Oblivious Games Company Turns Slave Trade into Tetris

The "Slave Tetris" portion of Playing History: Slave Trade (screenshot via YouTube)
The “Slave Tetris” portion of Playing History: Slave Trade (screenshot via YouTube)

After a social media uproar, the Denmark-based Serious Games Interactive removed a “Slave Tetris” mini-game from their Playing History: Slave TradeThe brief section of the game aimed at 11 to 14 year olds, in which you are “working as young slave steward on a ship crossing the Atlantic,” apparently was aimed at showing the horrific conditions of slave ships.

The game was launched in 2013, but resurfaced, especially with US audiences, through a 25% sale recently on games platform Steam. Unfortunately, even giving them a huge benefit of the doubt that they were attempting to make this history accessible, the company’s response has not been compassionate about why using the gameplay of Tetris (and “Slave Tetris” is in fact a term they use themselves) might be offensive. Here’s their notification on Twitter of the redaction:

(screenshot via Twitter)
(screenshot via Twitter)

That’s hardly a mea culpa, and no way an apology. On their Steam page, where the game remains, there’s this update:

Apologies to people who was offended by us using game mechanics to underline the point of how inhumane slavery was. The goal was to enlighten and educate people – not to get sidetracked discussing a small 15 secs part of the game.

Their CEO Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen responded in equally unsympathetic tones to the numerous detractors on Twitter (he seems to have deleted his account). Complex collected some of his responses like: “Slave ships were stacked as tetris.. point is to disgust people so they understand how inhumane slave trade was- search the net.” You can see the scene in question in this gameplay video by Jim Sterling on YouTube:

As you can see after the Tetris scene, the best the guiding mouse character can politely muster is it “was certainly not nice.” Would that the troubles with the Serious Games titles would end there. Regrettably, this is far from the only seemingly cluelessly offensive game on their docket, nor is it even the only use of Tetris gameplay for stacking human bodies. Observe this screenshot from Playing History: The Plague, where the same Tetris gameplay is used to stack corpses in a mass grave:

(screenshot via Vimeo)
(screenshot via Vimeo)

In addition to the Playing History seriesSerious Games also offers President for a Day – Floodings where “YOU are the President of Pakistan. With two weeks to Election Day, the monsoon could not come at a worse time. And in its wake comes famine, cholera, rebels, and much more.” The much more includes “nuclear missiles that must be protected at all costs.” It’s joined by President for a Day – Corruption in which you are “an African president” (no country specified). And in their Global Conflicts series, such scenarios as a Bangladesh sweatshop and child soldiers in Uganda are the focus of games.

Liz Dwyer points out at TakePart that this is not the first time using the slave trade in a game has sparked controversy, with Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom accused of dumbing down history and turning it into something fun. Gamification of history isn’t the problem, and there’s definitely a place for games in education, with organizations like Games for Change encouraging the social impact of interactive narratives. That’s why it’s disheartening to see an education game go so poorly, and for its creators to be so hostile towards criticism. Obviously a company that has devoted itself to so many education titles is interested in history and finding new ways to connect with it, and this is a chance for dialogue on how that can happen, rather than dismissing its detractors.

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