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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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The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database – Website Review

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Slave_Auction_AdThis is a first for the Neighborhood, but not the last.  In the past, I’ve been pretty cavalier about my website recommendations, especially when it comes to the details.

In this case, the details tell the story.

Few educators in America go a year without at least touching upon the great tragedy that is the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, the nearly 400-year old program of kidnapping Africans and selling them into servitude in the Americas.  Though estimates are all over the place, a conservative estimate is that between 11 and 15 million people were transported from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, from the shores of New England to the coasts of Brazil.

The effect of this trade extends beyond the mere color line that exists in many places on these continents.  In short, the contributions of these enslaved Africans to our society, our culture and our way of life vastly outweigh our repayment for their labor.

One of the most remarkable websites I’ve encountered about the slave trade itself was sent to me by my old friend Deven Black.  Deven’s library of educational websites for social studies can rival the Library of Congress in its complexity, and he shared this gem with myself and some other colleagues.  The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities that is, by far, one of the best sources of data on the slave trade that I could ever find.

The database, which is growing amid ongoing research, has catalogued approximately 35,000 voyages of slave ships across the Atlantic.  It details each ship, their country of origin, their destinations, their cargo, and how much cargo was actually sold, since deaths on slavers were fairly common.  Maps are also provided to show the course of each of these voyages.

If the database itself were not enough, there is also essays that detail the history of the slave trade in the Atlantic, along with primary accounts, vignettes and notes for research.  An even more useful tool is the “Estimates” page, where graphs, charts, and maps detail the impact of the slave trade country by country, destination by destination. 

Furthermore, the African names database catalogs the names of thousands of Africans on various ships.  The collection of images includes ship manifests, journals, logs, and pictures of the slave trade.  Finally, the education section carries some nice lesson plans and web resources for further study.

I’m simply amazed that so much of the slave trade was able to be recovered and documented.  So much primary source material from the time period is lost through different eras, yet much of the records of the slave voyages have been preserved.  This probably has much to do with the importance of the slave trade in its day.  It was a lucrative enterprise, and many merchants, investors, and ship captains made their fortunes in the sale of human beings.

Take the time to explore the database for yourself.  There is lots to uncover, and all of it within easy reach for student research, for presentations, or for lessons on slavery and the slave trade.

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