This week I had the opportunity to give what little insight I had on a gaming project for the documentary Sands of Silence, produced by activist film-maker Chelo Alvarez-Stehle.
It is a first-person role-playing game where the gamer assumes the character of a girl from either Africa, Nepal or Mexico and is taken through the whole experience of trafficking. The point is to engage the gamer beyond just empathy and encourage action from a community—high school and university students—that may otherwise not know much about the issue.
Going into the project, my primary concern was with trivializing the experiences of sexual trafficking victims. There is absolutely no way to ever simulate the lived experiences of these young adolescents so I am quite ambivalent about the prospects of building genuine empathy through ‘gaming.’
There’s Fashion Wars and then there is Fashion the movie. Fashion Wars is all about seeing whose pose has more style, getting the biatches to gain more cash, and expanding a fashion empire. Fashion the movie takes one behind the camera to see the ugliness of glitz and glamour, into a world that demarcates women as cheap objects for show and sale. They were certainly not meant to be complimentary but how can we bridge the gap between the two platforms in a manner that is both sensitive and engaging?
The concern was somewhat alleviated with knowledge that the producer was an activist film-maker and that the stories in the gameplay were based on real life experiences. And then there was the voice in the back of my head saying if I could excuse and actually appreciate BreakThrough for ICED that simulated the experiences of undocumented immigrants in this country, I had no right to place objections over something I had not experienced or undergone.
The next problem I had was with the complete absence of boys from the gameplay. All the major characters were women. For the first time, I was irked by the absence of men and that awareness came from a queer perspective. We cannot ignore that boys are also sexually trafficked and that there is yet another community that we can reach by including that particular narrative. In our efforts to make women’s experiences more mainstream, let us not marginalize a population that is already afraid to speak out about abuse. De-stigmatize. Make relevant to as many people as possible.
My third concern dealt with how to draw attention to this game. Why would a teenager or university student play this game? I was told that inner-city youth in New York could relate to the project and could react with empathy that these horrendous things happened with their peers. Yet, it simply is not enough of a selling point for me as a gamer. We mostly play games to escape reality; not relive our pains and misfortunes. There has to be a ‘oh cool!’ factor to attract youth to this game and I hope whoever is given charge to market it can come up with the right catchphrase.
There are three stages to the game—being aware, being inspired and being activated. What would being activated constitute? The producers were still struggling with that concept and had some idea about what actions to suggest within the gameplay, including a project with Global Kids that could track whether our chocolate really came from trafficked labor in a cocoa farm.
Empathy is hollow and empty without action; most people are not pro-sexual trafficking but place it squarely in the pool of things that require automatic rejection. The question is what to do after that rejection? Yes, most of us want world peace but how many of us strongly work towards the concept? How do we make that possible?
On trafficking generally, I tend to believe that there is a very thin line between a victim of trafficking and an exploited undocumented migrant worker even though the law fails to provide equal protection to migrant workers. Coercion and exploitation are also present when people are forced to migrate from their homes due to socio-economic and political reasons.
As an undocumented youth organizer, I do not pretend to speak for anyone else but myself. I also detest it when someone claims to speak for me. I would like to see the victims of sexual trafficking come forth, share their stories, become empowered through their shared experiences, heal and become activated! That would require the creation of a sanctuary space but nothing that cannot be done. We have done this with undocumented youth via DreamACTivist—it is entirely possible. Right now, I am working on a global collective of undocumented youth bloggers. Lets see where that goes.
From personal experience, I can gather that despite the stigma, the pain and the risks, we can be the strongest advocates for ourselves. There’s nothing more powerful and moving than letting us share our stories. Even if the wounds and stigma might be deeper, I see a possibility for the creation of community, similarly, with those who have been trafficked and abused.
The suggestion was probably out of scope for the project but if we cannot truly help, inspire and activate the ‘subjects’ of the gameplay, we aren’t really succeeding in creating a successful game, all things considered.
I look forward to hearing more about this project and similar new media efforts in the near future.