How Not to Design a Video Game About Slavery

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A curious video game called Playing History 2 - Slave Trade recently attracted some social media ire. A 25-percent sale on Steam, a video-game marketplace, had drawn new attention to a specific part of the game—the so-called “Slave Tetris” portion. It’s as awful as it sounds.

Players are asked to stack the bodies of African slaves into a ship, Tetris style. Players are then rewarded, in points, for fitting as many slaves into the ship as they can.

Users on Steam and Twitter were outraged, calling the game “reprehensible.” The outcry prompted Serious Games, the Danish developer of Playing History, to remove that segment from the game:

Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, the CEO of Serious Games, posted a response on Steam:

...I definitely agree [“Slave Tetris”] is insensitive and gruesome. It has to be like this to show what was done to load slave ships. People treated human beings as pieces that just had to fitting [sic] into the cargo. The reactions people have to this game is something they will never forget, and they will remember just how inhumane slave trade was. If this is the case then we have accomplished what we set out to do…

This is not the first time the “Slave Tetris” sequence has come under scrutiny; Serious Games responded to similar criticism a year ago.