The Ethics of Historical Video Game Development

Over the weekend, I announced my intention of developing an educational video game that explored the economic systems of the 18th-century Atlantic World, including the transatlantic slave trade. By and large the response was positive, with several colleagues expressing an interest in the development of a game that was committed to a high degree of historical accuracy in its gameplay mechanics. This general assumption of good intentions, I believe, was buttressed by not only my position as a professional historian but also my past criticisms of games that subvert accuracy in favour of “fun” gameplay. Others questioned whether the slave trade was an appropriate topic for interactive media, pointing to highly controversial efforts in the past as well as a general feeling of unease about the possibility of glamorising or making light of historical human trafficking, regardless of good intentions.

In response, I have prepared an fuller statement of intent, which I hope will clarify my intentions and encourage a wider discussion of the value of non-linear simulations, rather than story-driven depictions, of the past in interactive media.

Triangle Trader

Triangle Trader will be a turn-based, trading simulator set in the eighteenth-century based upon a paper-based educational game developed for an undergraduate module on the Atlantic World. The title was purposefully chosen to be evocative and encourage critical reflection on the variety of human actors that took part in what is often depicted as an abstract system.

Modes: Single Player
Gameplay: Turn-based economy simulator
Graphics: 2D
Audio: Music only

Ethical Considerations:

Triangle Trader will provide a highly realistic simulation of international trade in the eighteenth-century in which the player must continually make economic, practical and ethical decisions and confront their consequences. It aims to provide an interactive, educational experience in which the player will gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the rise and continuation of the transatlantic slave trade and its effects on seemingly unrelated communities and individuals.

The decision to create a simulation of this historical economy was not an easy one. Historical human trafficking and enslavement profoundly affected the economic, political, social and cultural development of peoples throughout the world and depicting those who suffered as a result of these processes requires the utmost care and sensitivity.

In the past, the transatlantic slave trade has primarily been portrayed through literature, visual art and film. These allow artists, historians and affected communities to thoughtfully craft their message and present it in a controlled manner to audiences. Portraying it in a video game, a form of interactive media, presents particular challenges but also significant rewards. By allowing a player to make real choices, a video game provides the player the opportunity to behave in immoral ways; however, by crafting an economic and social system that is as realistic as possible, the player will also be confronted with the true ethical consequences of those decisions.

This does not, however, mean that all aspects of the Atlantic economy need to have visual and interactive depictions, particularly those that could be considered an affront to the human dignity. While Triangle Trader will present players with historically accurate decisions regarding the treatment of enslaved and marginalised persons, and explain their consequences textually, neither visual nor interactive elements will require or allow them to portray actions that would degrade or otherwise harm the memory those who suffered from this historical system.

My aim is to create a game that teaches players to think critically about their actions (and inactions) within and beyond the simulation and I encourage those interested in the development of the game to follow this blog and contact me with any concerns, suggestions or queries they may have.

Gameplay Concept:

Players of Triangle Trader will take on the role of either a factor (land-based merchant), a supercargo (ship-based merchant), or an agriculturalist in North America, the West Indies or the west coast of Africa. Having inherited a semi-randomised existing business, the player will decide which commodities to produce, purchase and sell, choosing from an evolving roster of possible trading partners throughout the Atlantic World. Each turn, players will be faced with several economic, practical and moral decisions and must test their business acumen against historical weather and economic conditions, as well as good or bad fortune, while navigating the moral environments they encounter. The gameplay primarily consists of three phases: preparation, trade and reckoning.

In the preparation phase, players will prepare their production or logistics infrastructure for the trading season. This includes maintaining real estate, paying rents on warehouses and repairing and purchasing ships. It also includes the hiring of free labour, providing food and accommodation to any enslaved labour, and other practical decisions associated with commodity production. In the trading phase, players will barter, sell or purchase goods from multiple AI traders in or from other parts of the Atlantic. In the reckoning phase, players will determine the net profit of that year’s trading, as well as paying out any annual obligations, such as taxes or dividends.

The game will conclude after 25 years (1750-1775) or with the bankruptcy or death of the player’s character. There are no “win-conditions”. As a simulation, the aim of the programme is not to achieve a particular end state but to demonstrate how forced labour affected the entire Atlantic system, even those whose direct actions can be considered highly moral. You can’t win a simulation, only learn that all your decisions have consequences.

Games as Research

As a historian, part of the aim of developing this game is to better model, and therefore understand, the systems underlying the eighteenth-century economy. By working with historical data regarding weather, prices, wages, migration, births and deaths, and crafting a computerised system that automatically results in historically accurate consequences for historically accurate choices, I can gain new insights into the underlying processes of the wider Atlantic economy. This requires iterative development, continually refining trading systems to better reflect the historical record and adding increasing detail to account for external influences on these systems. It will therefore require a broad range of interdisciplinary research and many (many) failed experiments. During its development, this blog will chronicle the research undertaken and how it has been implemented in the game systems. Comments and suggestions at all stages are welcome and appreciated.

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