The students in Scott Jackson’s eleventh grade American History class have almost no common knowledge about the country’s early beginnings and important moments. His students at Brooklyn International High School are recent immigrants to this country who are learning English and how to be American school students at the same time. Jackson uses the immersive role-playing game Mission US to give his students a common experience of what it would have been like to live during important historical moments. The game is designed to encourage students to empathize with the game’s characters, make connections to their own experiences and ultimately remember what happened in history.
“It levels the playing field,” Jackson said. “Everyone is able to see the history, jump into the history and describe what they’re seeing.” Even if one student can read and understand 95 percent of what’s happening in the game and another student only gets 15 percent because his language skills are less developed, they can each talk about what they saw in the game. The game becomes a shared experience to discuss the choices each made in the game and how those choices changed their experience of the historical moment.
Mission US currently has four missions based around different important points in history. Jackson has found the game to be such an effective stand-in for a textbook that he structures several units around the game’s themes, using them as the basis of inquiry that branches far beyond the core narrative of the missions, and most importantly, giving his students lots of chances to use their language skills.
The first Mission called “For Crown or Colony?” is set in pre-Revolutionary War Boston and leads up to the Boston Massacre. Students take on the identity of Nat Wheeler, an apprentice in a printshop. As they play, students make choices in the game that build up a personality for their version of Nat Wheeler. Aside from the specific knowledge about the events of the Boston Massacre, the game asks students to consider how history changes when told from different perspectives.
“When students experience the Boston Massacre in the world of the game, students in the same classroom may have very different experiences of the same event,” said Chris Czajka, senior director of education at WNET on an edWeb webinar about games and learning. WNET, the public television station in New York City, produces Mission US in collaboration with video game designers at Electric Funstuff.
The second mission, “Flight to Freedom,” places students in the shoes of Lucy King, a fourteen year old slave girl in Kentucky. This mission explores the US pre-Civil War, focusing on the idea of cause and effect. Many students think Lincoln freed the slaves with the stroke of a pen, but know little to nothing about the many people working hard to abolish slavery long before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
“’Flight to Freedom’ shows that many actions by people over a long period of time and in many locations all contributed to the end of slavery,” Czajka said.
This mission in particular has generated controversy over whether it is appropriate to simulate slavery. Some educators have been trying to get the “Flight to Freedom” mission banned from schools pending further review, arguing that simulating slavery minimizes the atrocities real people faced. They also contend the game could be traumatizing to children , especially for students of color.*
The third mission looks at how westward expansion affected Native Americans living on the Great Plains. “A Cheyenne Odyssey” puts students in the role of Little Fox, as he and his tribe interact with colonial settlers. The mission focuses on trying to understand the various issues behind the conflicts between settlers and Plains Indian tribes.
“We worked very closely with the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana and really wanted to illustrate that this is a culture — alive and thriving — in the United States,” Czajka said. Jackson noted that his immigrant students particularly empathize with the story of Native Americans. It’s a favorite mission, even though it makes them sad.
The fourth and most recent mission focuses on early twentieth century New York and the surge of immigrants entering the country at that time. In “City of Immigrants” students become Lena Brodsky as she navigates a ship voyage from Minsk to New York, settles in the Lower East Side and make choices about her employment. Along the way there are interesting themes to follow including women’s rights and the burgeoning labor movement. The big theme in this mission is turning points and how they resonate throughout history.
All these games are available both to stream online and download. They are Flash-based and won’t work on iPads or Android tablets that don’t support Flash. WNET producers said iPad compatible versions are currently under development.
Mission US producers are aware that bandwidth and access to technology are often issues in public schools, so they tried to provide several options for educators to access the games. In addition to the free games, each mission has hundreds of pages of supporting materials, including lesson plans, writing prompts, vocabulary lists, primary document activities and suggestions for discussion.
Jackson often has his students play the game in pairs so they can discuss their decisions together. The choices students make cannot change the outcome of history, but they can affect how the student-player experiences the time period. For example, when Lena arrives in New York she is given three options for work: sewing, accounting and singing. Depending on which path the student chooses Lena ends up in different places, taking on different personality traits.
Kids in the same class are having different experiences of history, which makes for a great classroom discussion. Seventh grade social studies teacher Matthew Farber likes to keep his students in their characters even once they aren’t playing anymore, asking them to write from the character’s perspective or to discuss historical events from the perspective of the character. He finds bringing characters into the classroom helps students transfer the historical knowledge they’ve gained beyond the game.
Many educational games track student clicks in a game and localize that information in a teacher dashboard. Jackson said that would be a helpful way to remind his students the choice they made, along with the accompanying consequences. Farber, on the other hand, is skeptical of any attempt to assess through the game. He points out that the game is replacing the textbook, helping to bring history alive, but it’s up to the teacher to sustain that energy and deepen students’ thinking around the themes and topics raised.
Mission US producers say 1.3 million people play their games and that “Crown or Colony?” is the most popular. That may be because it aligns well with many middle school social studies curricula. Jackson has more freedom to use all the missions in his lessons because his school, Brooklyn International School, is part of of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 schools across the state exempted from state standardized tests. Jackson has a lot of freedom to create his own curriculum and to make it as engaging as possible. Since his students are still learning English, the middle school materials that Mission US offers are about right for his students.
External evaluators of the game want to ensure that students are learning the historical content, as well as the broader historical thinking skills. So far those evaluators are reporting gains in domain specific vocabulary, content knowledge and historical concepts.
“The most encouraging to see is the games being launchpads for really in-depth conversations in which kids at varying academic levels feel equipped to participate and draw on their experiences with the game and the learning materials,” said Leah Potter, an instructional designer with Electric Funstuff. Farber says they are great for inculcating his students with the idea that everything is connected and that changes in one arena of life affect what happens everywhere.
All the Mission US games and materials are free. The team is currently working on a fifth mission due out soon tentatively titled “The Hardest Times” about the Great Depression and the Dustbowl.
*The paragraph about controversy over “Flight to Freedom” was added after publication when it was brought to the author’s attention by a reader.