at the same time feeling helpless. This imaginary woman was not real, but I wanted to save her as if she was.
Freeing Slaves in Freedom Cry
Years later I would experience a quiet rage and emotion when I played Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – Freedom Cry. I played the role of Adewale, a pirate and trained Assassin, and this time I had the power. And it was a power that I seized. In Freedom Cry, not only must you stop the Templars, a task given to every hero of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but you also liberate slaves from plantations. The first slave owners that I killed gave me a sense of enjoyment. It was a chance to exact ‘revenge.’ But what revenge was I actually looking for? That sense of justice that I felt was nothing a hollow victory. There was no change in the world around, it just felt good to be on the other side of power. I spent days vexed, enjoying every slave I freed and slave owner I killed but I always wondered if it was ‘right.’ Not in the freeing of slaves but in the feelings I had while doing so Of course over time the freeing of slaves became repetitive. A powerful experience fell victim to the whims of game design. Like the climbing of towers in traditional Assassin Creed games, the plantations slowly became boxes I needed to check. No matter how many slaves I freed, there were always more.
Fast forward to today. What would it be like to play a game where the word ‘nigger’ flowed as freely as it does in a Tarantino movie? Living in a world where racial injustices seem to happen every other week what would it be like to play a game where people openly treated you how they secretly do know? That’s what I wanted to find out when I played Mafia III.
Trespassing In Mafia III
Mafia III attempts to have a discussion about race by setting the story at a time during the heyday of civil unrest. You play as Lincoln Clay, a Black man back from the war and entering into another war with the mob. The game doesn’t hide the fact that it’s going to talk about race. Any mention of Black people is held in a negative context. It might be enough to rattle someone who isn’t Black, but I spent most of my time in a state of annoyance. It seemed like the cheap way out. Saying you’re going to tackle race relations but the most you get is derogatory statements, seems lazy. I can log onto Twitter and get that. But the game did have its moments.
There was one time I walked Lincoln Clay into a store, and a message instantly ran across the screen – ‘Trespassing.’ At first, I couldn’t understand why. There weren’t any enemies in the vicinity, so how could be trespassing? That’s when I walked outside of the building and saw in the corner of the window a small sign that read “no coloreds allowed.” What the fuck? This was something I only read about in books, but here I am experiencing it in a virtual world. I was taken aback, and for a few moments, I thought about all the bullshit we’ve been through as a people. I’ve seen the pictures, but I grew up in a time where I can go anywhere I damn well please. This was as close as I was going to get to actually experiencing the real thing and I hated it. Like Bioshock Infinite this was my Rosewood moment.
There were other moments in the game that sparked a quiet rage. Like when you see a group of white nationalists secretly selling Black people to other nationalists as “slaves”. And while it made me angry, it didn’t hit that deeper level that I experienced being told that I was trespassing in a place I thought was free to enter.
By the time I finished the game, I wanted ‘more.’ I was waiting for the game to push the boundaries of what was possible. ‘Terrible’ dialog in the sense that it’s upsetting is low hanging fruit. I wanted to be moved. You could call it chasing the same feelings I experienced watching Rosewood and even Birth of a Nation. I got a taste when I trespassed but I knew there was more to mine from the time period.
Shaping The Black Experience
Game studios will pour hundreds of hours into crafting a universe with dynamic characters and storylines. But when we talk about race or the Black experience, it’s like a studio gets scared to push the boundaries. To dig deep into the Black experience. Mafia III had moments but hid them behind a frantic pace of action sequences that you end up not paying them much attention. You’re too busy trying to stay alive. There is a moment during Mafia III that you spend time in a racist amusement park, and the game wants you to take in the audacity of the park, but you’re too busy dodging bullets to pay it any attention. How can I take in what’s happening while also defending myself against waves of gun-toting mobsters?
If we are going to tout our industry as one that values inclusion and diverse ideas and people, it’s time to quit tiptoeing around the Black experience. Put people in place who can accurately speak to our experience. Because at this point, dancing around the issue is more disrespectful than the dialogue you use in an attempt to drive that point home.