Want to know about the African slave trade? There’s an app for that

REVIEW - The coming game app 'Thralled' dares to tell the story of violence, freedom, slavery and family that was the transatlantic slave trade -- too bad no black developers are involved...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

While slowly, but surely, movies, television and the Internet have broadened in subject matter to showcase the diversity of the black experience, virtual entertainment experiences have remained stuck squarely in the past.

Even though historically-themed games about World War II, Vietnam, and Ancient Rome have become best-selling hits, there are few if any video game stories that focus on history that directly touches the African diaspora.

There are hundreds of games on XBOX and Playstation released each year showing whites, aliens and occasionally Asians in prominent roles, but black folk have barely advanced past the Barlog / Mike Tyson Street Fighter stage of the 1990s in terms of characterization.

However, this might all be about to change with the impending release of the game app Thralledwhich dares to tell the story of violence, freedom, slavery and family that was the transatlantic slave trade.

A preview of Thralled

The game creators hope to bring at least one part of black history to the forefront in an exciting video game format. It’s too bad no black people are involved with the project.

Thralled is the brainchild of students at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Entertainment program. Created initially as a class project, the team was so excited about the potential of the game that members continued working on it past the school year, and plan on releasing the game to the iTunes app store in the fall of 2013.

The leader of the Thralled design team, Miguel Oliveira, is an international graduate student at USC from Portugal. He credits U.S.-based video games for helping him learn English, and wanted to use the medium to tell different stories.

In describing the game, the Thralled team puts you right in the middle of the slave trade.

“Experience one of the Greatest Calamities in Human History,” the web site description reads, continuing with the set-up, “Brazil, 1700s. Portuguese rule has brought immense misery upon the slaves subjugated to work amongst the dreary sugarcane plantations. Isaura is amongst those unfortunate. Captured from a small village in the depths of Kongo, Isaura is separated from her child upon arrival to the New World and is forced to work on the plantations. After years of bondage, she escapes from the fields and sets out to find her lost son, hiding amidst the Brazilian wilderness while being sought as a runaway.”

Teaching the horrors of slavery

Once the slave girl Isaura rescues her son, the game becomes even more intense and emotionally compelling. The player moves Isaura over rocks, rivers, and obstacles in order to get to freedom, but there is a painful catch: she moves faster when she is not carrying her baby. Thus, overcoming each obstacle involves a painful decision to place her baby down, alone, to move a stone, or build a bridge, then picking him back up to continue her move towards freedom.

Adding painful drama and pathos to the game is that whenever Isaura places her baby down and walks away to attend to a task, he immediately begins to cry a painful wail, and a dark ghostly version of herself begins to slowly walk towards the child threatening to take him back to slavery or worse.

Consequently every decision in the game is a painful tug of war between freedom, survival and the desire to protect the ones we treasure most.

The game is both an amazing and innovative way to introduce the history and the horrors of slavery and human bondage to the general public. While most historic games ignore slavery, the few that touch upon it, like the recent Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation, present slavery as some sort of social inconvenience more than a despicable tragedy.

Dealing with the digital divide

While the impending release of Thralled can be seen as a success of diversified storytelling in the video game industry, the story of how the game came to be is another sad reminder of the digital divide and accessibility problems that often keep the video game industry stuck in the past.

The reality is getting into the technology business, especially gaming, is extremely difficult. Gaining access to the technology, training and resources it takes to be even a low-level game design assistant often is a matter of mentoring and personal connections. This unfortunately means that in the United States game design and development is dominated by white men in their 20’s and occasionally international programmers and designers.

When asked about his motivation behind the game’s themes by VideoGameGeek News, Oliviera stated: “I decided on this topic because I grew up in Portugal, which was the nation that pioneered the Transatlantic Slave Trade and under which most Africans were enslaved. It is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of enslaved people at the time were taken to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Nevertheless, this is barely ever mentioned in school curricula or popular media. These were about 5 million people that my ancestors tied in chains [in] the holds of crammed slave ships, and forced to work for 16 hours everyday on sugarcane plantations – In my view, the topic is not talked about often enough and is not handled seriously enough, and I want to bring it up to discussion.”

As of right now there are no African-Americans or people of African or Afro-Brazillan decent working on the game, even in an advisory capacity, but the team is looking for additional help to complete the game later this year.

The potential impact of Thralled

Thralled is a beautiful, side scrolling experience, with haunting music, crisp visuals and an engrossing story line. The game will no doubt be popular and will likely spark some lively discussions in classrooms and public spaces across America.

There are thousands of stories of adventure, courage, and sacrifice that can be told about the black experience through video games. Thralled is just one of them, and hopefully many more will come.

We can only hope that one day black people will be a greater part of the process of digital storytelling through apps and games.

Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and an analyst for MSNBC and Al Jazeera. He can be reached at @Drjasonjohnson on Twitter and www.drjasonjohnson.com.