Digital ‘Slavery Simulation’ Game for Schools Draws Ire, Praise

By Benjamin Herold — February 17, 2015 7 min read
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An award-winning, publicly funded digital learning game that asks middle school students to assume the role of a black slave in America is drawing sharp criticism from some educators and activists, prompting fresh discussion about the role of technology in teaching about painful eras of history.

In Mission US: Flight to Freedom, players inhabit the fictional character of Lucy King, a 14-year-old girl who is attempting to escape the Kentucky plantation where she and her family are enslaved. The free, Web-based game unfolds in a choose-your-own-adventure format, with students asked to make choices that affect the game’s trajectory, within the context of the historical realities of 1848.

“I don’t know that you can really channel the rape, murder, and mutilation of slavery into a game,” said Rafranz Davis, a K-12 instructional technology specialist and former high school teacher who has been leading an online and social-media campaign to get the game withdrawn from schools, pending further review.

“I’m not against gaming. I’m against the way this was done,” said Davis, who currently works in Texas’ 64,000-student Arlington Independent School District.

Mission US currently has nearly 1 million registered users, according to WNET, the New York City public television station that produces and distributes the series. The game includes four “missions,” each of which explores a different era of U.S. history.

“Our goal [with ‘Flight to Freedom’] is for all students to develop a greater respect for African-Americans’ struggle and African-American history as a part of American history,” said Kellie Castruita Specter, WNET’s senior director of communications and marketing, in a statement. “Although we regret to hear that some people have found the game to be problematic, we stand by it.”

Experts on U.S. slavery and “racial literacy” consulted by Education Week said they welcomed the potential for digital games and other new-media formats to help students explore even the most troubling chapters of American history—if such games can be used in ways the don’t simply reflect and repeat the deep-rooted problems inherent in the more traditional classroom methods currently in use.

“We’re already teaching slavery in a way that’s inaccurate, insensitive, and ahistorical,” said James Braxton Peterson, the director of the Africana Studies department at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“I’m actually in favor of a more sophisticated, enhanced version of this game.”

Awards and controversy

Mission US was launched by WNET in 2010.

Other “missions” in the series focus on the experience of a young American colonist in Boston, a teenage member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and a turn-of-the-century Russian immigrant.

According to WNET, the content of Flight to Freedom was developed by a team of historians from the American Social History Project/Center for Media & Learning at the City University of New York Graduate Center, in collaboration with leading African-American scholars Nikki Taylor and Christopher Moore.

Castruita Specter, the station communications director, described the game as an “interactive story about enslaved people’s resistance to the system of slavery.”

The Mission US series was developed with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and major funding from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in 2010 awarded WNET a $3.3 million grant to create and disseminate the games.

The money from the CPB was part of a larger effort to promote greater knowledge of American history and civics among students by using technology to deliver engaging content, said Michael Levy, the organization’s executive vice president and chief strategy officer.

Of the CPB’s total grant to WNET, $786,163 went to the development of Flight to Freedom, Levy said in an interview.

“For three years, this game has received nothing but uniform high praise,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the outcome.”

Indeed, the Mission US series, which is accompanied by extensive curricular materials and has primary-source documents embedded within its games, has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Minister of Foreign Affairs award from the Japan Prize in 2013.

The game was also highly rated by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose Graphite website aims to help educators make better decisions about what ed-tech to use in the classroom. Until last weekend, the organization’s official review of the game read:

Parents need to know that Mission US: Flight to Freedom is an age-appropriate, but realistic depiction of life for an African American teenage girl living in the pre-Civil War period. Kids will experience what it’s like to be ordered around by a master, leave family behind to run for freedom, and have to make difficult decisions... Some kids might find the game experience to be intense because there is emotional trauma throughout the story as families are torn apart, people are treated poorly, and characters are unfairly imprisoned. Also, most decisions have no right or wrong answer, which may be a new experience for kids.

‘This is where I draw the line’

Common Sense Media officials however, recently took down that review in response to complaints from educators and activists.

“We understand the sentiment that has been expressed about Flight to Freedom, and as a result we are evaluating whether our review warrants an update to convey the most accurate and current information to our users,” a Common Sense Media spokeswoman said in an emailed statement to Education Week.

Common Sense Media has also deleted a reference to the game from a blog post published earlier this year that included Flight to Freedom as one of a number of apps and games that teachers could use to “celebrate Black History month.”

That post was how Davis, who is black, first became aware of the game, she said.

“I felt the pit of my stomach drop,” said Davis, who said that her great-great grandmother and great-grandfather are among her ancestors who endured the horrors of slavery.

“The idea of putting children in that place, thinking of my children...I just said, ‘This is where I draw the line. This is not OK,’” she said.

Davis and other critics contend that Flight to Freedom’s interactive game format minimizes the atrocities associated with the enslavement of millions of people over 245-plus years; that the game’s content is historically unbalanced by not giving equal attention to those who owned slaves or benefited from the institution of slavery; and that playing the game may be emotionally and psychologically traumatic for children, particularly students of color.

Questions about using games and simulations to teach about genocide and other historical horrors are not new.

Davis and other critics point to Freedom!, a 20th-century computer game with a similar narrative arc as Flight to Freedom that was developed by the creators of the wildly popular Oregon Trail franchise. That game prompted a lawsuit by parents of an 11-year-old black student who said their son was humiliated by his peers when the game was used in his classroom. Freedom! was eventually pulled from the market.

The Anti-Defamation League has also “strongly cautioned” against using simulation activities, online or otherwise, to teach about the Holocaust.

New medium, old problem

WNET, however, described Flight to Freedom as “part of a growing body of ‘serious games’ that immerses users in historical and contemporary problems in ways that encourage perspective-taking, discussion, and weighing multiple kinds of evidence.”

While the game does not cover “all the ills of slavery,” the station said, it does tell “ugly truths,” including “the work regimen of enslaved people, the inhumanity of bondage, the cruelty of abuse, the destruction to families, the physical consequences of disobedience, [and] the impact of psychological damage.”

It also aims to “humanize enslaved people” and portray “enslaved African-Americans with agency and personal power,” according to the statement.

Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said he liked the concept of Flight to Freedom, but wants to make sure that educators using the game in the classroom are skilled at helping their students navigate the “racial trauma” they may experience.

“Usually it’s a feeling, almost like a rejection of who I am as a person,” Stevenson said of such traumas. “There needs to be a place where you can feel that sense of hurt and get it out.”

Unfortunately, Stevenson said, many educators lack the sensibility and skills to help their students do that.

But that problem is not unique to the use of digital games, he said.

Peterson, the Lehigh University professor, agreed.

“There are young black children all over the country having alienating experiences in the classroom when reading Huck Finn and Harriet Tubman,” he said.

“The critique here should be leveled at how we teach slavery, period.”

Photos: Screen shot from Mission US: Flight to Freedom, a digital simulation game about U.S. slavery produced by WNET in New York City.

Screen shot of Freedom!, a computer game by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.