Diversity & Equality in Interactive Historical Fiction
When your Regency heroine flings herself into a chair, what should that chair look like? Lauren Willig asked that question when she was writing her “Pink Carnation” historical-fiction series (“Readers’ Guide,” Secret History of the Pink Carnation. New York: Signet Select, 2005, p. 4), and it exemplifies the challenges that face a historian writing fiction or games set in the past. What do our characters’ clothes look like? What furniture do they sit on? How are they expected to treat the people around them? And, most importantly, what choices do they make? Those vivid details are what make history feel alive in stories and games.
Those details are even more necessary when writing interactive fiction: stories in which the reader takes on the role of the main character and decides what happens next. That’s the kind of game that Choice of Games LLC publishes. Our settings range widely: we have games in high-fantasy realms inhabited by dragons, in science-fiction galaxies of spaceships and aliens, in antebellum New Orleans, in ancient China, and in many other times and places, both real and imaginary. As a game author and editor who also holds a PhD in medieval history, I have an interest in making good games and in making good history, both.
When we’re writing a game set in the real-world historical past, like any authors or publishers of historical fiction, we need to keep a careful eye out for anachronism. What would a person in this time and place wear? How would they interact with their peers? How would they talk? Would certain words or phrases have actually been used in the period where the game is set? Sometimes this leads us to interesting and surprising research: for instance, I queried whether a character in a game set in Victorian London would have used the word “genetic.” As it turns out, the word was first used in 1831, so it was actually historically accurate. Nevertheless, we decided that “hereditary” felt more nineteenth-century in tone, so we changed it.
However, sometimes writing historical fiction presents a different kind of challenge. Our company is committed to diversity and equality in all forms: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more. We want players to be able to choose from a wide range of potential traits for their characters, and we want them to have an equally fun and fulfilling story regardless of which traits they choose. Because our readers are essentially a part of the story, our games are even more immersive than conventional literature, and our readers can identify very deeply with the characters they play. We want our readers to be able to play characters as diverse as they are.
So what do we do about historical inequality? How can you play a woman in a game about Napoleonic naval warfare, or a gay man trying to advance his station by marrying a Tudor-era monarch, or a Chinese gunslinger on the American western frontier?
In the first case, Choice of Broadsides offers the chance to reverse historical gender hierarchies. If the player chooses to play a woman naval officer in the fictionalized Napoleonic Wars setting, then all the sailors in the navy are women, and men are expected to stay home because they are too delicate to handle the rigors of warfare. This narrative strategy maintains the historical dynamic of a single-gender military, but allows the player to take on either a male or female character, and gives an equal experience regardless of gender. The story is exactly the same for a male or female main character; only the pronouns and titles change.
Another way to offer equal opportunities in a historical setting is to introduce fantasy elements. Affairs of the Court, a trilogy set at a royal court that resembles that of Henry VIII, uses magic to bypass historical inequality. To come up with this mechanic, the authors had to think about history from a structural perspective. What could serve the same function as gender, and yet not be gender? The answer: an innate magical ability that could randomly manifest in one of two forms, only one of which qualified its bearer to rule. This created the same social and political pressure as the need for a male royal heir, but freed the player from the restrictions of historical gender inequality. Therefore, the main character in this game – an ambitious minor noble who occupies a political position analogous to Anne Boleyn – can be either a man or a woman, and instead of having the historical pressure to produce a male heir, needs to produce an heir with the correct kind of magic. The addition of magic also allows partners of the same gender to become the blood parents of a child, thus allowing equal status for same-sex relationships within the game. The player can choose whether their character is attracted to men, women, or both.
However, the most interesting – and most fun – option for a historian is to incorporate historical instances of equality into our games. Showdown at Willow Creek, set in the Old West, takes advantage of the flexibility of a frontier society to offer opportunities for the main character (a gunslinger and investigator) to be either a man or a woman, and to come from a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Women had more social mobility on the frontier than they did elsewhere: women gained the right to vote in the Western states far earlier than in the Eastern states, and women like Calamity Jane have entered popular mythology alongside men like Wyatt Earp. Of course, historically, discrimination based on gender, race, and other factors still did exist in this environment, but the greater flexibility of frontier society allows stories of equality to exist closer to reality.
Other historical moments may offer further opportunities for equal experiences. For instance, we’re hoping to produce a game in which the main character is a Viking. Presenting the option for a female protagonist in this case is not only a good principle; it’s valid history: recent archaeological research suggests that Norse women fought and carried weapons fairly often. Similarly, we hope to offer a game about gladiators, and recent archaeological discoveries show that gladiators could be women as well as men.
Interactive fiction games draw on historical research to provide vivid details that make our stories come alive, but also to talk back to history itself. In the spirit of other recent efforts, such as Medieval POC (http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/) and “We Have Always Fought” (http://aidanmoher.com/blog/featured-article/2013/05/we-have-always-fought-challenging-the-women-cattle-and-slaves-narrative-by-kameron-hurley/), historical fiction in both linear and interactive form can help write a more diverse story of the past, challenging conventional narratives of inequality with the reality of history.
Rebecca Slitt, PhD
Choice of Games LLC
Image: Joan of Arc (1450-1500), Wikimedia Commons.
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