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Website Review: Mission 2 of Mission: US – “Flight to Freedom”

All video game franchises attempt to improve with time. With PBSMission:US, however, the delays were making us question whether there was going to be a second mission after all.

It has been a long time coming, but the second installment marks a solid improvement on the original.

The Neighborhood last visited this PBS interactive history game with its inaugural mission, which dealt with a young Boston boy dealing with the events leading up to the American Revolution. While we found it a worthy start, the mission was somewhat flawed with excessive dialogue, cartoonish, anime-like characters and lack of visceral action.

In this second mission, “Flight to Freedom”, the game moves to the mid-1800s as the slavery issue divides Americans. Lucy is an enslaved girl on the King plantation in northern Kentucky, near the Ohio River and the free state of Ohio. The story follows her daily life on the plantation, assisting fellow slaves escape north, escaping to freedom, being recaptured and sold at an auction, and hopefully fleeing again to freedom. Along the way, Lucy encounters abolitionists, free blacks, other slaves, overseers, haughty masters, slave catchers and others in American society with varied views on slavery.

Many of the flaws of the first mission have resurfaced. The Japanese-like characters and the excessive dialogue have remained. Also, certain aspects of the background seem somewhat sanitized. The slave quarters seem a little too spiffy (they look so well-built they resemble Levittown tract-housing), the fields seem a little too tidy, and the overseer and slave catchers seem a little too diplomatic (I’m sure they probably cussed more in real life).

The choice of crop at the plantation, furthermore, is interesting. Instead of cotton, tobacco or rice, the King plantation grows hemp, a once-valuable crop used in making bags, coarse clothes and especially rope.

I just wonder if my more street-savvy students would snicker at such a harvest, given hemp’s more potent and illegal cousin. Is that Snoop Dogg hanging out a little too long around those burning leaves?

Yet besides the cartoons, the sanitation and the subtle references to illicit drugs, Mission: US’ second mission does have marked improvements on its predecessor.

“Flight to Freedom” now allows the main character Lucy to say and do a wider variety of things. Unlike previous missions, which tend to move the story forward a little too linearly, Lucy can now be sneaky, aggressive, persuasive, obedient…even violent if she wants to. The game allows you to collect badges based on how you interact with characters and the situation. The badges also help you finalize the ending of the story the way you want it to end.

This makes the action more human and realistic—making the story all that more relatable to today’s students. After all, to make all enslaved people and free blacks look and act the same is a gross disservice. These people reacted to their situation in varied ways. It was a fine line between a seemingly obedient house servant and a Nat Turner-like insurrection.

Also, the dialogue is remarkably apt for the period. The first mission had colonists that sounded more like Nebraska than Boston. This time around, you can hear the twangs of the Ohio valley, from the drawls of the Kentucky planters and slave catchers to the Midwest nasal airs of Ohio abolitionists.

Lastly, the developers added a nice feature called Think Fast! About the Past for each mission. It’s a timed trivia game that allows you to learn more background information about each time period. Thankfully, the second mission game includes brutally honest information about the nineteenth century.

No, most northern whites were not abolitionists. Most abolitionists didn’t necessarily believe in racial equality. And life for free blacks in Canada was not exactly peaches and hockey sticks.

I hope in the future, PBS will develop missions with more action, longer plotlines and more realism. Yet “Flight to Freedom” is a great leap forward for the Mission:US franchise and it bodes well for upcoming installments.

Let’s see how long it takes to release Mission 3…let’s suppose by the end of the decade ;)

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Website for the Classroom: History Animated

Battle of Chickamauga

Image via Wikipedia

I’m still in the process of finding that perfect computer game that can simulate the battle experience best for my students.  In the meantime, I will be using what is fast becoming one of my favorite websites.

History Animated has been in heavy rotation in my lesson plans for the past two years.  Every time I use it, students say two things: (1) Wow!, and (2) Can you burn me a copy, Mr. D?  Few interactive experiences give as much information–and provide such a chance to be an armchair general–as the interactive battle maps from the folks at this site.

Part of what makes History Animated so fun is that its founder has, on the surface, little to do with history.  James Cagney (from what I can tell, no relation to the actor) was a former tech exec who now teaches Computer Science at Central Oregon Community College.  According to Cagney, as he was reading books about various wars and seeing only “complicated maps with dotted lines and dashed lines crisscrossing the pages,” he decided to use computer animation to make the maps real.

So far, Jim and his team have created animated maps for the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the US Civil War, and World War II, both in Europe and the Pacific (he correctly denotes the Pacific Theater as a separate war, as do most historians and political scientists).  In each, the dashes, lines, thrust arrows, etc. of a conventional battle map come alive through detailed computer animations using various resources.  With each animation, there are also loads of information about the generals, organization of the army, weapons, and background on the wars themselves.  They even provide bibliographies for further reading on each particular battle.

To an extent, History Animated takes a real effort to provide accurate animations, often clocked to the hour.  Now, in WWII, this seems more of a possibility.  With earlier conflicts, this could become more like guesswork.  Yet the team at History Animated have really done their homework, using all available sources to provide the best picture possible.

However, if you’re looking for realistic pictures of combat, then look elsewhere.  This is the main reason why I use this so often: it provides a safe, non-graphic method of analyzing an often gruesome subject.  The sounds of marching, gunfire, horses and trains magnify the movements of the rectangular units on the map.  That’s it.  That’s the extent of the violence.  In a way, it gives a student the rare perspective of conducting war from a general’s standpoint.

One way I like to use this is to let my students be the general.  For example, I will show the animation of a particular battle, say, Shiloh in 1862.  I would then stop the animation at a certain point and then pass out papers with screen captures of the point in the battle they are looking at.  In teams–half of them are Union, half Confederate–I ask each group to plan the next move for their side.  What seems very easy will often get complicated when considering escape routes, timing, weather, terrain, location of reinforcements, etc.

All the animations are online: you can get the CDs of them for your hard drive for a small donation.  Even if you’re not a teacher, nor a history buff, History Animated offers an interesting way to view the great conflicts of history.

Visit often, since they update their selections periodically.  Tell them Mr. D sent you.

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