We'll be releasing This Guilty Land later this month. The very first version of the cover went public well over a year ago. We don't usually do it that far ahead of the game's release. But given the scope of the project, and the sensitivity of its subject matter, there were a number of reasons why I would have wanted to give up and step away from the project, and announcing it that early in the development process essentially forced me to commit to it.
It was important to me in designing a cover that it not tip-toe around the subject. I wanted something visceral and confrontational. The first cover was that, and only that.
The man pictured was named Gordon. In 1863, he escaped from a Louisiana plantation and was photographed during a medical examination. The photograph was widely circulated and reproduced, highlighting the horrors of slavery and encouraging many free blacks to enlist in the Union Army. Gordon himself enlisted as soon as he was able. He was captured and recognized by Confederates, who beat him and left him for dead. Gordon escaped, rejoined the army, and continued fighting.
This earliest version of the cover inspired its share of comments online. One fellow responded very negatively, and, to be honest, bizarrely - something about the game being anti-white propaganda - but everyone else who commented was fairly positive. Some were put off by the idea of a competitive game in which one player works for abolition and the other opposes it - a lot of folks still are, and I can't blame them; this game isn't for everyone. Regarding the cover in particular, some responded to the power of the image and the innate dignity of Gordon. Others felt it was too confrontational and stark, and urged me to "soften" it.
But softening it, or dulling its impact, was not something I was willing to do. The game is what it is - angry, confrontational, polemic - and I'm not going to win any converts by pretending it's anything other than that. The people who are willing to play the game are the people willing to be made uncomfortable by the image. The people who are too put off by the image probably wouldn't enjoy the game anyway.
That didn't mean that the cover was done. While I didn't want to soften its impact, I did come around to the idea that the cover was a little too spartan, and that the landscape box orientation made it feel more so. I switched to a portrait layout, and incorporated other elements that would allow me to tell more of the story.
Behind the image, faintly visible, is an excerpt from the first page of the first issue of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. It was on this page that Garrison declared,
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.
The six persons joining Gordon on the cover are all prominent abolitionists. When this version of the cover was first announced, someone objected to the "bias", and wondered why I didn't include an equal number of pro-slavery agitators. I'm kind of surprised that I have to say this in the Year of Our Lord 2018, but there were not two equal sides in this conflict. The abolitionists were right. Slavery, and those that defended and profited from it, were wrong. Like Garrison, I will not equivocate or excuse. I'm not the least bit interested in "dialogue" or "trying to understand" the point of view of people who owned, tortured, and raped other human beings, and to be frank, I'm more than a little appalled by people who have suggested that I should do so.
I spent a fair amount of time choosing my six abolitionists.
On the left is John Brown, who attempted but failed to incite a general slave insurrection with his raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia. He was captured and put on trial. One of the charges against him was treason against the state of Virginia - a place where he never resided. He was found guilty and executed. Before his execution, he passed a note to his jailer:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.
Next is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who is probably better known for being part of the women's suffrage movement. Many of the people who would become prominent early feminists got their start as abolitionists. Stanton doesn't actually "appear" in the game - others, such as the Grimke sisters and Harriet Beecher Stowe do have cards associated with them - but I felt it was important to highlight, however subtly, the intersectional nature of the movement. (It's a bit more complicated than that - some male abolitionists felt that women's suffrage was a "distraction" from the "real" issue - but there were many who saw the two struggles as linked.)
Then it is William Cooper Nell, a freeborn African-American who wrote and lectured extensively. He also formed the New England Freedom Association (later folded into the larger Boston Vigilance Committee), which actively defied the federal Fugitive Slaves Act to assist escaped slaves in eluding their pursuers. He served as publisher for Frederick Douglass's newspaper The North Star until Douglass's support for segregated institutions and break with Garrison drove the two men apart.
Next is Frederick Douglass, one of the most famous and prominent African-American abolitionists. Born into slavery, he taught himself how to read in secret, and then covertly taught his fellow slaves. He escaped at age twenty, soon making a name for himself as an orator, preacher, intellectual, organizer, and author. His 1845 book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself was a hugely influential bestseller; his eloquence and energy stood in direct opposition to the white supremacist and paternalistic underpinnings of southern apologia. In his newspaper, The North Star, Douglass advocated not only for abolition, but also for the rights, voting and otherwise, of all people, including women and American Indians.
Second from last is Harriet Tubman. As a member of the Underground Railroad, she helped more than seventy people escape from slavery. She also recruited men and raised funds for John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. During the Civil War, she served as an armed scout, even helping to lead an assault on Combahee Ferry in 1863. After the war, she worked toward women's suffrage.
Last is William Seward, a prominent Republican politician. At that time, the Republican Party was against slavery, but also against abolition, as slavery was protected by the Constitution. Seward was much more stridently anti-slavery, declaring in his maiden address that there was "a Higher Law than the Constitution". Coming into 1860, Seward was a favorite to win the Republican nomination for President, but his uncompromising anti-slavery position, and his support for Catholics and immigrants, led to the nomination of the more palatable Lincoln. Seward would serve ably as Lincoln's Secretary of State, diplomatically isolating the Confederacy, and become one of Lincoln's close friends.
Surprisingly, this cover garnered a lot more attention, both negative and positive, than the first version from a year previous. Many of those in the contra camp objected to the idea of doing a game on this subject in the first place - feeling, I suppose, that games are inherently trivial - while others again accused me of being too biased against slavery. Again, part of me can't quite believe that someone would think that way, let alone put it out there in public. But that's also one of the reasons why I felt compelled to do this game.