Experiencing Racial Identities: Passing in 'Assassin's Creed: Liberation'
My initial response to reading about the idea that Aveline, the protagonist of Liberation, would be able to adopt different personas in the game that seem tied to her mixed racial heritage was one of uncertainty.
In a recent issue of Game Informer, Matt Miller describes the addition of a new mechanic to the Assassin's Creed series that involves taking on what Ubisoft Sofia is calling “personas” in Assassin's Creed: Liberation. Miller explains that the first female protagonist in an Assassin's Creed game, Aveline, is “a woman of mixed race who also has access to significant financial resources,” and as a result that the character will have “access to three personas as she wanders New Orleans [. . .] each represented by a change in abilities and clothing (“10 Cool Features You Don't Know about Assasssin's Creed III . . . and 5 More from Assassin's Creed: Liberation, Game Informer. November 2012. p. 97). Barring the persona of the assassin, the two other personas available to Aveline are “the lady persona,” which consists of “the constraining dress of an affluent New Orleans woman” that will limit “her mobility [. . .], but she [will] gain the ability to charm her way past soldiers and other obstacles that would stand in her way.” The final persona puts her in the guise of “a local slave,” which allows her to “slip unnoticed past opponents or incite a riot with the local populace.”
Fans of the series will probably immediately recognize that what has previously been a mechanic enacted in the Assassin's Creed series by hiring groups of prostitutes, gypsies, mercenaries, and thieves in order to create distractions and throw off guards in this stealth series has now become a mechanic directly associated with the protagonist herself. Now Aveline's disguises will allow her to do what otherwise had previously only been accomplished by hiring some outside help.
My initial response to reading about the idea was an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty. Clearly, what Ubisoft Montreal means to do with these personas is essentially turn the concept of “passing” into a game mechanic. Clearly the game mechanic is tied to Aveline's mixed racial identity and thus she is performing what was sometimes practiced among people of mixed race throughout the history of the United States, especially in the years before the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment. By taking advantage of the perception that a lighter skin color means “whiteness,” she can take on the persona of a “white woman” and gain social advantages that she lacks as a “black woman” within this period of American history. My discomfort probably arose from the idea of seemingly “reducing” this complicated and sometimes controversial social practice to a simple game mechanism.
However, since I teach American literature to university students, it then occurred to me how infrequently my students are unaware of this practice and its history at all. Commonly, at some point in a survey of American literature the idea of passing comes up (be it in talking about the work of William Faulkner or the stories of Jean Toomer or a number of other American writers, especially those whose works often take place in the South). The concept is one that students, both black and white, seem to have never learned about in any American History course, and they often find the idea to be an entirely foreign and discomfiting one having grown up in post-Civil Rights America and having no real context to place the idea in.
With that in mind, this made me begin to consider the potential value of experiencing directly the concept of donning and discarding racial identities. What is interesting about this simulation of passing in Liberation is how it clearly acknowledges and seemingly has the potential to make players realize the complicated nature of racial identity and how it is related to both appearance and performance. By donning a racial identity, Aveline will be seen and treated differently were she to “wear” the guise of another such identity. This experience of passing as a meaningful practice, taking advantage of the benefits of “being white” in a culture dominated by that racial group and then seeing how that changes when one no longer can claim those same advantages by dint of how one is seen and evaluated by others could be a more instructive and compelling experience than any rote explanation of this idea could.
I don't know if Ubisoft Sofia will ultimately be able to pull off this mechanic in anything more than a superficial way, but I find myself somewhat excited to see what might result from doing so. This medium does allow one to adopt and perform a multitude of identities, which in part is what seems to make it a uniquely personal experience by comparison to film or literature and the like. And while certainly the reality of someone else's experience of identity likely will never be simulated perfectly, the idea of making players acutely aware of how racial identities are shaped by a culture's assumptions about appearance and performance by practicing the idea within a historical context, again, seems like it has the possibility of providing a form of instruction that maybe only this medium could provide.