[Caricature by Design] Illustration and Representation of Historical Actors in Tabletop Games.

In a recent gaming session playing Freedom: The Underground Railroad with our students, we were struck by the the choice of imagery used on the box and instruction art, and the illustrations on the playing pieces, cards, and game board used to convey the story of slavery and the Underground Railroad. What began as a sketch for a larger project, soon became very involved, taking many turns. Ultimately, we decided to sit on the ideas to give us more time to construct a more thorough and cohesive argument. We also plan to flesh out some of these ideas with our inaugural podcast, which is planned in the next few weeks. What follows is a portion of the original introduction and some of the key questions that we are mostly concerned with. We welcome comments and criticism.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad purports to offer the game player an empathetic view of slavery that is instructional and remains fun to play.  So confident are the creators of the historicity of their game they offer a teaching guide complete with lesson plans that uses the game to help students understand slavery and the difficulties slaves and abolitionists had navigating the institution and the road to freedom. Admittedly, there are moments where the game succeeds at these objectives. Our students seemed to enjoy the game. They were respectful of the characters, were deeply concerned about ushering slaves to freedom, and often checked their own language as they engaged in the typical back and forth jokes and banter that often accompany tabletop games. There is no doubt that the game designers have created an engaging game; a fact that others like American historian Patrick Rael back up in his excellent review of the game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWMvIeaUr64).  Freedom succeeds in creating an engaging experience for players and achieves many of its goals. Yet the box art and illustrations drawn to represent historical actors and set the historical context for the game are largely created from popular memory and stories. These illustrations can come across as stereotypical and imagined in a way that serves or confirms our own, modern interests in the subject. It reveals the tensions between the narrative set by art and illustration and the intent of the game designers and the overall narrative they hope to tell. This tension and reliance on popular memory and heritage are clearly revealed in the box art and the depiction of the conductor, both on the box and as a player character, who appears to have be inspired by Harriet Tubman.

As mentioned above, this idea and project is developing; however, some of the critical questions that surrounded our ideas about the use of illustration and gameplay included the following:

1.      As the game designer consciously chose to provide agency to the abolitionists and not the slaves, how does that affect the narrative being told about slavery?

2.      Considering that gameplayers bring their own prior knowledge to the table, how do the game illustrations confirm or play into the expectations or ideas about slavery?

3.      Since the illustrations appear to draw from popular memory and art depicting the abolitionists, including an un-named Harriet Tubman, and slaves as mere stereotypes, how do these images challenge or confirm the gaming narrative?

4.      What role does empathy play in creating the narrative during gameplay, and in what ways do the depictions of slavery provide pathos?

5.      Why does it seem difficult for so many (table-top) games to incorporate historically drawn figures into game play? To what degree are the expectations of gameplayers and the gaming world (creators, players, illustrators) so intertwined and immersed in fictive popular memory, that other, less stereotypical, representations might appear out of place?