Downloadable Context: Why A Historian of Haiti Came to Study Video Games

*I dedicate this article to the late Tyler Stovall (1954 – 2021), who encouraged my work on histories of race in France as well as on video games, and who mentored and championed a generation of scholars interested in Black France and French colonial studies.

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

While the field of Historical Game Studies has blossomed in disciplines like Literature and Media Studies, historians in North America have long neglected video games, assuming that they trivialize the past. Unlike the Popular Culture Association or Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the American Historical Association does not have a Game Studies section. Moreover, the American Historical Review did not publish articles on Historical Game Studies (HGS) until March 2021.

As a historian, I too once ignored historical video games. However, after writing books on the French Revolution and on Haitian history, I became one of the first historians to publish a book on video games in my area of specialty, entitled Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games. I had realized, like a small but growing number of my colleagues, that historians must do this work, adding their perspectives alongside Game Studies scholars who are not subject-area specialists.

Why did I begin studying games? Though I am a non-gamer adult, I gamed as a child, years before home-gaming was mainstream. My father, Dr. Jerry Sepinwall, was a scientist; to access his lab data, he sometimes brought home a screenless terminal, which printed out information on paper like a typewriter rather than on a monitor. Occasionally, my siblings and I got to use the terminal for something rare at the time: playing a game using the computer. Our choices were rudimentary (Pong and possibly Hangman) and so were the black-ink-on-paper graphics. But, in playing over a dial-up modem in the late 1970s, we were among the world’s first online gamers. As a teenager in the 1980s, however, I lost interest in computer games; in college, I used computers only for writing papers.

I thus did not begin my academic career planning to study video games. I studied the Enlightenment in college, and then went to graduate school to study eighteenth-century French history. Working at Stanford with Keith Baker and Aron Rodrigue, I decided that I wanted to combine my interest in the history of ideas in France with the history of racism. I found the perfect subject in the abbé Henri Grégoire, a priest involved in the French Revolution who also argued for emancipating Jews and abolishing slavery. After finishing graduate school, I wrote a biography of Grégoire and a book surveying Haitian history. I also began to review films on French colonialism and slavery. I found I enjoyed analyzing films, especially when they distorted or whitewashed this history.

Though I loved studying film, I would never have returned to my childhood hobby and studied games, if not for an email from a student. In December 2013, Nicklaus Boyens told me that Ubisoft was releasing a DLC expansion of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag IV, which would be set in Saint-Domingue (French colonial Haiti), featuring a formerly enslaved protagonist named Adéwalé. This news puzzled me. The only video games I knew then were the kind I had played in my youth, or the civilization-building history games my students told me about. Boyens explained that the game seemed to reflect the decolonial narratives I favored in Haitian history, prioritizing the perspectives of enslaved people instead of their enslavers. I watched the trailer, shocked; while it had some anachronisms, it depicted slavery from enslaved people’s perspectives, emphasizing their long resistance to oppression. Unlike some of the films I had criticized, this game did not treat emancipation as a “gift” from white-hero abolitionists; here, African-descended people organized to take back their own freedom.

The trailer prompted a hundred questions. How could a game be so many steps ahead of so many films and textbooks? Who were these developers who had built a video game around resistance by enslaved people in Saint-Domingue, imbuing it with a postcolonial lens? How was the gaming industry open to storylines about retributive Black violence that Hollywood studios have shied away from? Despite my hesitation, the work seemed urgent: once Ubisoft released this downloadable content in 2014 as the standalone game Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, it sold millions of copies.

I realized that some of my skills and expertise transferred naturally to this work. I already specialized in Haitian history and in competing ways to narrate it. Moreover, a game like Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, with cutscenes and a linear narrative,had important parallels to cinema,even though I would need to study game mechanics. I also could bring to games the perspective on examining films I had adapted from Robert Rosenstone, a pioneering film historian. Rosenstone challenged historians to think differently about films, asking whether they could build historical understanding in ways that written works could not.

In addition, I approached games in some of the ways that I study texts. As an intellectual historian, I never examine a single text in isolation, but compare it to others from its era, to understand it as an intervention in certain patterns of discussion. Rather than study Freedom Cry alone, I therefore searched for games on Atlantic slavery to which I could compare it. I found atrocious games which fulfilled every nightmare of critics who believed that slavery should never be gamified (such as Playing History 2 – Slave Trade), but also more nuanced games. Reading scholarship on race and gender in video games[1] also helped me identify Freedom Cry’s innovations and limitations.

In addition, I interviewed Jill Murray, Freedom Cry’s lead writer. Though I could not pore through her personal papers as I could for intellectuals from the 1790s, she graciously answered questions about the game’s development. I learned that she had read many primary sources on Haitian history and chose to write her stories “from the perspective of characters… who have survived slavery.”[2] In other interviews, Murray stated that having Haitian-descended friends and family made her want to be an ally in fighting against racism. I also talked to my Haitian history colleague Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec, Freedom Cry’s historical consultant. While he had been skeptical about a game dealing with slavery in Saint-Domingue, Ubisoft ultimately impressed him by integrating his input and depicting enslaved people respectfully.

While these perspectives were invaluable to me, I also wanted to understand how players of Haitian and African descent had reacted to these games; reception history is core to my work as an intellectual historian. Haitian American game critics had offered moving reflections on Freedom Cry, especially compared to the white-male viewpoints dominating gaming in the early 2010s. In 2012, Evan Narcisse stated, “I’ve never played as a black video game character who’s made me feel like he was cool…. [V]ideo games just don’t get black people.” Yet when Freedom Cry was issued, Narcisse found it a revelation: “Freedom Cry felt like a deeply resonant fictionalization of the history my ancestors came from. Hearing passers-by discuss the sub-humanity of the slaves doing backbreaking labor and giving chase to the slave catchers pursuing runaways… gave me motivations I never had before in playing video games.” Similarly, the Hollywood Reporter’sMarc Bernardin described Freedom Cry as “the first time I’d ever felt seen in a medium I loved.”

In addition to highlighting these responses by players of color to games by white developers, I hoped to find games by Caribbean developers. Just as in my scholarship on texts and films, I didn’t want only to study how white authors depicted enslaved people, but to see how their descendants remember this history; representation matters in history as in games. I was thrilled to find some decades-old games from Martinique, another eighteenth-century French colony. Muriel Tramis, the world’s first Black female game designer – and her friend Patrick Chamoiseau, who later became one of France’s greatest writers – had made two overlooked games about slave revolt, Méwilo (1987) and Freedom: Rebels in the Darkness (1989). Blogger Phil Salvador had called attention to the latter game in 2015 and helped me to play it by emulation.

I was able to obtain an interview with Muriel Tramis. She told me that she had studied engineering and computer science at a time when few women entered those fields. Amidst the PC revolution, she left her work designing weapons for the French military to create “interactive fiction” through computer code. She explained that she and Chamoiseau chose slavery as the topic for their games to honor their ancestors and because of deep silences in France on slavery.[3] Where other Caribbean intellectuals had written about this topic in prose, Tramis chose code “because I wanted to express myself with the tools on which I had been trained.”[4]

Tramis’s games take center stage in the last chapter of my book Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, following an analysis of Freedom Cry and other games on slavery. I describe how, mechanically, Tramis’s games offered a more realistic picture of obstacles to freedom than Freedom Cry; they also illustrate how descendants of enslaved people imagine slave revolt differently than North American gaming companies.

While I did my analysis without a manual, so to speak, it has been fascinating to see more historians enter the field of HGS and to compare methods. Many foundational scholars in the field, like Adam Chapman, come from Media Studies. While historians overlap in many ways with others in HGS, we often focus more on content than on form, building on our subject area expertise. Chris Kempshall has been one of the most important historians working in HGS. A British specialist on World War I, Kempshall wrote what seems to be the first monograph in English by a historian about games on a particular time period. Like me, Kempshall worked on an entire corpus of games on one era, rather than focusing on a single title or franchise. Other historians, like Michael Hattem and Nicholas Trépanier, have analyzed games in their areas of specialty, focusing both on narrative (how particular games depict this period of history) and on mechanics (the playing experience). Several recent collective volumes involving historians have examined historical games from these and other angles, including examining games as sites of memory.[5]

Still other historians have introduced courses on history and video games, analyzed the use of video games to teach history in K-12 or college classrooms, or written primers on using games to teach historical methods.[6] Colleagues who have created courses on historical video games, such as Tore Olsson of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, have reported robust enrollments from student-gamers.[7]

Beyond analyzing games themselves or with students, other historians have begun collaborating with game corporations to improve games. In addition to Ubisoft, companies such as Creative Assembly, Paradox Interactive, Activision, and Ninja Theory hire historian advisors. Historians have also partnered on educational software, such as WNET’s Mission US series or Attentat 1942, or developed their own games. Adam Clulow, an early modern Japan specialist, has launched a game studio within the University of Texas-Austin History Department, which will enable UT-Austin History students to generate “a pipeline of historically based video games.” A similar new venture is Historiated Games at the University of Connecticut, led by James Coltrain. Collaborating with Shearon Roberts and her students at Xavier University of New Orleans, Historiated’s first game, Blackhaven, was released on Steam in July 2021. The game interrogates silences in plantation museums around slavery; gamers play as Kendra, an HBCU student, who sneaks into the archives at the museum where she is interning, to uncover documents offering a truer history of the plantation’s enslavers.

Still other exciting initiatives have involved historians obtaining grants to partner with game designers and students in Africa. Marie Rodet is creating a mobile game, in collaboration with Malian organizations, to combat modern-day slavery. Katrina Keefer is collaborating with Jiwe Studios in Kenya and WeOwnTV in Sierra Leone to create a game that will use “sophisticated digital technologies” to help players (in Africa or elsewhere) “engage with difficult pasts” and “learn more about the complex period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” This project will include students from the Canadian University of Modern Technology-Sierra Leone, the African Digital Media Institute in Kenya, and Trent University.[8]

Not all historians will feel comfortable writing about, let alone designing, games – and doing so is not a good fit with every historian’s toolkit. But historical games – on the Age of Revolutions or other topics – will not disappear because historians dismiss them. Gamers interested in history want guidance in choosing nuanced titles instead of horrifying distortions, and digital representations of historical subjects like slavery demand our attention. I hope that Slave Revolt on Screen will thus interest readers not only in its analysis of films and games on slavery and the Haitian Revolution, but also in helping other historians think about how to begin work in this area. Our students and the public are eager for us to weigh in – or to collaborate on creating better games.[9]


Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos and a specialist in French and Haitian history. In addition to Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, she is the author of The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism (UC Press, new in paperback, 2021), and Haitian History: New Perspectives (Routledge, 2012).

Title image: Screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, 2013.

Endnotes:

[1]See for instance Anna Everett, “Serious Play: Playing with Race in Contemporary Gaming Culture,” in Joost Raessens and Jeffrey H. Goldstein, eds., Handbook of Computer Game Studies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 311-23; Kishonna L. Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the Virtual Margins (New York: Routledge, 2014); Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm, eds., Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2017); and Soraya Murray, On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018).

[2]Jill Murray, personal communication with author, Apr. 8, 2014.

[3]For more on silences in France regarding slavery, see Yves Benot, La Révolution française et la fin des colonies (Paris: La Découverte, 1987), ch. 10; Benot, La démence coloniale sous Napoléon (Paris: La Découverte, 1991), ch. 11; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995); and Alyssa Sepinwall, “Atlantic Amnesia: French Historians, the Haitian Revolution and the 2004-6 CAPES Exam,” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 34 (2006): 300-314.

[4]Muriel Tramis, personal communication with author, June 14, 2017.

[5]See especially Matthew Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott, eds., Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013); Florian Kerschbaumer and Tobias Winnerling, eds., Early Modernity and Video Games (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2014); Alexander von Lünen, Katherine J. Lewis, Benjamin Litherland, and Pat Cullum, eds., Historia Ludens: The Playing Historian (New York: Routledge, 2019). There is a growing German-language HGS scholarship by historians; see for instance Carl Heinze, Mittelalter Computer Spiele: Zur Darstellung und Modellierung von Geschichte im populären Computerspiel (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014); and Steffen Bender, Virtuelles Erinnern: Kriege des 20. Jahrhunderts in Computerspielen (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012). Important networks of historians working on historical games can be found in England (HGN) and Germany (AKGWDS).

[6]See for instance Jeremiah B. McCall, Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History (New York: Routledge, 2011); Robert Whitaker, “Backward Compatible: Gamers as a Public History Audience,” Perspectives on History 54, no. 1 (2016), https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2016/backward-compatible-gamers-as-a-public-history-audience; Aaron Whelchel, “Using Civilization Simulation Video Games in the World History Classroom,” World History Connected 4, no. 2 (2007), https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/4.2/whelchel.html; Robert Houghton, “History Games for Boys? Gender, Genre and the Self-Perceived Impact of Historical Games on Undergraduate Historians,” Gamevironments 14 (2021), https://www.gamevironments.uni-bremen.de/; Lisa Gilbert, “‘Assassin’s Creed Reminds Us That History is Human Experience’: Students’ Senses of Empathy While Playing a Narrative Video Game,” Theory and Research in Social Education 47, no. 1 (2019), 108-37; and A. Martin Wainwright, Virtual History: How Video games Portray the Past (New York: Routledge, 2019). See also Gabi Kirilloff, “Interactive Fiction in the Humanities Classroom: How to Create Interactive Text Games Using Twine,” Programming Historian (Dec. 4, 2021).

[7]In addition to Olsson (who specializes in twentieth-century US and international history), other historians who have introduced undergraduate courses on video games to great success include Eric Brandom (a modern European intellectual historian at Kansas State University), Thomas Lecaque (a medievalist at Grand View University) and Katrina Keefer (a historian of West Africa at Trent University). As Game Studies flourishes in other parts of academia, historians willing to integrate HGS content into their classes can avoid losing students with this interest to other disciplines.

[8]I am grateful to Dr. Keefer for providing this information (personal communication to author, Dec. 2, 2021).

[9]On this point, see also Alyssa Sepinwall and Andrew Denning, “On Historical Video Games,” AHR Interview Podcast (March 23, 2021), https://ahrinterview.libsyn.com/alyssa-sepinwall-and-andrew-denning-on-historical-video-games. For examples of public interest in game-analysis content produced by historians, see for instance the popular “History Respawned” series on YouTube, produced by Robert Whitaker of Collin College.

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