by Jed Pressgrove
The Voter Suppression Trail shows that developing a video game is like playing a guitar: almost anybody can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should. As part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series, The Voter Suppression Trail parodies the well-known computer game The Oregon Trail under the guise of being a funny, informative indictment of Republican-led strategies to disenfranchise nonwhite voters in the United States. Unfortunately, creators Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher don’t seem to be aware that their nostalgia-ridden joke doesn’t treat the important issue of voting with the respect it needs in the globally embarrassing election year of 2016.
In The Voter Suppression Trail, you play as either a white, Latino, or black character during an election. I first played as the white voter, and the game only lasted a minute. The character didn’t have to wait in line and faced no obstacles near the voting booth. The message is if you are white, you can vote no matter what, even though the game specifies the character is a Californian programmer — hardly a good representation of the average white person in many states, but the figure does confirm a myopic understanding of the world.
When you play as the Latino and black characters, you immediately join a very long line of people outside of a building, but the situation comes across as a cold presupposition rather than a dramatic event that can lead one to humane understanding. This is when Baker, Moore, and Lacher showcase their juvenile and forced sense of humor. Playing off the famous “You have died of dysentery” line in The Oregon Trail, the game says the following when you play as the Latino voter: “Your son has dysentery. Will you leave the line and pick him up from school?” By shoehorning a reference to a common problem in 19th-century pioneer survival, The Voter Suppression Trail makes its point about voter disenfranchisement difficult to take seriously, eliminating virtually any chance of the game changing how anyone thinks or feels in a political sense.
The black-voter story is not much better. As this character, you are told that you better go back to work instead of staying in line. If you stay in line, the consequence is taking a dock in pay from a boss who, not so coincidentally, supports Donald Trump. Later, the game says one of your coworkers has dysentery. If you don’t agree to take over the coworker’s shift, you get this Telltale-like message: “Your coworker dislikes you.” With cheap line after cheap line, The Voter Suppression Trail trivializes the nonwhite experiences its creators supposedly want the audience to care about. Of course, none of this matters when you consider the real point behind The Voter Suppression Trail: giving Democrat-leaning players a(nother) reason to feel morally superior. Here’s looking forward to swell election commentary in 2020.