Exploration Through Games: Steal Away Jordan

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 25 July 2013

Steal Away Jordan by Julia EllingboeSteal Away Jordan by Julia EllingboeIndie+ recently ran a day of events that focused on taboos in gaming. One of the events was a live play of Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution by Julia B. Ellingboe. In this game, players play the roles of slaves in the US during the 1800s. Since I haven't read the actual game yet, this will be about my reactions to watching the game play. Hopefully the game itself will be available soon so I can read the text.

Humanizing the Dehumanized

I don't know how the evils of slavery was presented to any of you growing up, but I remember that my school textbooks treated enslaved human beings as property or things even as we were taught how evil this was. They were full of pictures of white humans looking into the mouths of black humans to see how healthy they were with this act compared to the inspection one would give a horse. We saw pictures of them bound and chained standing on the auction block, sold off as individuals. Stories and images of whippings, beatings, and the scars of the same showed up over and over again. Then came the pictures of those who fought slavery, generally the white and upper class people of America who righted this wrong.

While I think those are all important things to learn, notice we haven't learned much, if anything, about how the enslaved people lived. We rarely heard their voices. I couldn't tell you what games they played as children. How did their parents comfort them during a thunderstorm? After a hurricane?

Douglass and Brown Argue: Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry by Jacob LawrenceDouglass and Brown Argue: Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry by Jacob Lawrence
In this game, we started with people. Each player described their character. How old he/she was. Whether or not they had attempted to run away before and, if so, what scars they had on their body that told that story. Were they literate? Did they have skills? Why were they there? Where were they born? What was their name? In the process, they created people and the possibilities of rich, detailed stories should not be glossed over.

After the creation of the people comes the assignment of worth and the slave name from the game master. If you watch, there's a interesting bit where one of the players gives a current name to his character. Julia steps in and says he doesn't get to choose that. It's the first time, in my opinion, that we start to see how these characters have two selves, their human side and then the part where they are another person's property. Whereas the earlier section reinforced the former, this drives home the latter. The game master decides what the details about your character are worth and assigns the players their dice based on it. Young adult typically is worth more than older adults, although being skilled mitigates that. Previous escape attempts as well as disobeying result in dice being taken away.

Community as a Resource

After the worth of each player character is assigned, Julia gives the worth of the NPCs, including the slave owner, Robert Ford. Robert has a lot of dice and Julia even suggests that the characters might want to combine forces if they want to have a conflict with him.

Understanding Motivations

I discuss issues of social justice a lot. One of the concepts I find hardest to talk about is why 1) people don't just rebel and 2) why some of the people in the oppressed group do things that reinforce the oppressive system. Between Julia's descriptions and the play in the game, I hope people get a better idea.

Because slavery is often taught as a means to an end, in this case understanding why relations in the US broke down to the point where we fought a destructive and costly Civil War, we often don't think of slaves as three-dimensional human beings. We don't think of them having a culture. We emphasize the property element to the point we don't understand that they might often travel within a limited sphere and have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of people. We also might not consider that, like all human beings, they have basic needs and wants and that one of the big differences between free and slave comes down to how you get those things. I'm going to simplify things for a moment. For me, as a free person in the US, my ability to meet my needs is largely self-driven. If I want more, I should either work more or find a job that pays me more money. I have the freedom of choice to attempt to do that (whether or not I'm successful is another matter).

If you are owned by another person, by and large your ability to meet those needs and desires is tied to the person who owns you. If he or she does well, there's a good chance you will benefit from that. If you sabotage that person, you may be harming yourself as well. The way I tend to view it is their status sets your base. Since material goods may be harder to come by and keep, as an enslaved person, your relationships with others are important whether they be the comfort of friends and family or the access to information and resources that others might provide. So, if you were to get caught attempting to escape or planning a slave revolt, you could easily lose most if not all of your resources through the punishment and the possible sale to someone else.

Re-examining the Hero Story

Emancipation: Credit Library of Congress / Thomas NastEmancipation: Credit Library of Congress / Thomas Nast

As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the slave narrative is often not a tale of the slaves at all but of this epic battle between whites over the topic of the slaves. We champion Abraham Lincoln, knowing all sorts of details about his life, but rarely do people like Frederick Douglass get the same treatment. We have lists of those who died in the Civil War, but I have yet to see a book that lists the name of those who died attempting to escape slavery.

Detail from Freedom to the Slave: ca. 1863, lithograph - New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Schomburg Center for Research in Black CultureDetail from Freedom to the Slave: ca. 1863, lithograph - New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Instead of playing a white abolitionist or a slave owner who sees the light and frees his or her slaves, the players played slaves. They were attempting to free themselves, using their own wits. When we compare this to other games that attempt to explore these issues, such as say, Bioshock Infinite, this change of perspective is huge.


There's a bunch more that I could go into here, but I'd prefer to wait until I can read the game itself. While my knowledge of the specific subject matter the game covers may be limited, I saw a lot come out during the game play that made me excited, especially as someone who grew up in a lower class household and had to later deal with how people from the upper classes viewed people like me and our lives and choices. While the game is not currently available, I asked Julia about it and she hopes to have a PDF version available again soon. Also, I asked Indie+ if they would consider releasing it in audio only form for those who dig podcasts. It sounds like there's a possibility of that happening next week.

If you are interested in learning more, the Library of Congress has a collection of narratives from former slaves on their website.

(Also, notice how much of the art presented focuses on white people and their roles in the anti-slavery movement, often presenting them as the heroes. Understanding how common that presentation is is important to understanding some of the race issues that continue in the US.)


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