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Minneapolis school officials respond to controversy over slavery game

Mission US 2: “Flight to Freedom” Trailer

Earlier this month, days ago, Rafranz Davis, an educator in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area who blogs about educational technology, opened her e-mail to find a rave review of “Mission US: Flight to Freedom,” a computer game that teachers could use to celebrate Black History Month.

In the game, players assume the role of Lucy King, a 14-year-old who in 1848 attempts to run away from the Kentucky plantation where she is enslaved and make her way north. Throughout the game, Lucy is confronted by choices, many of a “Do what I say or I’ll whip you” sort. 

Some choices earn badges. Some are met with violence, humiliation and cruelty. When Lucy stays silent in the face of accusatory questions from Mr. Otis, the overseer, he tells her he likes “quiet negroes.” Later Lucy, described as a “Nigress,” is auctioned off for $800.

The game is designed to give middle school students a sense what the experience of slavery was like. The School Library Journal described it as “fun” and the review site Jay is Games called it “a must-play.” 

Here and elsewhere, lots of parents seem to disagree. It’s bad enough that schools tend to mark Black History Month with discussions of African American achievements from the distant past. Why celebrate slavery? And why subject children, and in particular black children, to an “effective simulation” of the most painful chapter of their history?

After Davis wrote about “Flight to Freedom” on her blog, reactions poured in. Within days, the Minnesota-based Black Advocates for Education had identified at least one Minneapolis school where parents reported their children had played the game. 

Facebook erupted, and within another day Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) had supplied a response to local critics. The game is not a required part of the district’s social studies curriculum, it said in a written statement, but because teachers often select materials they deem appropriate for their students it was possible it was in use.

Rafranz Davis
Rafranz Davis

Further, MPS leaders noted, the game was funded by the National Endowment of Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and endorsed by a number of national academic organizations. Finally, the district acknowledged that the game is the subject of national controversy, and said the Social Studies Department would review its appropriateness.

New York PBS affiliate WNET, the game’s creator, responded last week with a statement listing the credentials of the scholars and associations that contributed to the project.  “Flight to Freedom is part of a growing body of ‘serious games’ that immerses users in historical and contemporary problems in ways that encourage perspective-taking, discussion, and weighing of multiple kinds of evidence,” the station asserted.

“Educators have found that games can be an effective way to teach about sensitive topics such as human rights, the war on terror, immigration, and environmental crises. The Mission US approach has been shown to be especially effective for reaching struggling learners who have difficulty learning from a textbook.”

“Flight to Freedom” is one of four computer games created by using $3.3 million from the aforementioned organizations. The other games are about the American Revolution; the Cheyenne experience during westward expansion; and life as a Russian immigrant in New York. 

The list of scholars, among them African Americans and American Indians, who contributed to the games’ development is long indeed. More than 1 million people have registered to play the games, which can be streamed for free.

“The mission portrays enslaved African Americans with agency and personal power (even when social, economic, and political power was non-existent), and as central actors in their own destinies,” WNET added. “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. Although we regret to hear that some people have found the game to be problematic, we stand by it.”

Why, one MPS parent wondered in turn, were the opinions of degreed experts more important than the expertise of the parents whose kids will play the game?

A little additional context: Minnesota teachers often express doubts about teaching the historical experiences of people of color. Because the teacher corps is 96 percent white, it’s not uncommon for a teacher to know less than a student has learned at home. There is a huge fear of getting it wrong.

As a result, teachers often look for curriculum produced by a trusted source. Here the gold standard is the Minnesota Historical Society, which has a wealth of classroom resources. In the case of “Flight to Freedom,” the source is also the creator of Sesame Street.

Educators often believe that first-person experiences like role-playing are very effective educational tools. Imagining life as a young person at a particular point in time is a time-honored way of bringing history to life.

And role-playing games are where U.S. middle schoolers and teens live today. So why not a first-person re-enactment game?

Of course re-enacting a day as a pioneer or a miner does not generally involve rape, mutilation, murder or bondage. Nor does a day spent churning butter at a frontier farm involve the risk of a child thinking they had a beating coming because the made a choice that was wrong — or not right enough.

The creators might have anticipated this — blogger Davis noted that in 1995 Arizona parents sued an Arizona school district for exposing their 11-year-old son to “Freedom!” a game in which students played slaves attempting to escape. The boy was taunted by classmates, his parents said.

The game was made by the now-shuttered Brooklyn Park company Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation, which rose to early educational technology fame for the iconic “Oregon Trail.”

Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League has come out against re-enactments, noting that a Holocaust simulation in a Florida middle school traumatized students. Simulations, the group noted, “trivialize the experience of victims and can leave students with the impression at the conclusion of the activity that they actually know what it was like during the Holocaust.”

Further, “They stereotype group behavior and distort historical reality by reducing groups of people and their experiences and actions to one-dimensional representations.”

As the controversy has raged around the country, some scholars have suggested that a larger issue is the cultural competence of the classroom where students are being taught about slavery via any media.

“There are young black children all over the country having alienating experiences in the classroom when reading Huck Finn and Harriet Tubman,” one urban education professor told Education Week.

Correction: Due to a mix-up during the editing process, the original version of this story misidentified the creator of “Flight to Freedom.” It is WNET, the New York PBS affiliate.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/25/2015 - 10:09 am.

    Maybe if they added a more complete historical picture the racial furor would be lessened.

    What if Lucy was accompanied by Mary, a 14 year old Irish slave?

    Most people have no idea that the Irish not only shared the horrors of slavery with Africans, but that they preceded them into it. Also, like black Americans during the Jim Crow era, the Irish endured years of unofficial slavery and deprivation.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/25/2015 - 11:53 am.

      Irish slavery

      Because it’s only a bad thing if it happened to white people, too.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/25/2015 - 12:31 pm.

        No RB. It’s a bad thing that happened to white people too. Taking the racial exclusivity out doesn’t support the leftist political agenda, but there is no better way to bond than through shared experiences, good and bad.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/25/2015 - 02:15 pm.

          Absolutely absurd

          Taking the racial exclusivity out supports minimization of the enduring legacy of slavery. I am aware that you like to think that racism is dead because a right-wing African-American was elected to the Senate from the cradle of American sedition, but that is wishful thinking at best, but more likely moral blindness.

          “Shared experience?” Were the Irish rounded up against their will in their home country? Was there ever a Fugitive Irish Act? Perhaps open air markets, where the Irish were sold at auction? Did states attempt to secede from the Union to protect their right to own the Irish?

          How about after emancipation? Were the Irish systematically denied the right to vote because of their race? Were there Irish-only sections of buses and trains? More importantly, was any attempt at guaranteeing to the Irish any of the basic rights of citizenship met with tooth-and-nail resistance from the (I’ll save you the trouble) Democrats of former Irish-holding states?

          This eternal quest for balance is not just ahistorical, but it trivializes the very real injustices perpetrated in the United States for so long.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/25/2015 - 04:31 pm.

            “Were the Irish rounded up against their will in their home country?”
            Not only were they rounded up in their home country, those left behind were systematically starved and “bred out of existence”.
            You’ve evidently not heard of the Plantation system in Ireland:

            “Was there ever a Fugitive Irish Act?”
            Irish slaves were hunted down as slaves.

            “Perhaps open air markets, where the Irish were sold at auction?”
            If slaves were being sold in open air markets, that’s where you’d buy an Irish slave.

            “Did states attempt to secede from the Union to protect their right to own the Irish?”
            If they owned Irish slaves, they wanted to protect them as property.

            “Were there Irish-only sections of buses and trains?”

            You may see the history of my ancestors as “trivial”, but those that lived through it did not, I assure you. Your ignorance of history is excusable, however. Irish slavery has been swept under the rug for some reason. That being said, I’d expect you to drop your denialist tendencies.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/26/2015 - 09:22 am.

              I know all of this

              I also know that a cartoon is not convincing evidence.

              You’re giving me stories of what happened in Ireland, as well as your “it must have happened”opinion. Did the Irish suffer? Yes. Was that suffering wrong? Unquestionably. Was there a trade in Irish slaves that was a key part of the colonial and European economies? I don’t think so. Is it in any way equivalent to the institutionalized enslavement of, and subsequent discrimination against, Africans and African Americans? Give me a break.

              The overwhelming majority of the Irish who emigrated to North America did so voluntarily. That is non-trivial history. There was also no legally mandated discrimination against the Irish in this country (if I’m wrong, please give me a citation beyond a wretchedly drawn cartoon).

              Incidentally, since you claim to be so big on credible sources, you might be interested in knowing that the website you mention as the original source for your claim is a haven for crackpots, including 9/11 truthers.

  2. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 02/25/2015 - 12:28 pm.

    Sick. I don’t care how many credentials the makers of the “game” think they have.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/25/2015 - 04:46 pm.

    No good deed goes unpunished

    I’d argue that this might be – not surely would be, but MIGHT be – a great idea, for some kids in some situations. Role play is, in fact, a tried and true method for showing children how it feels to be a member of a particular group. That’s not an endorsement of “Mission US: Flight to Freedom,” just an acknowledgement that, since engaging students is task #1 in just about every classroom in the country, it’s not difficult to see why a simulation like this might appeal to a lot of people – especially when it appears to have behind it the intellectual weight of a lot of pretty solid people and organizations.

    “Why, one MPS parent wondered in turn, were the opinions of degreed experts more important than the expertise of the parents whose kids will play the game?” I believe that parent has answered her/his own question, or perhaps illustrated the usual anti-intellectual bent of Americans in general. Maybe the “degreed experts” actually know more about the subject in question than the typical parent?

    I also understand why and how experiencing a relatively realistic simulation like this one could be traumatic for some, and uncomfortable to experience for quite a few more. Trauma is something to be avoided, but a certain level of discomfort, I would argue, is often – not always, but often – part of what education is supposed to be. Part of the task of education is to decide when, and to what degree, that discomfort might be a valuable part of the learning experience. If you want to broaden the horizon of a child – a primary rationale for education of any kind – you may not be able to avoid exposing them to information and historical characters that make them (and perhaps you, too) uncomfortable.

    We have ample evidence within the past year that, not only is this not a “post-racial” society, it’s one where conversations about discrimination against people, for racial and other reasons, ought to be held far more often, and at greater length, than seems recently to be the case. A big reason for teaching “Huckleberry Finn” has little or nothing to do with Mark Twain’s skill at word choice or knowledge of local dialects. It’s because the novel provides a framework within which those kinds of conversations can be held.

    I understand why Huck Finn makes some black parents uncomfortable. It makes some white parents uncomfortable, too. Should it not be taught because it makes some people uncomfortable? The logical extension of that is to present children with nothing they don’t already know, and viewpoints they already believe. There are those who do call that education, but I’m not among them.

    It’s not difficult to see why some people – kids and adults both – wouldn’t like this simulation. I’m not sure I’d use it myself, if I were still teaching –the risk factor for exactly this sort of increasingly-hysterical argument is something that I’d make a mental note of right away. That said, however, when I WAS teaching, my kids read both Huck Finn and Harriet Tubman, along with David Walker, W.E.B. DuBois, George Fitzhugh, William Lloyd Garrison, and Roger Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford.

    Not only is race an integral part of our national history, if we don’t have the conversation, we’ll never reach something that approaches understanding. Mr. Swift is not incorrect to point out that not everyone who was made a slave was from Africa, but what he neatly sidesteps in the process is the undeniable fact that the experience of slavery in the United States was overwhelmingly an African-American one. Virtually every immigrant group to the U.S. suffered some degree of discrimination upon their arrival, but none come close, in either degree or length, to the kind of discrimination that has historically been visited upon African-Americans over the course of several centuries. That is, I’d argue, a major part of why this particular simulation raises hackles the way it does.

  4. Submitted by Cynthia Gomez on 02/25/2015 - 09:18 pm.

    I am a teacher who has used the game with African American middle school students. There’s nothing ‘sick’ about it: check the website
    It realistically depicts what was involved in escaping from Kentucky to Ohio, and features historical leaders of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. My students found it satisfying to play the game until we defeated the white men and got that girl free.!

    I do think that it is essential not to limit black history instruction to slavery, but on the other hand, as painful as it is, it’s important for every young person in this country to understand that dreadful period of our history and see how we try to cope with its strange fruits today.

    What troubles me is hearing that white teachers hesitate to teach black history to their students and look for canned curriculum materials to compensate for a lack of knowledge. It is bad enough that there are so few teachers of color in the system, but to my mind it’s basically unforgivable for them not to be grounded in a deep understanding of
    black history and white privilege. And why not invite a knowledgeable parent or grandparent into the class?

    I work at a contract alternative high school in Minneapolis, and I asked my prospective employer to skip over me if they had a teacher of color they were considering for the job. I know that’s a pretty feeble gesture, but it was sincere on my part.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/25/2015 - 11:14 pm.


    An educated American citizen needs to understand slavery as a key element of our history, and something that explains the racism that we still see in our society. In WWII, did we round up large numbers of German Americans and put them into concentration camps – no, we did that only to the Japanese population, who were for some reason seen as a great threat. When Jews were being exterminated in Europe, did we open our borders wide to Jewish immigrants – no, we turned many away. If the only way that we can feel that we are an exceptional nation by ignoring all the evils we have committed many sins as a result of religious and facial bigotry. We did this to the original owners of our country slealing their land and confining them on isolated reservations – and practically every immigrant group has been been hated and abused by someone. Thankfully, we have overcome for the most part, those ugly features of our history and become a place that is now greatly inclusive, despite Republican backsliding. We are all sinners, but some acknowledge their sin and move on to be better people. If there is a little trauma in understanding slavery (just like the trauma our soldiers saw when they liberated the Nazi death camps), we are the better for it.

  6. Submitted by Ben Ashley-Wurtmann on 02/26/2015 - 06:08 pm.

    I get the sinking feeling you didn’t actually try this

    Did you try or complete this activity? I can’t tell from the story, but actually looking at the primary material seems like a crucial part of the story. If you didn’t, why not? Did you think it unimportant?

    One of the things that cropped out first: i was just as careful in choosing my words with white abolitionists as I was with overseers. Their judgement and power was very real in the story. They had to be cajoled out of their own plans to prioritize this girl’s family. They evaluate her actions to see if she is a deserving victim or not. Ohio is still dangerous for the heroine. A whole lot more detail and shading than I expected. It certainly puts insightful complication into North, Good! South, BAD!

    Read the ADL statement again. It doesn’t say what you imply. The activity rejected is a “live” simulation of oppression/privilege, with kids wearing stars, etc. This is not anywhere close. Each person independently plays the same role. There is no physical content to the simulation. Each person completes the activity without being called upon to simulate slavery for any other classmate: the content is between the student and the authors. No person is placed in an oppressor role. None of the cautions in the ADL statement match the media here. None.

    As *one* possibility in teaching American history, I found it engaging and informative for a middle/high school audience. So, let’s get back to the point. Did you personally review the material that you’re reporting on? If not, why? If you did, where does that come through in your reporting?

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