Slavery and FTL: Faster Than Light

In order to make better use of my blog, I’m going to write some smaller posts that cover something I’ve noticed in many modern games. Through several fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic settings, slavery is featured as part of the in-game society. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Fallout 3, and the Mass Effect series all direct the player to interact with slaves and slave traders. The Assassin’s Creed series, including Assassin’s Creed 3, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, address slavery as part of their respective historical settings. Within these games, the developers have established economies less constrained by morality or law, allowing for individuals to profit from slavery without retribution.

In FTL: Faster Than Light, the player can randomly encounter slavers as they attempt to fulfill their mission for the Federation. When they meet a slaver: they are given three options: (1) Buy one slave and free them to join your crew, (2) Attack the slavery scum, or (3) Ignore the slaver and continue on your way.

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In describing the slave trader as scum and placing “laborers” in quotations, the developers make it clear that your crew believes slavery to be immoral and that you can deal with the slavers accordingly.

If you select the first option, a new crew member appears on your ship after presumably being manumitted. If you choose the third possibility, the encounter ends and you move on to the next waypoint. Attacking the slaver allows you to enter into open combat and eventually triggers more decisions. If you continue to attack and eventually destroy the ship, FTL informs you: “The slave ship is destroyed. They won’t continue their evil trade, but many lives were probably lost on that ship.” By drawing attention to the innocent slaves who lost their lives, FTL suggests that saving the slaves is more important than ending the slave trade itself.

On repeated playthroughs, this pushes the player to attack the slave trader but select the alternative option. The slavers surrender and state, “Take one of our slaves as tribute; if you destroy us they’ll all die anyway!” If you accept the offer, a slave comes on board your ship and you can travel to your next waypoint.

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While you’ve preserved the lives of innocent slaves, this option raises several moral questions. First, are the slavers simply allowed to continue trading throughout the galaxy? By accepting the offer, you’ve allowed the slave trade to continue in exchange for the life of a single slave. Second, what is the legal status of the slave you’ve taken on board? According to the dialogue presented to the player, the slave given as tribute is never freed. Instead, they simply appear on your ship where you can use them in any role you choose. In addition, the slave cannot leave your ship for the rest of the game. Rather than freeing a slave and dealing a blow to the slave trade, you’ve accepted human (or alien) chattel as a bribe.

Your relationship with the slave traders is further complicated by a fourth and final option. If you have installed a teleporter on your ship (something I don’t often do), you can send a rescue party to free the slaves. In most of these instances, you are able to free one or all of the slaves and bring one of them aboard your ship. In this context, the game implies that you’ve freed all of the slaves and additional crew member joined your party of their own volition.

Eventually, your boarding party, with or without the freed slave, will have to fight the slavers in hand to hand combat. If you kill the entire crew, your party may find the slaves in the ship’s cargo hold. According to the dialogue presented to you, “They look at you questioningly and one asks if they’re to be released. You could use more crew but you don’t want to force them all to work for you instead…” Face to face with a cargo hold of slaves, your crew is incapable of passing up the opportunity to bring a slave on board their ship. While they feel that claiming all of the slaves would be immoral, they justify owning one slave for the good of the mission.

In a decision tree that uncomfortably mirrors historical slave auctions, you then choose between these three species based on innate characteristics that grant them unique abilities in combat and support roles. If the player is familiar with each species, they will likely choose the one whose labor will best improve the ship’s operation. The three slaves also come to terms with their continued enslavement in different ways. One “seems fine with the orders,” the second “remains silent and you worry there might be trouble,” and the third believes their enslavement to be “acceptable” as long as the primary objective is galactic peace. The remaining slaves are freed on a nearby space station, but the one you’ve chosen remains a slave in your service. Presumably, the three agreed to accept a lifetime of slavery if it meant the freedom for their compatriots.

While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant. When you first encounter the slave trader, your crew views the slavers, and by extension the slave trade, as scum. As the exchange progresses, however, your crew grows increasingly comfortable with the idea of using slaves to complete their mission. By either accepting a slave as tribute or keeping a slave as payment for rescue, FTL’s crew abandons their previous ethical objections and uses slave labor on their ship. This is especially tragic in a game where death and defeat is almost always your final outcome. Unable to leave your ship, the slaves that you could have freed are instead doomed to die in bondage.

Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship

Oh that’s right, I have a blog. Apologies for the lengthy hiatus. Summer, for any graduate student, is never as restful as you think it is going to be. I recently completed another chapter draft of my dissertation and hopefully this will allow me to commit some more time to posting on the internet.

To start off this renewed effort, I wanted to announce that I have been named a Mellon Digital Scholarship Fellow for the 2013-2014 academic year. I will be joining Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship, which is a new endeavor that includes the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC), the Electronic Data Center, the Lewis H. Beck Center, and the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching. As a fellow, I will be collaboring on DH projects large and small, teaching workshops, and helping other scholars incorporate digital research methods into their work. For the past year, I’ve also been the graduate researcher for DiSC’s Battle of Atlanta project,which will create an interactive site and mobile app on the 1864 Battle of Atlanta. I will continue working on this effort during my time with ECDS and look forward to collaborating on additional projects. I’m grateful for the opportunity and very excited to be a part of ECDS next year.

On Assassin’s Creed, Part One

Editor’s Note: Since a revised and expanded version of this post will be appearing on another site in a couple of weeks, I thought it best to take the original down. When it goes up, I will update this post to direct you to the new version.

ICYMI: Teaching Intersectionality Through Halo

A few weeks ago, I helped Samantha Allen teach her class about intersectionality through the video game series Halo. Samantha has her writeup about the exercise over on The Border House. I was there largely to provide tutorials to inexperienced students and switch players in and out of the games. I’m happy to have been involved in the lesson and think that it provides a valuable model for how to allow students to experience complicated concepts.    

If, then, to me…

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my Kind!

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.

On Scrimshaw

The Vancouver Maritime Museum is currently under fire for corrupting the morality of impressionable young patrons. The museum recently opened a new exhibit, entitled Tattoo and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor, that will run from now until mid-October. According to the National Post’s Brian Hutchinson, a patron demanded the museum remove the part of the exhibit that “features numerous images of inappropriate nature (oral sex, sex, nudity, male anatomy).” Surprisingly, the patron’s complaint was not against the tattoos, but the scrimshaw. More than one hundred years after they were created, scrimshaw is under fire for revealing a common aspect of maritime life.

While it is now considered folk art, scrimshaw at its essence is the byproduct of very bored sailors. During their time at sea, mariners would carve images into the teeth, tusks, and bones of marine mammals killed on whaling expeditions. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War created similar engravings on powder horns. In both instances, these engravings are some of the only surviving examples of art created by ordinary people. Carving what they remembered or craved from home, these individuals entertained themselves through art.

Given that both sailors and soldiers were away from home for months at a time, it should not be surprising that scrimshaw occasionally depicted sex. And as you can see in Hutchinson’s article, whalers had no issue with rendering explicit imagery. Although the protest against the scrimshaw exhibit is being organized by a single patron, I think the Vancouver Maritime Museum should be commended for their willingness to display these objects in the first place. Historians are often uncomfortable with discussing sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and subsequently depict these societies as being completely devoid of sex.

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. Whalers in dedicated marriages served alongside serial adulterers and promiscuous single men. As early as 1647, for instance, Massachusetts attempted to force married mariners to return to their English wives because “they live under great temptation here, and some of them committing lewdness and filthiness here amongst us, others make love to women and attempt marriages, and some have attained it.” Colonial court records are filled with affairs conducted between wives and neighbors while husbands were at sea. Some women, deciding that they no longer wished to be a part of their marriage, fled with their new partners to begin new relationships in another colony. Not only was this method of self-divorce regularly practiced, but communities supported the decision as a viable solution to marital strife.

Artifacts like scrimshaw are a tangible reminder that early Americans were not the prim and proper individuals we often make them out to be. They were, like us, complicated individuals with relatable wants and needs. So if I end up in Vancouver this summer, I will be checking out the scrimshaw. It will certainly be better than pretending the society they reflect never existed.

THATCamp Feminisms South: Video Games and Feminism Resources

This material is by no means exhaustive, but will provide an introduction to current issues of gender equality and feminism in video games.

Some Background

Game Development Tools

Game Examples

Examples of What These Games Can Teach

Welcome to The Uneasy Half-Literate.

Welcome! I decided to migrate from my old Tumblr to something a bit more substantial. While I will still post the occasional odd find, I will be using this space for musings on research, dissertation writing, digital archives work, and current issues in the field.

Which means I should probably explain the name. “The Uneasy Half-Literate” is a reference to a reference. On an episode of Judge John Hodgman (which I highly recommend), the correct pronunciation of “often” became a point of discussion. As evidence, the plaintiff presented the entry for “often” from H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. The entry reads:

The sounding of the t, which as the OED says is ‘not recognized by the dictionaries’, is practised by two oddly contorted classes–the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours’…and the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.

Given my tendency to butcher the names of theorists, it seemed like a good fit.