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Is the World Ready for a Video Game About Slavery?

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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Speaking about Miguel Oliveira's Thralled using the language of video games can be difficult.

"Thralled is an interactive experience about a runaway slave in 18th century Brazil who becomes traumatized over the disappearance of her baby boy," Oliveira told me as we met in the University of Southern California's Doheny Memorial Library in the week leading up to this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. "So the whole experience is about going through a historic representation of her memories and trying to find out what happened to the kid."

With Thralled, Oliveira is at the forefront of a growing movement among emerging game designers to create experiences that go far beyond the highly polished shooters and retro classic homages that take up the bulk of gamers' mindshare. It's a movement emerging from the recently reorganized USC Games program, which has turned one of the top game design schools in the nation into the cradle of the indie games scene.

Yet Oliveira said he's "kind of hesitant to call (Thralled) a game in the first place, because of the stigma that's attached to the term."

The mechanical language of video games is very much present, however. A game controller is used to guide the character Isaura through the Brazilian wilderness. As part of the story she carries her infant son, and a critical part of solving puzzles includes pressing the button that gets her to hold her child closer. This calms his cries, and prevents her from being discovered by a phantom that stalks her.

"You're holding the baby yourself, in a way. By interacting with the character in such a way, by guiding and helping the character through those motions you're really in it in a different way than in a novel or a film."

Thralled also differs from game experiences in its intent. Others seek to entertain or educate, while Oliveira chases a different "e" word: empathy.

"It's really an exploration of the relationship between mother and son, within this larger context of slavery and an exploration of how slavery--or what the extreme circumstances of slavery put this person through--affects that relationship."

Thralled began as Oliveira's senior thesis project, and was showcased at the annual Demo Day the Interactive Media & Games program puts on at the university. There it was seen by Ouya's head of developer relations Kellee Santiago, one of the luminaries of the indie game scene. Santiago offered Oliveira a chance to create a fully realized version of the game in exchange for an exclusivity deal with Ouya.

That's the business side of the story, but far more interesting is Oliveira's motivations for making a game about the human impact of slavery. Part of the reason, he offers, is because slavery is something that we still live with.

"Some estimates point to 27 million people suffering under slavery today. That's a really high number."

Yet the core reason is Oliveira's desire stems from his childhood in Portugal.

"Growing up in history class I'd hear these stories: 'Oh the Portuguese are heroes in history.' We found out this and we found out that and they really focused on the glories of the Portuguese and the achievements. But what they failed to mention, what was never really talked about was that Portugal was the nation that pioneered the slave trades. The nation under which the majority of Africans were enslaved. It's estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of all human beings trafficked in the slave trade of the colonial ages were victimized by Portuguese and Brazilian people."

Oliveira points to racism as a direct effect of the Atlantic slave trade that we still live with: attitudes that were formed to justify the debasement of other human beings.

"I feel like this is such a large problem, and a lot of people say that racism doesn't exist anymore. Which is of course baloney, right? If we are to talk about this issue I really feel like we have to talk about the origin of that issue.

"That's really what Thralled's about."

In spite of its tone Thralled still looks and feels like a puzzle platform video game. That means it has the potential to draw the criticism that it is making light of a heavy issue.

"We are extremely carful to try and not trivialize the subject matter," said Oliveira. "So really it will be up to each person. If people say that the subject is trivialized just because it's being depicted through this medium, I don't think that would be a valid reason, really."

As the medium of gaming matures alongside its earliest adopters we are going to see more attempts to tackle serious subject matter. Thralled is part of a wave of experiences, like the much talked about That Dragon, Cancer which is also set for the Ouya, that are bubbling out of the gaming underground and gaining attention from a more mainstream audience.

The generation that never knew a world without video games is beginning to find its voice, and how they speak will prove as interesting as what they have to say.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.

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