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.


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”.


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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