I swear I keep trying to make these blip/short wave transmission things short, but somehow they get away from me. Oh well. Some day I’ll get the hang of brevity and/or a low-fi aesthetic. In the mean time, here’s the latest one. Scripty-ish thing after the jump.
So I’ve been playing a fair bit of Assassin’s Creed lately, and recently finished up Freedom Cry. And I enjoyed it – Adewale and the world he inhabits is, for a video game anyways, actually fairly nuanced and fleshed out. The story toys with talking about whether an armed slave revolt is a good idea; whether violent rebellion is going to result in a push for true freedom or will just make things that much worse for those who are still enslaved. And it never really really goes there, but at least some characters advocate fighting and some insist that a more fundamental change is required.
And that’s really cool, because the economics of the slave trade is definitely a system games can look at! And arguably a lot of the social reasons for racism can be systemized in different ways, from political and legal environments to popular opinion. Games would actually be a fantastic medium for analyzing some of these problems and how to approach fixing them! Except that while both racism and the economics of the slave trade are systems games could look at here they’re sort of brushed to the side here in the name of rah rah action. Which I guess shouldn’t be surprising, I mean, it is an Assassin’s Creed game.
But that doesn’t mean that the game entirely ignores the idea of abolitionism in its mechanics. Adewale is tasked with killing slaveowners to free slaves, which as you free more and more of them unlock additional missions or bonuses. Which, I mean, okay, that’s like a child’s idea of how freeing slaves works, but that’s not really what I want to talk about. My problem with these mechanics is this: the way the game goes about treating slaves as a game mechanic is so disenfranchising and dehumanizing to the slaves that any point it wanted to make about slavery is rendered flaccid.
Movies and books about slavery go out of their way to show the true human cost – what it really meant to be a person treated as property in the system of chattel slavery. Or they go into the systems behind slavery – the politics and economics of how it was supported for centuries. But here? Slaves are framed mechanically as a collectible that blocks progress; they’re effectively points towards an experience bar you want to fill up to either unlock the next mission or get a reward of some kind.
Worse, there are two classes of slaves you can rescue. Since you’re supporting the militant rebellion the quote-unquote “warriors” among the slaves you save go on to aid the revolt. These are a smaller percentage of the slaves you save, and they tend to give better rewards as you save them – and they also tend to die first so they’re harder to save. So… just so we’re clear… in a game that denounces the chattel slave trade of the 1700’s, Ubisoft are treating able bodied black men as a premium currency worth collecting for personal gain. I’ll just let the irony of that sink in.
My point isn’t that the game is bad or racist or anything; like I said, I enjoyed it. My point is that these mechanics are a lazy way of framing slavery as something undesirable and freedom as something worthwhile. You want to free slaves because if you free enough slaves you get neat goodies and unblock progress. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Winstates contextualize play. And by making the act of freeing slaves a winstate Ubisoft has painted slavery as something bad and freed slaves as something good.
But considering the complexity and cultural significance of slavery that’s a little trite, don’t you think? “Free 300 slaves and win the game! Yay, you won! Slavery’s over!” It’s mechanically lazy, it’s a ludic shorthand. The game elects to not use its mechanics to dissect the how and the why of slavery in order to serve up that Django Unchained style fantasy of the slave who stood up and gunned down all of these racist jerks. And as a result, any emotional impact or commitment to opposing slavery itself is completely undercut. These slaves aren’t treated as characters, we don’t get to know them. They’re icons. Pawn pieces. They mean about as much to the player as a question mark block in Mario – if you can get to it, hey, cool, it gives you some stuff. If not, whatever. The “freed slave counter” mechanic’s simplicity and lack of human empathy results in the player feeling distant and indifferent to the very issue the game is most concerned with.
And what I find interesting about the game’s inability to frame slavery in a substantially engaging way is that there’s another mechanic set here that, especially in light of Black Flag and Liberation, I do find engaging. Walking around as Adewale in Port-Au-Prince or any of the major cities in Freedom Cry means you always have to be a bit on your toes. There are slave catchers in every city, and Adewale bears a slaver’s mark. So you always have to be looking a little bit over your shoulder to make sure that even when doing nothing wrong you aren’t attracting unwanted attention. It’s a constant reminder of Adewale’s position in this society, of a past he can’t fully run away from. No matter how much he tries to put it behind him it’s always there; a constant reminder that even as a badass assassin and captain of a ship fighting for the future of the world, in 1700’s Haiti he is a second class citizen who needs to keep his head down.
But where Adewale is violently oppressed in his society, Liberation’s Aveline feels a softer form of social confinement. Being both biracial and a woman, she has certain societal pressures put on her to conform to other people’s beliefs about who and what she is. In order to both conform to and subvert the expectations society has placed on her, Aveline can change between three outfits – an assassin’s outfit, a slave outfit, and a fancy lady outfit. And yeah, they each have different pros and cons for movement and combat, but what’s interesting is that they also change how people react to you. For example, there are groups of lecherous thugs throughout the city. As the assassin they more or less ignore you. As the slave, they may make a lot of lewd gestures but they otherwise leave you alone. But dressed as the lady you’re suddenly a target for harassment. Similarly, as a slave Aveline can blend in with workers or a cowd, but as a lady she can’t. As a lady Aveline stands out, she’s vibrant, she’s beautiful, she’s striking. As a slave she’s seen by others as just another face in the crowd. And all that’s changed is her clothing. How Aveline presents herself to the world really changes who and what people think she is, and she’s under constant pressure to conform to those expectations in different contexts.
Now compare those experiences moving around the city to Edward Kenway’s. Kenway has the ability to move about freely in the city. If authorities are after him it’s because he’s legitimately done something wrong, like killing or stealing or being in a restricted area. Beyond that, the world is his oyster – he’s free to sit at a pub or pet a dog or meet a contact without worrying if there’s a slaver behind him or if he’s dressed the right way to interact with people he’s meeting. More than that, unlike Aveline who has to conform to what people expect of her, Kenway has the ability to pick whatever identity he wants to have. He literally steals an Assassin’s outfit and tries to pass himself off as one of their order, and successfully does so for several days. He wasn’t doing it to conform to social pressure but because he thought he could make a cheap buck.
And all three of these games, when taken together, sort of unintentionally form a really shallow but also kinda cool mechanical examination of race and gender relations and how they relate to social norms – just by walking around the city! They highlight the privilege of being a white dude by setting themselves in a time where white dudes didn’t just have some privilege, but like, all the privilege. While they all play roughly the same – I mean, they’re all Assassin’s Creed games with the stabbing and the shooting and the climbing – walking around town has its own tone and texture for each of them. Whether it’s Kenway’s freedom to choose whatever he wants to do at any time, Adewale’s permanent and inescapable status as runaway that causes him nothing but grief, or the constant pressure Avaline is under to dress and act appropriately… in all of them we get to experience a small slice of life from these characters in the context of the society they lived in, and that’s way more interesting to me than whether the Templars or the Assassin’s control the world. Unlike collecting freed slaves, these mechanics impart empathy.
I guess there are a few things we can learn here. One, winstates contextualize play but they shouldn’t be used in place of meaningful mechanical explorations of topics. Freedom Cry’s advocacy of abolitionism by making freeing slaves a winstate is about as deep as Bioshock’s condemnation of Objectivism by charging you to use the bathroom in a few levels. Two, simple counters and point systems are a terrible way of dealing with mechanics that are supposed to engender empathy because they boil people down to a number or collectible. The only example I can think of where a simple statistic like this has worked is in DEFCON, and that’s because the emotional distance you feel from seeing the text “1.5 megadeaths” on the screen and the carnage and sorrow that number represents was sort of the whole point. The whole “boiling people down to a number” thing was the very thing the game was commenting on.
Finally, I think there’s something a bit narcissistic about games – especially singleplayer games. It takes an immense amount of mechanical and narrative effort to make non-playable characters empathetic, and too often allies become objective markers and bad guys just become targets. We stop seeing the metaphor and start just seeing the system. And you can overcome that tendency with enough mechanical and narrative prodding, but there’s something to be said about the power of making players directly experience the differences between systems in order to make your point. Playing as Kenway, Aveline, and Adewale all together gives players a real mechanical exploration of a concept, but it’s only by playing as all three comparing and contrasting the way they each interact with their society that we can start seeing it.
I guess my ultimate point is this – building empathy for other characters in games, especially when they’re intertwined with game mechanics – is very hard. But making players build empathy for the characters they’re playing is very easy. And I think we need fewer “collect all the slaves to defeat slavery” and more subtle discussions of social pressures and prejudices.