A couple of weeks ago, I attended Coming To You From the Indigenous Future: A Showcase of Indigenous Women’s Digital media. My experiences at there really meshed with a lot of class discussions, particularly the one we had about the representation of slavery in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry. The showcase presented a wide array of digital media, from claymation films to regular short films to virtual reality experiences. The themes addressed were just as diverse as the different media the artists used–stories ranged from representation of the often-erased childhood stories of children of color in general and indigenous children in particular to sci-fi stories of a group of Native astronauts colonizing Mars. There were also shorts about cultural appropriation and colonization. The artwork that stood out most to me, though, was the virtual reality piece, called The Highway of Tears about missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
It was beautiful and compelling storytelling, dropping you into direct conversation with women talking about their missing daughters and their experiences trying to uncover their stories. The landscape was critical aspect of this piece–we’re flown over The Highway of Tears where many indigenous women go missing, placed back down by passing cars and trucks, and flown back up to see the land as a whole. We enter into people’s houses and their pain and loss and learn how the state doesn’t care enough about this population to investigate when they go missing. It was an interactive, engaging way to tell a story that’s hard to tell. Our conversation after watching the sinking slave shape on Freedom Cry made me revisit this work of art.
As we watched the scene in class where the main character of the game unshackles the drowning enslaved men and women, many people shared their discomfort of including such a moment in the game.
I agreed with these statements–for me, the game was reducing a traumatic, inhumane moment of history into an entertaining moment of fun. Black pain and trauma was rendered unimportant and invisible. These thoughts made me think of questions that reappeared throughout our time in the course, namely, if video games can be used to teach people difficult, hard-to-swallow concepts. Classmates shared that people aren’t going to want to play games that aren’t fun, that people want first and foremost to have fun and not feel bad. As I thinking through these things, I remembered that before we played Assassin’s Creed, many people shared that the game provided history lessons or ways to talk about slavery.
But is it appropriate to talk about slavery in a “fun” video game? Is something lost here, in trying to make it fun and easily digestible? Should such a history be easily digestible or ever rendered “fun”? I think about how the artist for the virtual reality piece was able to tell an engaging story about incredible violence that didn’t sacrifice the gravity of issue for the sake of entertainment. Though the experience kept me engaged and interested, it certainly didn’t make violence against indigenous women “fun.” These thoughts bring me back to themes we discussed way at the beginning of the course–do games always have to be fun? Demanding this seems to have negative effects on the sometimes serious issues that games try to incorporate in their stories. Suggesting that everything has to be fun in order to learn about it is irresponsible, I think, because not everything can be talked about in those terms. Some topics require seriousness and strong emotions to digest. Though admittedly Freedom Cry isn’t trying to educate us, slavery isn’t a topic I’d like to see reduced to a fun plot device. I think there are ways of creating engaging, fascinating material that still respects an atrocity’s victims and their stories.