Teachers to Game Makers: Slavery’s Not for Fun

Critics of the interactive computer game ‘Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom’ say it makes light of a brutal chapter of America’s past.

(Photo: ‘Mission U.S.’)

Feb 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: Help bring American slavery—one of the most inhumane chapters in our history—to life through responsive, gamified technology, particularly in an era where students are growing up with smartphones, racially integrated schools, and an African American president.

Yet an ongoing controversy over an interactive classroom computer game designed to transport students into the world of Lucy King, a 14-year-old African American slave girl, reveals more about the present—and how educators still struggle to effectively teach one of the most difficult chapters in U.S. history—than it does about the past.

Critics say the game, Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom, sanitizes the brutal institution that was founded on racism and enforced through beating, torture, rape, and murder. By avoiding the perspective of Lucy’s master, they say, the game doesn’t compel students to consider how or why whites perpetuated the oppression.

Rafranz Davis, an education technology specialist and blogger in the Ft. Worth, Texas, area, is spearheading a social media campaign against the game, which some educators are using as part of their Black History Month lessons. Davis says Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom dumbs down history, eliminates historical context, doesn’t challenge students, and tries to make something “fun,” out of an American atrocity.

“I want my kids to examine primary documents, research, interview real people, watch revelations captured via film, discuss and maybe even do some writing to reflect and think,” she wrote on her blog. “I want them to look at the wholistic [sic] aspect of slavery and not just on the part of slaves but on the slave owners too.”

Davis, who is also the author of The Missing Voices in EdTech: Bringing Diversity Into EdTech, questions whether New York public television giant WNET considered perspectives like hers when it developed the game.

But WNET is pushing back against the backlash. In a post on Wednesday on the blog EdSurge, Kellie Castruita Specter, WNET’s senior director of communications and marketing, wrote that African American experts were in on the project from its inception—including scholars from the City College of New York, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

Rather than completely explain slavery, the station says, the goal of Flight to Freedom is to help students see Lucy’s humanity, get a sense of her difficult day-to-day life, and understand why some risked their lives to escape bondage.

While the game doesn’t whitewash history or shy away from the “ugly truths” about slavery, wrote Castruita Specter, its goal was to prompt students’ empathy and critical thinking, not present a comprehensive history.

“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,” Specter wrote. “Although we regret to hear that some people have found the game to be problematic, we stand by it.”

It’s unclear if the recent controversy has caused any schools or teachers to stop using the simulation program, which was first released to critical acclaim in 2012. But the debate over Flight to Freedom isn’t the first time an outside-the-box approach to teaching slavery has generated headlines.

An Arlington, Texas, principal abruptly retired last week after school officials investigated a hands-on slavery lesson at his elementary school last year. The lesson included having students pick simulated cotton and lie side-by-side on the floor to illustrate slave quarters. In Georgia, a teacher resigned in April 2012 after blending a slavery lesson with math homework in a cross-curriculum exercise (“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many did he get in one week?”). Some teachers in New York City gave similar lessons in 2013, and that same year, African American parents in Hartford, Connecticut, sued their children’s school after a teacher conducted a slavery re-enactment—including a mock auction—during a nature-center field trip.

John Gartrell, director of Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Research Center for African American History and Culture, says the uproar over the Flight to Freedom computer game demonstrates the challenges involved in teaching slavery. It’s a thorny subject under most circumstances, and it can seem like ancient history to young people for whom racial integration is the norm.

“Even working with young—and sometimes not so young—students in colleges and universities, it can be challenging to get them to understand that the reason why we even had a civil rights movement in this country is because of the legacy of slavery,” he says.

Gartrell supports a computer simulation or hands-on lesson, which “could easily be infused with actual documentary history that not only captures the story of real slaves and the world around them,” he explains. That program, in the right hands, he notes, could spark “a level of curiosity from the children playing the game in a way that matters.”

“There are countless archives, universities, museums, historic homes and plantations, authors, genealogists, and historians throughout this country that can provide the information we need to understand the lives of these people and the complicated nuances therein,” adds Gartrell. “If we could apply some of those lessons to a computer game or some other media that communicates that message to a generation that’s one hundred and fifty years removed from the emancipation of slavery, then I think it’s worth at least trying.”