turning out the lights

When I first thought of this idea last year, I was very excited. I have very limited programming and drawing skills, but I can write. I thought that making this interactive fiction video game about race would be good for me, because I’d get to research into what’s really going on. I thought it would help add to the conversation, because it would give some insight into what life is really like for minorities, the kind of insight that we don’t get from the news. I thought that putting the frustration and anger and sadness I feel at the systemic racism that plagues our country into a creative project was a positive thing to do. I now realize that I was wrong.

I researched, and thought, and planned, and worked at structuring this story. I looked at the information that I could gather—which, in terms of statistics, was quite a lot—and tried to figure out how the statistics would be represented. Did you know that black fathers who don’t live with their children spend more time with them than fathers of any other racial group? Did you know that black children are heavily discriminated against in schools and are subject to disproportionally harsh disciplineincluding in preschool?

My thought was to chart the life of black males in different social, geographic, and economic circles. To give the game player the choices that these children and men are given, and to see how successfully a player could manage life as a minority citizen. What do you do when you apply for jobs with the right qualifications but don’t get callbacks because your name sounds “too black” for example.

Then I realized exactly how much circumstances shape us and how many decisions we make over the course of a life, and I was very, very overwhelmed. Add to this that I have spent the last year battling chronic health issues, and I have been stuck on this project for quite a while.

With the recent police shootings and shootings of police, my project has been on my mind again. I had a thought: I needed to simplify. Let’s just take one distinct instance instead of a whole life, and see how making that into a interactive fiction game would work.

Traffic Stop would be simple: you are a black man driving down the road and you hear a police siren. You look in your rear-view mirror and see the cop car, see the police inside signaling for you to pull over. What do you do?

I went to The Guardian’s “The Counted” database to see what people did, to see how exactly a traffic stop could turn into a fatality. Here is a smattering of incident reports:

Shumpert reportedly ran from his car during a traffic stop. Police said they fatally shot Shumpert when he attacked and injured an officer and a police dog. Lawyers for Shumpert’s family argue he was viciously mauled by the police dog after he attempted to surrender non-violently. The family have sued for wrongful death.

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Officers were conducting a traffic stop on the vehicle Moore was driving when they say he reached for a gun in his waistband. Several witnesses told reporters that they saw no gun and yelled at police not to shoot Moore. Authorities said a handgun was recovered from Moore by medical professionals once he had been taken to the hospital, but was not recovered at the scene, which police chief James Barber called a “mistake in protocol”.

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Pierre-Louis was fatally shot through his front windshield by a trooper while trying to make a U-turn and escape a traffic stop for speeding. The trooper had jumped on to the hood of Pierre-Louis’s car and leaped off as the vehicle turned. Pierre-Louis drove on for eight blocks before losing control and crashing.

~

A deputy stopped a car with multiple toll road violations and drew his gun when Barnes began to move the car forward with the deputy holding on to the car’s open door, authorities said. The deputy fatally shot Barnes when he allegedly reached toward the deputy’s gun.

The more I read, the more I realized exactly what is going wrong at these traffic stops. And the more I realized why my project—whether it focuses on one small life incident or a whole life—won’t work the way I envision. Here is what I realized, step by step.

  1. How much of these incident reports are the truth? Judging by the vast majority that are still undergoing investigation, it’s fair to say that the news reports are not the whole story. But lacking any other source, let’s assume for the moment they are mostly correct.
  2. Traffic stops are incredibly stressful, ultra high anxiety situations. No one involved in them—including the officers—are acting in a calm, thought out manner. Minorities—black minorities in particular—know that anything can go wrong at a traffic stop and there is the very real possibility that they could end up dead. The cop walking up to the car is terrified of what could happen. The person in the car is terrified of what could happen. With fear ruling this human exchange, all bets are off. People behave anywhere from bizarre to inexplicable, with violence, hostility, flight, and murder as the most common responses.
  3. In an interactive fiction video game, you have plenty of time to make a well-thought-out decision. And pretty much anyone who has the luxury of time, safety, and distance can carefully choose a course of action that will be likely to keep them alive. There’s no way to simulate the fear that people feel in the moment, when adrenaline has shut down the brain’s logic circuits and instant action is the only response left. Using a timer might add some pressure, but it’s scientifically not even close to the reality of the situation.
  4. Given this armchair quarterback approach, no one playing a “choose your own adventure” type game would choose an option like “run from your car” or “punch it to escape the traffic stop” out of anything but curiosity. They know this behavior will likely have a really bad outcome for their character. And right there, my game fails to teach anyone anything. Without the anxiety and emotion, what real people did in real situations just looks like bad decision making. The reality of these situations where civilians—who are innocent until proven guilty—end up dead is that no one’s consciously making decisions. Fear, bias, questionable training, deeply ingrained discrimination, anger at living in a society that actively works to deny you prosperity and well-being based on the color of your skin—these turn a broken taillight traffic stop into a deadly encounter.
  5. Have you ever read the comments on the Internet on news stories and thought pieces about race? Especially race and police? For every person who is empathically shocked and horrified at the injustice and loss of life, there is someone else who excuses it away. Excuses tend to sound something like this:
    1. If they had just done exactly what the police had told them to do, they’d still be alive.
    2. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what really happened.
    3. The deceased was a convicted criminal anyway. (?!)
    4. More white people are killed by the police than black people, so why are you even complaining?
    5. Why does everything have to be about race with some people?
    6. More black people are criminals than white people and those are the simple facts. Until the black community takes responsibility for themselves, this won’t get better.
  6. The empathetic people don’t need to play a game to understand that something is terribly, terribly wrong in our society. The other people would play my game and simply bring out their excuses, invalidating the real choices that some people must make and explaining away circumstances.

At the end of the day I have realized this: there is no way for me to reach the other people who don’t empathize because of the complete lack of context. If I did make this game the choices and decisions it would include would make no sense to most people who live in the TV version of America. Thanks to my research, I know that the TV version of America—the America that is shown and talked about in TV shows and news media, the America that I live in—is not the only America. There is a whole other version of our country where food and money are scarce, where inalienable rights are not the rule, where hard work will not get you ahead, where the American Dream is unobtainable.

I want to help. Though it was an interesting idea, my video game is not the way. Maybe it is simply that the only sort of video game format that matches my skills—interactive fiction—is not the right format. Maybe it’s because I’ve never written a video game before and this is a proposition best left to professionals. In any case, I’m cancelling this project.

Because also what I’ve realized is that while trying to help move the conversation about racism forward by telling someone else’s story (yes, being muliracial is my heritage, but my green-eyed self easily passes for white and the days of mulattoes are long gone) is really very white privilege of me.

It occurs to me what might really actually help is to think of ways to use my white privilege to help create platforms for black & other minority voices to tell their own stories and be heard. It occurs to me that picking up the phone and contacting my elected representatives and many of the other things suggested in this great article “Concrete Ways to Be an Actual Ally to Black People” would be more useful than creating a video game, take a lot less energy, and have way more immediate effect. Voting might really, really, really help, as I tend to let local elections slide by.

So this is the end. Thank you, and good night.

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race isn’t a choice. right?

So there’s the Rachel Dolezal thing, that I feel I should say something about.

Maybe she lied. Did she lie because she wanted to take advantage of opportunities that didn’t belong to her? Or did she lie because everyone else’s lie was her inner truth? Does the motivation even matter?

(Are transgender men lying to take back that $0.30 on the dollar that women are typically underpaid? Is a gay man lying if he doesn’t overtly bring up the fact that he sleeps with men in casual conversation?)

I’m not persecuting or defending Dolezal. Personally, I think her lies and truths need only be an issue to the people she had direct interactions with that feel duped. I think the national stage really doesn’t care about Rachel Dolezal. They care about identity.

When I look up the word “race” on Google, this is the result:

race
noun
each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.
“people of all races, colors, and creeds”

  • a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group.
    “we Scots were a bloodthirsty race then”
  • the fact or condition of belonging to a racial division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this.
    “people of mixed race”
  • a group or set of people or things with a common feature or features.
    “some male firefighters still regarded women as a race apart

So. Rachel Dolezal passed for black. I look white–but I’m only half. How distinct are these physical characteristics, anyhow? I’ve had people doubt the fact that I’m part black–basically every time it’s come up, ever. Before smartphones, there was no evidence I could produce on the spot to prove my multiracial heritage. And I’m pretty sure I have the same culture, history, and language as Dolezal–we are both American.

Am I lying if I join the NAACP?

Let’s take this from some different angles. Was Michael Jackson less black because he bleached his skin? What about Asians who surgically add folds to their eyelids? Are they less Asian after surgery?

How about Arabs who move to America. What do their children mark on the government Census as their race? Some people think they should self-identity as Muslim. And speaking of the Census, did you know we lump Indians (from India) as part of the Asian race? That pretty much blows the “distinct physical characteristics” definition right out of the water.

Jews were recently declared a race by geneticists, and are already legally considered their own race in Britain. So what race is a Jewish convert?

If you ask most white Americans “what kind of white are you”, they will generally respond with a breakdown of their cultural heritage: “I’m half Italian, a quarter Irish, and a quarter English.” Or French, or Dutch, or Portuguese, etc. These responses are legitimate ethnic groups with their own culture, history, and language–as noted in the definition above–but they are all identified as the same race.

“Race” is actually an indefinite umbrella term for a melting pot of physical attributes, culture, religion, and bloodlines. The more you try to clarify race, the murkier it gets. (Have you tried looking up the definitions of “Hispanic” and “Latino”?) What “my race” really defines is “people who are like me.” People who are not my race are “unlike me.”

This is what the reactions to Rachel Dolezal’s story bring up for me–our insistence that we need to obsessively characterize and label who is like us and who isn’t like us. Dolezal is raising questions about what the black race is: is it a clearly-defined range of common physical characteristics? But what about bloodlines, or partial bloodlines (remember the term “mulatto?”)? But isn’t it also a culture? And is that culture open to people who do not have any African descent? Is it open to people who have some African descent but look white? Should it be? What would that mean to the distinctions between white people and black people? Dolezal’s skirting between lies and truth is shaking a foundation no one wants to mess with. Most people–of both races–want this woman to shut up and get back into her designated box.

The ridiculousness that I see in all of it is that there’s no way out of being labeled–even when the label is incorrect, or only partly-correct, or meaningless when you get to know the person attached to the label. And worse, we have to acknowledge this arbitrary labeling because if we don’t, people will be treated unfairly based on their label and have no recourse for justice or route to equality.

because the word for the year is “atrocities”

Some terrible things that have happened, and some truthy perspectives on them:

Charleston terrorist reveals his motive: ‘You rape our women and you’re taking over our country — and you have to go’

survivor told reporters that the gunman reloaded five times during the massacre and ignored the pleas of one man to reconsider killing the worshipers.

“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country — and you have to go,” the terrorist said, according to a survivor.

America’s Reaction to James Boulware Is White Privilege at Its Finest

The media’s story of white perpetrators is inevitably more complicated and humanizing, but such is the nature of privilege: Where the actions of black people and Muslims get framed in terms of broader cultural characteristics and stereotypes, whites are treated with the presumption that they’re motivated by factors unrelated to their race or religion. They start from a place of neutrality, and their narratives grow as specific information is revealed. Meanwhile, black people and Muslims are black and Muslim, first and foremost. Everything else must stem from that fact.

This tendency to individualize white behavior while framing people of color in terms of monolithic stereotypes has presented itself in cities from Baltimore to Waco, Texas, and back, and in situations as disparate as urban uprisings and biker gang shootouts, as well as those outlined above. It remains a key feature of racial inequality in America. And it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.

the semantics of freedom

The first book that I was able to find in my smaller-town library is Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015), by Dr. Robert D. Putnam. I’m looking for the interviews / stories of black families to use as the basis of some of the narratives for the game.

(If you are such a person and you had or were a young child in the last 10 years, and you’d like to see your story as part of this narrative, I’d love to speak with you. To contact me, click here.)

Our Kids doesn’t focus directly on race. Dr. Putnam wants to talk about the current lack of opportunities for disadvantaged children in America, and how impossibly difficult it is in this cultural and economic climate to effect upward social mobility. I picked this book out because he does end up profiling some black families, as so many of them are living in poverty now.

I’m still wending my way through the first chapter, but I’ve found an interesting idea I wanted to share. Putnam quotes a 1950s historian, David Potter, who defined this idea of “equality” in America.

Equality in America, Potter wrote, had come to mean not equality of outcome, as in Europe, but “in a major sense, parity in competition.” That transatlantic contrast in outlook persists undiminished today. Compared to our European peers, Americans remain more skeptical about re-distributive policies and more emphatic about social mobility. (p. 33)

This isn’t really news, but sometimes it’s important to reiterate reality. Looked at this starkly, it means that America has “haves” and “have-nots” built into the fabric of its worldview. The simple fact of the matter is that we applaud someone who fits a societal definition of having worked hard to attain their riches and social status (even if that someone is long-dead and its the extended family now living off the riches). In our reality, there must always be people at the bottom fighting to get to the top.

As Putnam’s book points out, the people at the bottom are fighting, but there’s no route left to get out of the lower social classes anymore. The people at the bottom are fighting to hold on to what little they have. And because they aren’t moving up, people above them–who had opportunities in their youth that no longer exist today–assume they are lazy and would just rather stay poor.

It’s true that racism and classism aren’t the same thing. But the majority of  minorities are poor, so on top of being treated differently because of longstanding cultural bias against people with more pigment in their skin, they have to deal with this new mess, too.

the formative years

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been pre-occupied with graduating from my Master’s program, and with working on the final requirements of my certification for my new career. But I’ve still found some time to think about this project.

My initial creative approach was to write the story step-by-step, following the track of my protagonist’s life. It meant digging into each story choice in minute detail every step of the way. In other words, a recipe for overwhelm and never finishing the project.

Human lives are ridiculously complex. How do we live every day without noticing all the factors that go into our life situation at every moment?

So to kick myself forward, I’ve switched my game plan and am working from the top down. Since this project is an interactive fiction game, the interesting parts of the game are the choices. I’ve mapped out some usual choices that we as Americans tend to make from birth to high school.

After sitting overwhelmed with that for a bit, I had a chat with myself about how huge this project really is. And I’ve decided to narrow my immediate focus on the story from birth to kindergarten.

I’m not a parent. I also have no siblings. I don’t even have a dog. Looking at years 0-5 in the terms of choices, I am so struck by how many choices are made for us by our parents that will echo through our lives in ways both obvious and unconscious. And how the choices parents make are directly impacted by choices their parents made…..

What this means in terms of the game is that there is going to be a lot of things the computer choses for the player at first. On one hand I find that frustrating, because the game won’t be as interactive right out of the gate. But on the other hand, I like how it mirrors reality. Reality is that we can’t pick our parents, or where we grow up, or how we are raised. It also means that the player will have to make the choices for the protagonist’s in-game children, and all those choices that the player had no control over initially will come home to roost in the range of options they’ll have as a parent.

Now that I’ve gotten a little structure set up to play with, over the weekend I procured a library card and have put some books on hold so I can start researching the stories that go along with the statistics. I’ll start posting more about my research soon.

Note: I got a request to let people know where they could contact me directly if they want to be a part of this project. I’ve set up a Gmail account: climbintotheirskin. E-mail away!

Note #2: I haven’t been going out of my way to find news stories about discrimination (I’d actually be interested to track them all, but I really don’t have that kind of time right now) but they keep happening. I did see the McKinney, TX pool party debacle. If you missed this one, BET has a quick slideshow summation. The incidents of people getting fired from their jobs due to making inanely uninformed racist comments about McKinney on Facebook is both cheering (hooray they got fired) and disheartening (why the hell would someone even think that, anyway??). UK’s The Guardian has a penetrating article about how this one pool party incident is a very small tip of a very large iceberg:

But as the Section 8 slur implies, there is already a form of segregation in McKinney, one that combines geography, race and income: housing. The alleged comment was a reference to a federal programme that provides housing subsidies for the very poor, many of them black. It is easy to see why it might cause offence in the Dallas suburb, where middle-class developments such as the Craig Ranch subdivision, the location of the pool, are predominantly on the west side of the city while poorer residents live to the east….

The ICP’s lawsuit, which was settled out of court, accused the city of perpetuating “racial segregation by making dwellings unavailable because of race or colour in violation of the Fair Housing Act”. The ICP claimed that McKinney only wanted to build affordable homes in the east of the city, not in the majority-white parts of town west of the highway.

Last month, a Harvard study found that moving young children out of low-income housing into more prosperous neighbourhoods could have positive long-term effects on their lives and on the fabric of society.

“Efforts to integrate disadvantaged families into mixed-income communities are likely to reduce the persistence of poverty across generations,” the authors wrote.

American cities, though, remain deeply divided. In 2013, 97% of units qualifying for low-income housing tax credit in Dallas were in areas where most residents were minorities.

still here

Remember when the last thing I was going to do was to look up black baby names? That sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it turned out it was far from simple. I got caught in a research hole that sapped my energetic forward motion.

Since then, I’ve been trying to get back on the horse (so to speak), and I’ve found a new way forward that is easier artistically, but less exciting research-wise. I’ll be posting more about that shortly.

This is really just an update to let you know that the project is not dead, and work still continues. In the meantime, I recommend this fantastic article in Rolling Stone about Baltimore–and not only because it completely agrees with my initial observation that everyone seems to be dodging the actual issue.

Article: Why Baltimore Blew Up

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 8.18.28 PM

geeking out

For the last two days, I’ve put the information I’ve gathered so far into action.

Climb Into Their Skin is going to be an interactive fiction game. I’ve always wanted to make this sort of game, so I’ve already done a lot of research on how to build one. Over two years ago I’d already settled on the software I’d use and even installed it on my computer: Twine.

Yesterday I fired up Twine and got to work. The layout of the environment in Twine looks a little bit like a big dry erase board, and each piece of story is in a little box “stuck” on the board, just like you would stick note cards with ideas written on them to dry erase boards. Little lines connect the boxes based on the links you set up between them. It’s just as easy to use the story software itself to brainstorm and hold ideas and remember the structure as it would be to work outside of the program, so I spent some time putting down the initial bits that I’ve thought of so far.

I also dug into some scary math and put the programming variables, functions, and macros in Twine to work. I took two programming courses like 20 years ago and my math skills are abysmal, so I really have to thank my boyfriend for patiently sitting down with me for two hours and helping me figure out how to represent outcomes mathematically.

…at 40 years old, I finally understand why I was tortured with math word problems as a child. It would have been nice to know then….

Tomorrow some fun research: popular boy’s names for Black Americans. Our protagonist gets a name! One that will have the possibility of opening or closing doors for him later in life.