Over the years, video games have attempted to enter the realm of history. More often than not, the history was sacrificed for the video game.
In my youth, crude games such as Oregon Trail or the more nuanced fact-finding adventures of the Carmen Sandiego series proliferated the market. They attempted to give useful content information in the guise of video entertainment; the product was often less than the sum of its parts. Carmen Sandiego games could be completed with a little patience and the guidebook it came with—I did it without the book, but that’s just empty bragging.
As games became more advanced graphically and structurally, companies attempted to fuse historical elements into the realm of “role-playing” adventures—stories where the player actively makes decisions about the characters in the story a la Dungeons and Dragons. The late 1990s and early 2000s produced a slew of role-playing games with a historical bent: Sid Maier’s Civilization, the Age of Empires series, Caesar, Call of Duty etc. The games were long, complex, and varied, giving players a great degree of flexibility in play and scenario development.
Unfortunately, the history often stopped at the characters themselves.
Most of these games juxtaposed characters and weapons from vastly different regions and time periods in absurd situations: Age of Empires was the worst culprit in this. How did the Ancient Greeks develop siege cannons and musketeers, all of a sudden? And when did Mongols ever attack Mayan temples? One cheat code even involved a sports car with a machine gun barreling down mounted knights and assorted foot soldiers.
Thus the conundrum: how to create a complex, exciting gaming experience while providing factual, rich content in history. PBS may have found the answer.
Co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mission: US is an interactive multimedia game where students play the role of individual actors in American history. Although not without its flaws, it is a notable first step in the creation of viable and academically rigorous gaming for social studies.
PBS has launched the first mission of the game, “For Crown or Colony”, as a beta-tester so that teachers and students can give feedback on the game. Once you register as a teacher or student (registration is free), you can begin by either the streaming web game or downloading the game onto your hard drive.
You play as the role of Nathaniel “Nat” Wheeler, a 14 year old printer’s apprentice in Boston in the winter of 1770. The game starts as Nat leaves his Uxbridge, Massachussets farm for his apprenticeship. Along the way, the player must choose Nat’s motions, thoughts and actions—similar to Legend of Zelda and other early role-playing games.
As Nat continues his life in Boston, he encounters people from all walks of life, from enslaved African and poet Phyllis Wheatley to patriot silversmith Paul Revere (improbable, I know, but such is the video game world.). Nat’s actions will ultimately lead to the fateful Boston Massacre, and the ending of the story depends on the choices the player makes: whether Nat joins the Patriot cause, whether he stays out of the chaos, or whether he espouses Loyalist sympathies.
In each phase of the mission, players collect inventory and vocabulary that allow the player to learn more about the everyday life of colonists in the 1700s. Furthermore, through the Classroom Guide, teachers can access exercises, lesson plans, and other educational materials to supplement. There’s even a cute side-game a player can unlock: A Guitar Hero-type game where you can play patriotic tunes on a pennywhistle.
As a piece of interactive education, Mission: US covers most of the bases of the time period. The characters, though, look ripped out of a Japanese cartoon. Without color tinting, there would be little real difference between Phyllis Wheatley and Mercy Otis Warren. Then there’s the dialogue: forgive my ignorance, but why must everyone speak perfect middle-America English? Isn’t this New England? Where’s the dropped R’s and the drawn out vowels?
While the animation is crisp, there is very little real action: most of the game is spent conversing with various denizens of Boston. The action is limited to cinematic set-pieces like the Boston Massacre, and Nat as a player can’t get involved. Wouldn’t it be cool to wing an oyster shell right on the kisser of a redcoat?
Hence the primary drawback of Mission: US—the lack of action for a demographic that demands more action. PBS is gearing this series towards grades 5-8. I know 3rd graders who’ll bore themselves quickly from this. The 10-13 year old requires more virtual action and connection with the material. Unfortunately, they get this through games such as Grand Theft Auto, which are hardly instructional.
This first installment works well to introduce the format. Getting the students’ attention, though, is another matter. Future installments will have to make the player a more visceral actor in the storyline, making more complex choices. If there is action or danger, the player should be actively involved—most current video games have a central actor that acts much more than he/she communicates.
Most importantly, future installments have to at least tickle the sensory needs of young pre-adolescents with hints of PG violence or adventure. The waiting, talking and walking is what made me give up on Zelda. It won’t work much better in a game designed to teach American history as well as entertain.
On the other hand, making a realistic video game about subjects like the French and Indian War or the Crusades could make Grand Theft Auto look like Pac-Man.