Ear Hustle

Game Developers Under Fire After Creating “Playing History: Slave Trade” A Tetris Like Game Using Slaves


Photo Credit: YouTube

The CEO of a company that makes an educational game called “Playing History: Slave Trade,” chalked up Twitter outrage that bubbled up over the weekend to cultural differences between Europe and the United States, saying the company didn’t intend to make a “racist or inflammatory game.” He further defended the game, saying it had already received awards in Europe.

The game, which has been out for a couple years, has been reviewed and mocked on YouTube. Some educators object to the the appearance of the slaves, saying the characters appear to be in “blackface,” that it teaches kids math through bartering for children and that one character made a Mr. T reference, saying, “I pity the fool who messes with Chief Janto.” It picked up new steam on Twitter last weekend.

One of the most criticized parts of the game was “Slave Tetris” where users are supposed to stack slaves over other slaves to fit them all onto the ship.

Frank Noschese, a physics teacher at John Jay High School, who tweeted about the game, said that the biggest problem is that the game exists at all. Noschese said some topics aren’t appropriate for a children’s game, and the slave trade is one of them.

“I just think the whole concept of making it a game — it trivializes the atrocity of slavery. There are some topics that are just off limits. There was a debate back and forth and people were saying it was a valuable learning tool,” Noschese said. “It’s not like I’m anti-game but with the games being so powerful you really have to be sensitive about what you’re trying to do with the game. The CEO, part of his defense is it makes kids see the atrocity of it. It doesn’t. It doesn’t.”

The CEO of SeriousGames, Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment and called the debate on Twitter “shallow, judgmental, erratic and personal” and said the company has decided to remove the “Slave Tetris” portion of the game. He also said that to his knowledge, the game is not being used in U.S. schools and pointed out that the company has also created games for the plague, Vikings, modern slavery, and sweat shops in Bangladesh. An employee at the company’s U.S. office said he does not believe it is widely distributed in the United States.

A portion of Egenfeldt-Nielsen’s extended comments on the game are below [sic throughout]:

On a more meta-level. I think it is interesting how big the divide apparently is between how Europe and United States in treating this sensitive subject. Here is a game that has been recognized with educational awards in Europe. Its a game that is used by around 10% of Danish schools, and in general has been seen as doing a lot of things right. I know that people will then assume that mean that all Danish teachers are racist, and I guess on some level they would probably be in US based on some of the stories that travel to Europe, but hard to say as I don’t live there, and have limited insight into your society.

And would guess that a lot in the US would just think we didn’t get it, and that is probably very true. We probably don’t. But maybe we are not the only ones not getting it.. Maybe there is just a lot of culturally differences in what you can discuss and express – and maybe just maybe there are larger issues at stake here then whether slave tetris was bad taste or not… and maybe as a lot of the tweeters say a stupid white dane like me don’t know anything, and shouldn’t be allowed to say a single word about the story of African-Americans.

What do I know.. We just tried to make a game to teach about what we thought was an important topic. We did spend a lot time doing it, We did consult with experts. We didn’t set out to make a racist or inflammatory game. Actually the opposite – a game where you would understand slave trade from the inside by escaping slavery… I have reached the conclusion that no matter what we had done it would have been wrong.

But Egenfeldt-Nielsen’s remarks likely won’t be of much comfort to critics.

Physics teacher Noschese compared the game to a hypothetical one about the Holocaust, which is another example of a historical event educators shouldn’t make games about.

“I don’t think kids have the capacity yet to do that and the topic needs to be conveyed in a different way. What about the Holocaust? Would you try to get people in railway cars or would you try to manage getting the trains from all across Germany into all of the different concentration camps?” Noschese asked.

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