All video game franchises attempt to improve with time. With PBS’ Mission: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 😉
History and Gaming: a review of PBS’ Mission: US
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.
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