Big Reality: Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe

Role-playing games are commonly thought of—and disparaged as—forms of “escape,” ways of separating the self from reality. Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe is an RPG that challenges stereotypes of the genre while explicitly making escape a game-world objective: The player characters are slaves in the antebellum United States, and their goal is to be free. As in other RPGs, the characters are defined by a collection of traits coded in numerical values; the primary statistic in Steal Away Jordan is the character’s value on the slave market, measured in number of dice. “A young, attractive female in a Southern city or town, add two dice,” the rulebook says. “If you were from the Rice Coast in West Africa and were purchased by a rice planter in the Carolinas, your knowledge of rice cultivation would be particularly valuable.” Players are discouraged, however, from inventing highly valuable super-slaves, and the rulebook suggests a lengthy list of handicaps and demerits. “If you have a history of escape, you have been branded or whipped at some point,” it says. “These wounds carry the risk of infection, and mark you as a problem slave.” With its excerpts from slave narratives and reproductions of archival photographs and etchings, the rulebook reinforces the game’s historical origins. But Steal Away Jordan is not about reenactment, a feature underscored by the character of the Conjurer, an oracular figure who can be paid to cast voodoo spells (the strength and effectiveness of her magic can be adjusted to suit the players’ tastes for realism). Steal Away Jordan draws inspiration from works of fiction, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and transforms the spirit of those classics in the genre of rule-guided collective storytelling. It makes fantasy and play into means for remembering and reflecting on real desires of escape.

Text by Brian Droitcour

Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe is on display at 319 Scholes as part of Big Reality curated by Brian Droitcour until March 29th.

Big Reality: Save Point (2012) by Daniel Leyva

In a time when most gamers’ experience with video games was the action-packed, quarter-eating world of the arcade, early role-playing games for home consoles, like The Legend of Zelda, offered a slower, longer, gameplay experience that could unfold over weeks and months. An important element in such games was the save point: a place where the character had to return before quitting so the player could pick up where he left off. In games from the popular RPG series Final Fantasy, the save point was often represented as a bed—a fitting choice, since beds are a space of comfort and daily return in everyday life. When the player brings his character to the bed and saves, the character ostensibly goes to sleep, entering the world of dreams: an invisible fantasy within fiction that blurs the potentials of the game world and the player’s world.

Daniel Leyva—an avid player of the Final Fantasy series and other Japanese role-playing games—has materialized this ambiguity in his installation Save Point (2012). A child’s bed with gaming scenes projected on it stands as a post marking the viewer’s progress. It inverts the game’s modeling logic by bringing an element of a game into the space of the gallery: a real bed becomes a save point, an image that viewers can hold in their memory to save their movement in the world. Leyva is fascinated by the seamless intersection of online communities and everyday life. “Perhaps by providing physical manifestations of (virtual) objects we could address the relatedness of our virtual and real selves, to begin exploring the future of creating an even more symbiotic world and what this inevitable future may look like once everything has a connection to the web,” he says. “The bed save point is a perfect way for to me to express this link between fantasy and reality.”

Video link: Save Point (2012) by Daniel Leyva
Text by Gene McHugh

Save Point (2012) by Daniel Leyva is on display at 319 Scholes as part of Big Reality curated by Brian Droitcour until March 29th.