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Arts & Culture

'Blackhaven' Game Explores Racism, Slavery And America’s Past

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Historiated Games
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Historiated Games
In Blackhaven, you experience what it’s like to be Kendra Turner, an intern from an unnamed historically Black college. It’s a simulation taking you along as she discovers more about the past of a plantation, history that its white curators have ignored or buried, and the lives of the Black people who were enslaved there.

A new video game developed in part by a UConn professor explores distortions of America’s past by taking players to an American plantation museum where the history of slavery has been erased.

In Blackhaven, you play as Kendra Turner, an intern from an unnamed historically Black college, who’s taken a job at a fictionalized plantation museum.

Unlike the typical video game, you don’t win. In Blackhaven, you experience what it’s like to be Kendra. It’s a simulation taking you along as she discovers more about the past of the plantation, history that its white curators have ignored or buried, and the lives of the Black people who were enslaved there.

Shearon Roberts, an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, said Blackhaven lets players engage directly with history in a unique way.

“The video game genre is something you can return to, that you can customize. That you can stop and dwell on,” Roberts said. “You can encounter a document and then you can pause and you can go Google and do your research about it and say, ‘Is this real? Did something like this happen in the real world?’”

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Historiated Games
Inside the museum at Blackhaven.

Roberts worked on Blackhaven’s script with students at Xavier and UConn assistant professor James Coltrain.

Coltrain said historians need to take the medium of video games more seriously.

“There’s somebody who suggested that 'Call of Duty,' the World War II series, might be the most influential interpretation of World War II in the last 20 years based on the amount of people who have consumed it,” Coltrain said. “Historians regularly are involved with things like movies and museums and things like 'Hamilton' … but they haven’t done a lot with video games.”

Tia Alphonse, a graduate student at the University of Missouri who worked on Blackhaven’s script as an undergraduate at Xavier, said games have the power not only to teach history, but also to connect players with lived experiences that may be different from their own.

“They have the agency,” Alphonse said. “There’s something really powerful about being in control with the story … that [is] much different than if you watched a movie or if you watched a TV show about a historical event.”

As Blackhaven’s story progresses, Kendra discovers more about the past of the museum and the lives of the Black people who were enslaved there.

She also discovers aspects of the museum’s history that modern white curators have buried and ignored, while dealing with more oblique forms of racism over the phone and in emails.

“I could relate a lot to Kendra’s experience,” Alphonse said. “A lot of times when you enter these spaces that don’t reflect your identity … if someone has an issue with you, you’re trying to figure out whether or not this issue is related to me personally or if it’s related to racism, or sexism or some other aspect of my identity.”

“You have to go through this, almost like investigative work, to figure out whether or not you’re the problem, or … they’re the problem,” Alphonse said.

Xavier’s Roberts said Blackhaven comes at a time when younger audiences in particular are eager to learn about how America’s past informs its present.

“2020 was a particularly traumatic time for the country, in terms of racial reconciliation, that stemmed from George Floyd’s murder,” Roberts said. “If you look all through social media and TikTok, people are looking for ways to explore histories and to remove a lot of the silences around histories.”

“This particular game allows for a way to engage history in a meaningful way,” Roberts said. “To give people tools and agency to enter into those histories and to find ways forward to right past wrongs.”

“Blackhaven” is available now for free on the gaming platform Steam.