This is the forty-first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Vampires apply for grad schools to save their unlives.
Vampires may be mainstays in horror fiction, but we all know what the true terror is: graduate level education.
Hemophiliacademics is a live action role-playing game, aka LARP, made for the Desert Bus for Hope 2019 Game Jam. That means I definitely can’t actually play it, as it requires a whole group of people in the same room. Actually, in two rooms. One is the interview room, where the faculty will interview the candidates, and the other is the waiting room, where tension builds as vampire (and dhampir) candidates go over their research proposals, perhaps sneaking a peek at the competition. You see, not only are vampires real, but they have been exposed publicly, and now must seek academic positions as a way to stay safe from vampire hunters and angry mobs. Those who aren’t accepted into academia are fair game, and likely won’t remain (un)living for long.
It’s not a particularly subtle metaphor for the way academia treats people, and Jacqueline Bryk is up front about it. A section on themes explains that academic institutions are a “racist, sexist, and classist machine”, exploiting free labor and disproportionately benefiting cis white men at the cost of others, and that players should be aware of these prejudices as they play. As such, Hemophiliacademics is a particularly appropriate game for a bundle about racial justice. By placing players directly into this unjust system, however, it aims for an actively uncomfortable play experience. The interview room is constructed to emphasize the power imbalance between the interviewers and candidates. Not only are candidates called in for interviews one at a time, while the others are forced to wait, but individual candidates can be called more than once to increase the tension. There are only three spots in the graduate program, so not everyone is going to make it.
Fortunately, there’s an entire page dedicated to safety, in which guidelines for behavior during play are laid out. Clear distinctions are made between language that may be used to act out bigoted viewpoints within the fictionalized world of the game, and language which is actually bigoted or offensive and is not allowed. Players all agree on what is acceptable before starting. As Bryk concludes at the end of this section, “This is a game about unequal power structures and desperation. Don’t use it to be a jerk out of game.” Even so, many players may not be excited about acting out the type of unequal power structure which may define their everyday lives.
On the other hand, Hemophiliacademics has the potential to be eye-opening for some, for precisely that reason. This bundle was released while discourse on institutional racism and privilege forced many privileged people to confront these issues directly for the first time. But it’s one thing to read about it, to see statistics, to discuss it with others, and quite another to experience the other side. For all our critical thinking and philosophizing, humans are terrible at understanding things unless we’ve experienced them ourselves. Sometimes the only way to learn about injustice is to be on the receiving end, even if it’s only an act. Having to endure offensive questions from an oblivious, racist interviewer because the alternative is unemployment, starvation, homelessness — that will reveal one’s own obliviousness, if they’ve ever been the one asking the questions.
Hemophiliacademics leverages its vampiric theme to further emphasize its message. By making the prejudices at the center of the game revolve around the fantastical, it sidesteps existing prejudices that players may have and lets them look at the issues in a fresh light. For example, dhampirs, as half-vampires, are often able to pass as human, and can eat food as well as drink blood. How much are dhampir characters willing to change their behavior to fit accepted norms? Do they try to act human so the interviewers will see them as equals? Or perhaps they try to play up their vampiric traits, to better qualify for a vampire-only program? The roster of pre-made characters (players may also make their own characters) spans all kinds, encouraging players to ask, and answer, such questions.
The suggested interviewer questions follow suit, including expertly crafted examples that might sound fine to the interviewer but will be insulting to the candidates. A personal favorite is a riff on the standard “where do you see yourself in five years?” that adds an addendum: “Ten? A hundred?” Other questions assume that long-lived vampires will be out of touch with the modern world, inquiring as to whether the candidates have experience with education “as we understand it today”, or if they understand computers. Another asks how the candidate will serve as a role model to other undead applicants. It’s a small mental jump from these questions to those that are asked in the real world, and the absurdity of undead candidates reveals the inherent discrimination in the process. Also, play is structured such that players pick or create their characters, decide on existing relationships between them, and only then determine who will be the interviewers and who will be the candidates. Therefore, conflicts of interest are very much included in the critique.
There is some room to have fun with the characters, but I’m not sure that Hemophiliacademics would be fun to play, so much as edifying. But it’s perhaps the most on-point entry in Scratching That Itch so far and, as such, is worth a look, even if the ongoing global pandemic makes it particularly difficult to actually play at the moment. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $5.99, including both a full color version and a black and white version with simpler formatting for printing.
That’s 41 down, and an even 1700 to go!