Slavery Game Controversy Raises Questions around History, Games

WNET's game Mission US: Flight to Freedom drew fire from some for creating a game out of the slave experience.

WNET’s game Mission US: Flight to Freedom drew fire from some for creating a game out of the slave experience.

History and social justice provide fertile ground for developers looking for ways to bring gamification to the classroom. But a subject as complex as slavery in America brings design challenges unlike most other chapters in a social studies textbook.

Last month, a group of mostly African-American educators in Minneapolis, Minn., criticized an educational role-playing game funded and published by PBS to support black history month as “insensitive at the least and disrespectful and racist at the most.”

Mission US: Flight to Freedom allows players to guide 14-year-old Lucy, a fictional slave living on a Kentucky plantation in Kentucky 1848, as she tries to escape north across the Ohio River via the Underground Railroad. As the point-and-click game begins, the young girl is compelled to leave the plantation and her family after witnessing her mother tending to the back of Henry, a fellow slave and the victim of a recent whipping by their owners. As Lucy, players must endure physical abuse, allude slave catchers and seek solace with sympathetic abolitionists, both black and white.

It’s the second episode in a multimedia media project aimed at middle school and high school-aged players, though anyone can register and play the game online for free. Each “mission” includes curriculum and activities to help social studies teachers implement the game into their classroom.

After receiving some complaints from parents, Minneapolis Public Schools asked the group to review the game, and, based on their negative opinion of the game’s lack of real historical events and questionable appropriateness for younger players, released a statement in early March advising their teachers not to include the game in any part of their classroom.

New York public television station WNET produced the Mission US series along with popular PBS series Nature, American Masters and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Other Mission US episodes let players explore fictional accounts of young characters during the Boston Massacre, the U.S. government’s mistreatment of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and the Jewish-Russian immigrant experience in America.

In response to the negative criticism, WNET released a statement defending the game, saying the development process employed years of research and input from mostly black educators and historical experts — including a former University of Cincinnati and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center historian — and they stand by the game and its content.

“No history book covers all the ills of slavery; Flight to Freedom is no different. Although geared to children, the mission tells some ugly truths about slavery, including the work regimen of enslaved people, the inhumanity of bondage, the cruelty of abuse, the destruction to families, the physical consequence of disobedience, the impact of the psychological damage. But the mission also aims to humanize enslaved people and present them with dignity, courage, fear, and real human emotions like love and hate. Our goal is for all students to develop a greater respect for African Americans’ struggle and African American history as a part of American history. Although we regret to hear that some people have found the game to be problematic, we stand by it.”

The controversy highlights how difficult it is for a game developer to tackle the historically difficult subjects like slavery, the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War Two or the civil rights movement.

It’s a task that many developers have been willing to take on. With its ongoing Making History series, Muzzy Lane is a game developer with a foot firmly planted in the historical game genre. The Boston-based company’s latest release deals with events leading up to one of the most convoluted chapters in world history. They’ve also produced content with help from the same grant that funded Mission US: Flight to Freedom.

In 2014, Muzzy Lane released The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom, an interactive history game with a premise very similar to Mission US: Flight to Freedom.

National Geographic decided to revamp their online underground railroad interactive website, which offered lots of primary source materials, visuals and still attracted lots of traffic, especially during Black History month, but hadn’t seen a significant upgrade in nearly a decade.

In a recent conversation, Muzzy Lane game designer and producer Tyler Vogel recalls the crucial decisions that went into the planning of a slavery-based educational game and how a collaboration with National Geographic influenced its development.

This transcript has been edited for time and clarity:

gamesandlearning.org: One criticism of Mission US: Flight to Freedom was the decision to put the player into the role of a fictional character. Talk about the initial planning for the main character in Muzzy Lane’s The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom.

Vogel: There are real politics involved in how you approach these issues, depending upon the age-ranges that you’re talking about. There’s a lot to take into consideration.

We had a connection with Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, and an underground railroad historian. We brought him with us during the initial planning stages with National Geographic. One of the big decisions that we made early, which was also a legacy carried over from National Geographic’s previous website, was to determine, “Are you ‘you,’ or are you ‘Jane’ a 13-year-old runaway slave? Maybe you’re a 16-year-old field hand?

For this project, we decided to obfuscate that. You are ‘you,’ but we don’t ascribe a sex or age. You’re a slave and your family is either dead or been sold away. We tried to put it all through a first-person perspective, so the player could put themselves in the experience without any extra baggage.

gamesandlearning.org: Was the decision to use the first-person perspective also desirable as a game mechanic?

Vogel: It was probably a little bit of both. Whenever we tackle a game and learning project, we start with, “What are the learning objectives? What is the player supposed to get out of this experience from an educational point-of-view?” And we build the story, the genre and the game mechanics on top: the “first principles.”

For Muzzy Lane, one of those “first principles” was to introduce the player to some real historical figures in the abolitionist movement. Everything had to be as historically accurate as possible with some leeway for the player to have chance encounters with those figures.

So by putting you in the shoes of one of the hundreds of thousands of slaves that tried to run during that era without going into much more character detail allowed us to have some flexibility.

gamesandlearning.org: What were some other initial development decisions you thought were crucial?

Vogel: Where are you going to start? What route are you going to take? A slave escaping from the deep South was different than middle America. Also, we designed a conceivable path that would put you in contact with Harriet Tubman, William Still, Thomas Garrett, and Frederick Douglass all in the same journey. That’s part of the reason why the game is set in Maryland. We modeled one of the paths players could take on an actual path Harriet Tubman took. Obviously, there’s some liberties taken here and there to keep a full escape from Maryland all the way to Canada within the scope of a 40-minute game experience.

gamesandlearning.org: Your game has ties to National Geographic and strives for historical accuracy. Given the subject matter, you’ve got some important decisions to make. For example, what does a person who’s spent their whole life as a slave in Maryland sound and talk like? Can you talk about the challenge of writing the script and casting the voiceover actors?

Vogel: That’s one of those areas that is a potential powder keg, right? Dialect, dialogue and phrasing can get you into trouble if you go too far in any one direction.

National Geographic wanted something that felt realistic and accurate. But they also didn’t want to push it so far that it sounded like we were trying to emulate a performance from something like 12 Years a Slave.

The script was written primarily by us, reviewed and fact-checked by National Geographic, and reviewed by our subject-matter experts.

If this game had a bigger budget, we might have looked into hiring a script writer. But from a script writing perspective, we generally wanted to go for standard English with an occasional flare to make it sound conversational. For example, if there were writings from Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and some of the other characters, we would borrow turns-of-phrase or paraphrase quotes they were known to use. On the casting and rehearsal side of things, there were some occasions where we would tell the voice actors to tone down or tweak certain things.

gamesandlearning.org: National Geographic is a pillar in American popular education and culture. Other than funding, what did they bring to the table during the development process?

Vogel: We worked closely with four people from their education editorial team. They’re involved in every step of the process: blue-sky-thinking design decisions, script review, 3D character models, environments and playing iterative builds.

National Geographic made their bones in rich, data-filled map-making. So we worked closely with the head of their map department to make sure that the maps we used were accurate, and to keep the game in line with the National Geographic brand. They also created the educator guide to support the game.

gamesandlearning.org: Since its release, has The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom received any negative criticism, particularly about its historical accuracy or depiction of slavery?

Vogel: We’ve received some criticism about some of the gameplay design choices, but nothing, that I’m aware of, about the historical accuracy or the way we approached it. There’s a scene at the end of the game, during one possible play-through scenario, where the player almost makes it to Canada but gets caught by a slave catcher. Originally, if you tried to run from him, he would pull a gun, and our animators worked really hard on a gun-pulling animation. But National Geographic had us pull that out of the game, because they didn’t want a gun pointed at the player.

gamesandlearning.org: Especially in a first-person game for middle-schoolers…

Vogel: Yeah, so that was one area where we toned it down a little bit. Also, in terms of our epilogues, even if you got caught and sent back, it wasn’t necessarily the end of the story. They compelled the player to go back and try again.

gamesandlearning.org: What kind of considerations were given to possible negative criticisms of the game’s subject matter?

Vogel: I think that’s something that was more of a consideration for National Geographic.

I can say, for Muzzy Lane, we were both comfortable with the material, and they did their due diligence with subject-matter experts. Also, mapping everything that happens in the game to state content and history standards that have been approved for years makes it hard to challenge on those grounds.

The vocabulary we present, the key historical figures, and the key dilemmas at the base of the movement in that era are all well-covered in history class. I don’t think we were coloring outside the lines on this project.

gamesandlearning.org: Is there anything unique Muzzy Lane has taken from this game’s development and applied to other educational projects?

Vogel: Our company’s roots are deeply embedded in history games. We’re pursuing more games like this with National Geographic and other partners. The reaction we’ve received, in terms of the number of people playing this game and through events like the Serious Games Showcase (The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom won the Student Choice Award at the 2014 Serious Games Showcase & Challenge), has been very strong. Our technology continues to improve and makes access easier for teachers and students. We think games are among the best ways to immerse yourself in history and go back to times and themes that are very different from today but still very relevant.

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Christopher B. Allen Christopher B. Allen is a contributing editor for gamesandlearning.org, as well as a radio producer and anchor for Montana Public Radio. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Montana, and won 1st place in the 2014 National Hearst Journalism Awards for radio broadcast. Chris is also an Air Force veteran.