History is Hard

Thanks to Rafranz Davis I spent a lot of time recently following tweets about a slave simulation game. Rafranz’s post about this is better than anything I’ll manage to write, but I’m going to put my thoughts out there too.

For those who haven’t been following this all over twitter for the past two days, Mission US has several historical simulation games, including one about a slave attempting to escape to the north. Before this I was not familiar with Mission US but I have used simulations (not digital ones) in my classroom. Following the tweets raised a lot of questions for me.

When it comes to this specific simulation, in my mind there are two issues. The first is the idea of simulating slavery. As is so often true in teaching the painful parts of history, this simulation has not truly explored the issue. By focusing on a slave attempting to escape, the simulation has managed to avoid many of the worst realities about slavery. While Lucy, the 14 year old slave in the game, does face some serious consequences, she is in a position to try and escape. That was not the reality for the great majority of slaves in the deep south. In order to not make the simulation truly horrific and depressing, Mission US has done what many movies and books have done when depicting slavery and skirted the realities.

The second issue for me with this specific simulation is the gamification of it. As you play you can earn badges for making different choices. I’m uncomfortable with making a simulation about slavery something kids will see as fun. Learning is fun. Playing is fun. But there are parts of both learning and playing that are and should be hard and uncomfortable. Making escaping slavery into a game is something that does not make for deeper learning.

I love history, even the parts that cause me pain. Understanding history is about understanding people and the way their lives were the same or different from ours today. (I’m sure my husband will let me know exactly how wrong I am about all of this!) As an elementary school teacher I work hard to help my students understand the lives of those in the past. I want them to be able to see how different things were and how that impacted the way people lived. I want them to realize they have the benefit of years to help them see historical events quite differently from those who were living them.

I believe books, movies, and simulations are all good ways of helping students do this. Trying to step into the shoes of someone from another time period is a challenge but one that helps a student take another perspective. However, no matter what the tool, it must be well designed. There are plenty of books and movies that do not help us better understand history, but muddy it instead. I’m concerned that’s what this simulation does as well.

Leave a Reply