Playing History 2: Slave Trade
Reviewed by: Matt P., Miriam Moster, and Rachel Dixon
Review started: April 12, 2021
Review finished: April 30, 2021
- Playing History 2: https://store.steampowered.com/app/386870/Playing_History_2__Slave_Trade/
- Playing History: https://www.seriousgames.net/en/portfolio/playing-history/
Data and Sources
- These games are evidently inspired by real historical events in at least some capacity.
- The historical events used as inspiration have been “gamified”—adapted into the form of a game.
- The player is given some degree of agency: for those familiar with Roger Caillois’s Man, Play, and Games, this is done in part by adding elements of agon and mimicry to the source material.
- The entries in Serious Games’ “Playing History” series all have similar sorts of presentation: a cartoonish-but-consistent art style, a list of “features” that are functionally identical between entries, and a minor fixation on the idea of “changing events” or “exploring” history (the former can be found as a heading on the company’s website).
Digital Tools Used to Build It
- Unclear which game engine was used
- Reviewed in English, accessible in Danish
- Supplemental educational material is available in English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Many of Serious Games’ other game titles are available in these languages as well.
Notably, the following blurb is present on Playing History 2: Slave Trade’s Steam page:
The game and trailer has [sic] been updated. Slave Tetris has been removed as it was perceived to be extremely insensitive by some people. This overshadowed the educational goal of the game. Apologies to people who was [sic] offended by us using game mechanics to underline the point of how inhumane slavery was. The goal was to enlighten and educate people - not to get sidetracked discussing a small 15 secs part of the game.
While subjective, the above text is written in a rather abrasive and informal manner. Based on archived video footage, the Slave Tetris segment was far longer than 15 seconds of gameplay. Furthermore, one could absolutely argue that it is on the creator of the game to balance educational and gameplay goals—the fact that Slave Tetris “overshadowed” the “educational goal” of the game is a failure on the part of the developer.
This aside, again according to the Steam page, under the “Awards” section, the “Playing History” series “havs [sic] been both nominated and won a BETT award for the category of ‘best learning game’ in Europe.”
The total gameplay can be completed in an hour, using a PC and a mouse. There are not keyboard shortcuts, which are common in PC games for navigation and for greater accessibility as a whole. The player is introduced to the captain of a slave ship and is also introduced to their avatar, by indicating that they are to play as the slave boy on the screen. Scoring is based on a “trust” score based on the interactions that the player has with a variety of other characters. This can cause conflicts in the idea of “trust,” as gaining a slave ship captain’s trust would require the opposite behavior of gaining the trust of a captured slave, or would require the player to act in an untrustworthy way by lying to one or both. This may have been intentional to show a reductive sense of a character’s inner conflict, but for the intended younger audience this could be confusing.
Of unique concern is that the game purports to be an educational tool; however, it does not provide much context for the activities in which the player is engaging. While most of these activities are “point and click” interactions where a young player would use the mouse to fetch an item to move the story forward, there are some very big missed opportunities. Rather than challenge the player with emotionally driven dialogue that could change the outcome of the game, the choices are prohibitively simplistic. The one potential intervention offered to the player as a resistance to slavery (barring the ending, which I will not spoil but will mention is out of character given the options), is when the player is given the option to tell the slave ship captain that “Slavery is bad, you know” at a known cost to their score. Aside from the casual language, the one opportunity to interrogate the behaviors that are happening comes with a penalty and far too late in the story to have any sense of meaning to the player, who is well aware by this point that a large portion of this game necessitates acquiescence to the captain.
There are also many questionable contextual choices, aside from whether Slave Tetris is a good mini-game to show how packed slave ships were and the controversy that arose when this feature was removed. Of note, one character that is representative of an African tribesman has dialog that references 1980s television star Mr. T, with a peppering of “I pity the fool” and other catchphrases that would be irrelevant to a modern fourth-grader. One of the mechanics of the game is to occasionally use a set of goggles to point out inaccuracies in the surroundings, and while this could have been a prompt to click on this character’s coordinating Mr. T style gold chain, it mainly has the effect of being wildly stereotypical of Black people on a global scale, not to mention dated and irrelevant to the audience.
Lastly, the game’s distribution was largely through Steam, a multimillion-dollar commercial platform for PC games owned by Valve Corporation, who created the successful Halo, Half-Life, and Portal games, among others. While there are educational games on this platform, it is a willful choice to have Steam as the one distribution option, and to have Playing History 2: Slave Trade to be the sole game released on Steam from the educational studio, which has many other titles available on its own site. Glancing at the Steam options, most players were excited to play the controversial Slave Tetris while they could—many were excited, angered, or bewildered by the controversy. When adding ludic elements to educate about traumatic moments in history that still impact many people, it is likely that the message can get lost under the mechanics if the game elements are not carefully tended. In this case the clunky point-and-click interactions, messy plot, interruptive mini-games, and dialogue trees without meaningful dialogue impact help to create an alternate play-style: ironic or hateful adult play.