App teaches the history of slavery

A new iPad and iPhone game app in development by a team of USC alumni aims to help users experience historical events in an interactive setting.

The game will be called Thralled and will allow users to take on the persona of a runaway African slave in 1700s Brazil. Gamers lead this protagonist, named Isaura, through multiple levels with the eventual goal of attaining freedom for the character.

The design lead, Miguel Oliveira, who graduated with a degree in interactive entertainment in 2013, believes that gaming is an effective way of engaging people with history. He hopes that his game will instill empathy for past slaves for those who play it.

“Interactive media has the potential to involve players in a more intimate way and create a sense of empathy that can only come from direct involvement,” Oliveira said. “It has the potential to explore a wider array of emotions, and most game developers ignore that.”

The gamer must successfully overcome obstacles while ensuring that Isaura’s baby does not get taken by shadow creatures. This is particularly challenging as the gamer must put down the baby in order to perform most basic actions. This aspect of the game is meant to recreate the constant fear a runaway slave would have experienced on his or her escape route to freedom.

Oliveira came up with the idea for Thralled as a solution to the lack of education about the history of slavery in his native Portugal.

“Portugal was the pioneer of the transatlantic slave route. What strikes me is that no one ever talked about it. I was not taught it in school. I don’t see it in any popular depictions of Portuguese history,” Oliveira said.

The game has stirred up controversy among some students, who felt that turning the history of slavery into an interactive game trivializes its importance.

“Media technology is not the way to educate young people about the history of the African-American experience. I find it hard to believe that this would ‘create empathy’ among players,” said Maya Richard-Craven, a sophomore majoring in creative writing.

“Maybe so, but faceless characters on a screen cannot connote the emotions, feelings and stories of real people –— a people that went 200 years without the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness,” Richard-Craven said.

Julia Wang, a senior majoring in neuroscience, had less of a problem with the use of slavery in the game than she did with the objective of the app.

“I think it’s super well intentioned, but the impotence falls upon the woman to free herself as opposed to the institution,” she said.

Others, however, believe that the game will be informative to people who might not understand what it means to be a slave.

“First-person playing gets as close as you can be. It’s the most realistic way to feel [like you’re in] another’s shoes,” said Zach Suite, a freshman majoring in interactive entertainment. “I definitely think it’s the best way to do it.”

After the completion of Thralled, Oliveira hopes to develop other games that allow people to interact with different periods of history.

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