To play video games is to engage with the myths and value systems of a constituency whose access, agency and ability to wield the technology allows them to communicate their wishes, fears, fantasies—and even identity politics—through a form of interactive entertainment. Although games are not the same as films or popular television narrative, they do operate as expressions of myths, the “dream life” of culture, whose depths are only beginning to be plumbed. Among these “dreams” are the roles of differenced bodies, gendered bodies, racialized bodies, within the technological spaces of game play. The powerful representations in games are extensions of the visual cultures from which they arise, the political and cultural contexts, and can be mined for their significative potentials.
My research builds upon and enhances current scholarship in relation to issues of representation and practices of signification, as they specifically relate to games. The central and structuring methodology of this text is rooted in a critical cultural studies approach to the analysis of games as nuanced visual expressions capable of shaping, maintaining and potentially contesting power. For the sake of this presentation, my focus will be Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2012/ HD 2014), a stealth, open-world adventure game about chattel slavery. Presented as a third-person historical fiction, Liberation is notable not only for its radical themes, but also boasts a rare example of an exceptional black female figure that foments resistance.
Set in colonial America in the 1760s, Liberation centers on Aveline de Grandpré, a New Orleans-raised, mixed woman of French and African descent. By day, she is a gentlewoman of leisure, born of a former slave, and living under the care of her French merchant father. By night, she becomes a freedom fighter whose attacks tip the balance of power in the formulation of the new nation. In the three guises of lady, assassin and slave, Aveline negotiates the terms of her people’s freedom using her “feminine” wiles, lethal skills and ability to feign anonymity within the enslaved population. More than merely inserting a woman of color into the central player-character role, Liberation maximizes the use of game mechanics that directly engage this heroine’s complex subject position, and her fraught black subjectivity in public spaces. Through a close textual reading of Liberation, with particular focus on the freedom fighter Aveline’s tripartite identity, this essay considers the function of mobilizing shifting significations as a strategy for empowerment.
As the first female protagonist in the Assassin’s Creed series, Aveline marks a significant intervention into the overwhelmingly white, hetero-normative male forms of identity politics that continue to dominate mainstream games. As the primary playable character, her multiple significations as woman and Creole present a case in which the presumed “normative” gamer (according to the current industry focus) would be asked to assume the identity of a socially defined minority. Utilizing an intersectional approach that considers the crosscutting of race, gender and class through the three “faces” of Aveline, this essay examines the ways that this game engages in identity politics and exploits signification in its very playability.
Soraya Murray holds a Ph.D. in art history from Cornell University. An Assistant Professor in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she is also faculty in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program, and affiliated with the History of Art and Visual Culture Department, as well as the Center for Games and Playable Media. Murray is an interdisciplinary scholar who focuses on contemporary visual culture, with particular interest in contemporary art, cultural studies and games. Her writings have been featured in publications such as Art Journal, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Public Art Review, Third Text and PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art.