As the artistic medium of video games evolves, more and more developers take it upon themselves to educate their young audiences about serious topics. Spec Ops: The Line highlighted the tragedy of PTSD in modern warfare. Bioshock showed the ethical flaws of an aquatic Ayn Rand autocracy. And Cooking Mama … well, it's mainly about cooking, but I'm sure there are some hidden comments on patriarchal gender roles in there. The biggest challenge these games face is how to keep a game fun to play while also instilling the grim seriousness of a real-world problem? But don't ask the makers of Playing History 2 - Slave Trade, who made a game so tone-deaf that the ludonarrative dissonance will make your ears bleed.
Serious Game Interactive is a video game developer specialized in "Corporate Gamification and e-Learning." Aside from creating the kind of productivity-enhancing games that lets bank managers monitor their drones through cute avatars, the studio's best known for its Playing History series. These point-and-click adventure games offer historic "edutainment" to middle schoolers, with the first two putting tween classrooms in the shoes of a Viking warrior and Medieval page (during the plague). But for the third, the Danish developers, who are all as white as the powdered sugar on an aebleskiver, decided to really push the envelope by putting 11-year-olds in the bloody, puss-filled footwraps of an African slave.
Playing History 2 - Slave Trade lets kids play as a steampunk-goggled child slave called Putij (or as his masters call him, Tim) during the 18th-century era of transatlantic slave trading. As the personal possession of ornery slaver Captain Seahab, Putij and his player will witness first hand the process of buying, transporting, and selling human chattel across the ocean while doing the kind of pointless point-and-click fetch quests that will somehow lead him and his enslaved sister Piri to a happy ending.
Speaking of steering, aside from some grim Guybrushing, Playing History 2 also includes a series of non-optional minigames whose mechanics are problematic at best and jaw-droppingly offensive at worst. Players are forced to race a slave ship to America while the game does its best impersonation of Crazy Taxi …
Compare market slaves in a truly inhuman game of Spot The Difference ...
And even play a demented level of borderless Pac-Man where, instead of ghosts, you’re being chased by the Ku Klux Klan and the power-up to eat them is the first declaration of human rights.
But the absolute worst example of this underground railroading is when Playing History 2 tasks its players with “stacking” slaves in the ship as efficiently as possible. Or to put in gameplay terms: Slave Tetris.
Like what the player has to do with 25 slaves when the sea-rations run out, this pushed the game over the edge of controversy. Critics bombarded the edutainment studio with accusations that turning starving slaves into L-shapes "trivializes a serious time in history that shouldn't be fun." In response, Serious Game Interactive removed Slave Tetris from the game while its CEO made a passive-aggressive apology declaring: "The goal was to enlighten and educate people - not to get sidetracked discussing a small 15 secs part of the game." He then doubled down on his non-apology by stating that Playing History 2 - Slave Trade was never even intended for the American market and its PC sensibilities. A bluff that would've been more believable if they weren't talking about a game released on Steam. About a piece of American history. Which has a full voice cast of English actors.
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Top Image: Serious Games Interactive