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The Rise and Fall of “Slave Tetris”

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We’re going to talk about an…erm, different sort of game today.

Stop me if this premise sounds crazy: You’re a young slave steward on a ship crossing the Atlantic, and your task is to pack as many slaves as possible into the hold of your ship for the Captain – Tetris-style.

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Yeah, I wish someone had stopped the developers, too.

 

Kindly withhold your torches and pitchforks until the end of the review.

Serious Games Interactive specializes in educational simulators – specifically, those games directed at kids between 6-10 years of age that fool parents into giving their kids more computer time for the sake of some easy learning. The Denmark-based company likes to put the player into the shoes of a character who represents a specific conflict or time period, similar to what American Girl did with its line of dolls and books. It’s meant to give kids a deeper perspective of what went on back in the day, placing more emphasis on issues history books tend to gloss over. What’s more effective – reading about a conflict for a homework assignment, or following the story of a character you can easily relate to and sympathize with?

However, while American Girl delivered its message with respect and tact, Serious Games decided to take a more….cutesy approach.

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Nothing like reliving one of the biggest stains on world history with a smiling sea dragon and an adorable mouse friend!

Back in 2013, Serious Games had the bright idea of adding Playing History 2: Slave Trade to their lineup of fun, educational family games.

“We try in the game to communicate the absurdity of the past,” said a representative of Serious Games in response to the initial backlash. “Our experience is that in the game it really gets people to think about just how absurd and cruel it is—trust me nobody is laughing or finding it a joke to play that kind of Tetris. They do however get an ‘a-ha’ experience that will indeed haunt them.”

Here’s the thing: You can make an educational game about true stories and sensitive subjects, but you’ve got to put some thought into what you’re doing.

American Girl directed its history stories towards the same audience, and they didn’t hesitate to leave out details like dying of disease on ships, being whipped, master/slave abuse, kidnapping, or even war. They didn’t make it gory or M rated, but they sure as hell didn’t try to make it cute. In Slave Trade, every line of dialogue is delivered as if  you were riding through the It’s A Small World attraction at Disney World.

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By the by, “Putij” isn’t an African name. It isn’t ANY kind of name. Google it, I’m serious.

The game makes the task of selling your own people seem like a trip to the grocery store. The cold, dead eyes and the wooden animations don’t help, and the voice actors all sound as if they each took an extra huge dose of whimsy before recording their lines. There’s no characterization to be found, no true respect or sympathy towards the victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and absolutely no thought put into the implications of having players pack naked black people into the hold of a ship for a high score.

Ready for the good news? The game was removed this past Monday.

“Apologies to people who was offended by us using game mechanics to underline the point of how inhumane slavery was,” Serious Games said in response to the social media outcry. “The goal was to enlighten and educate people – not to get sidetracked discussing a small 15 secs part of the game.”

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Am I saying you should never make a game about the slave trade? No! Because there’s better ways to do it than Slave Tetris Simulator. Make a Dear Esther style interactive story, or a point and click adventure game. Hire better voice actors than the ones you found on Craigslist. Either way, if you want to deal with a serious subject matter for educational purposes, it might be best not to make it look like dark humor.

In all seriousness, I believe the developers had the right idea. They just needed to work on their execution.

A lot.

And if you’re really feeling up to it, you can watch Jim Sterling’s playthrough of the game on Youtube.

About Deborah Crocker

Deborah is a 22 year old semi-hermit currently plodding through her senior year of college and getting her feet wet in game journalism. She has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with high fantasy, video games, novels, and Elder Scrolls. When she's not in front of a screen, she enjoys singing and a bit of beading. She's also currently on the hunt for the restaurant with the best cheeseburger.

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