"I'm running tonight." Video games take us places; this is known. They allow us to try on identities other than our own, and to see what it's like to live life as another person. They can also teach us things. maths and science teachers have spent a good amount of time figuring out how to leverage games to better instruct their students, but role-playing and adventure games have always seemed particularly well-suited to teaching history.
For the last couple of days, I've been playing Mission U.S., an educational video game that allows players to assume the role of a young slave named Lucy who escapes from a Kentucky plantation in 1848. It's not only an engaging video game, it's a harrowing, illuminating look at the realities of life as an American slave.
Mission U.S. is actually two different games; the game I played is the second in the series (the first one teaches about the Revolutionary War.) The games are produced by New York Public Media's WNET Thirteen. Mussion U.S. is a free game that you can play through your browser, and was funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities. While it is indeed an educational game, it's also an engaging, well-designed and fascinating one.
In the beginning of the story, the protagonist Lucy wakes up in her small slave quarters on the King plantation. She hears people talking, and heads through the door to find her mother fixing up Henry, another slave.
Conversations in the game are all fully-voiced, and branch like in a classic role-playing game depending on the responses players select. Lucy herself is silent, and each time you speak with someone the animations are simple enough to allow for a huge number of possible conversation branches. Lucy's mother informed me that Henry needed some comfrey root from down by the river to help with his back, and I agreed to get it for him. (I could have ignored the request.)
I headed down to the river and was accosted by Mr Otis, the white plantation manager who appeared to be a bit of a taskmaster. He ran me off from the water and set me about my daily chores, which included gathering eggs from chickens, chopping wood for the smokehouse, and doing the laundry. At each job, I had the choice as to whether to do as I had been told, rebel a bit by wasting time, or truly rebel and sabotage whatever I was doing.
I was struck by how effectively the game placed me in the shoes of an American slave. The precarious nature of my existence was readily apparent — Mr. Otis told me what to do, and I had better do it. I didn't know what would come of any misbehavior. For example, I chose to make a fire in the smokehouse sloppily and leave the door unlocked, and I wasted time watching the pigs play around in the pig sty. But what would come of this? I had no idea.
Immediately after that, I was called into the big house to see "Miss Sarah," a member of the white family that owned the plantation. I initially greeted her as "Sarah," and she sternly reminded me that we weren't children anymore, and that I was to call her "Miss Sarah". This was a subtle bit of writing, as it illustrated how I had been childhood friends with her, which made it feel all the more subtly humiliating to have to refer to her as "Miss" and treat her as my superior. It was a quick, effective way to reinforce the cruel way that American laws had made this sort of thing commonplace, and is a good example of how strong the writing is throughout Mission U.S. Dialogue isn't flowery or overly explanatory, and it doesn't need to be. The game lets the experience speak for itself.
Throughout the story, I was presented with choice after choice. Mission U.S. is simple and flash-based, and so it must have been much easier for the team to create a huge variety of branching stories than in, say, a AAA video game like Mass Effect or Fallout 3.
As the story went on, I met my younger brother Jonah, worked out a plan to help teach him to read, took care of some more chores, and managed to sneak some comfrey root to take to Henry. All in a day's work. But that afternoon, Lucy nodded off after her chores were done only to wake up to see the smokehouse burning down. Chaos! Mr. Otis came on strong, seeing red, blaming Lucy and Henry for everything. I had a number of options here, and if I chose unwisely, I could wind up getting thrown into lockup and seeing a "game over" screen. Eventually, I got Mr Otis to leave, though as he did he swore that he'd get to the bottom of this tomorrow.
"I'm running tonight."
With that, Henry told me that he was going to run. I helped him get ready, even giving him a tip I had picked up from the cook in the big house — rather than heading north towards Ohio, he should head south to Lexington, where there was a church sympathetic to escaped slaves. He didn't quite believe me, but it was no matter — I wasn't going to stay and suffer Mr Otis' wrath, and so I was going with him. And if I was going, we were going to Lexington. I grabbed some food from the two gardens, said goodbye to my mother and my brother Jonah, and was off.
The game's presentational simplicity forced me to use my imagination, and I imagined very scary things. This was real, I kept reminding myself, people lived this, they lived under these laws and with this kind of fear. Sneaking through the yard at night, stealing enough food from the garden to be able to survive the coming trial… I was very much in the moment. It was intense.
Chapter 2 begins with players figuring out how to get through Kentucky and cross the border into Ohio, which is much harder than it sounds. I don't mean to belabor this point, since I'm sure plenty of you are thinking "Yeah, we know about slavery! We read about it too!" But something about how difficult it was just to get from Lexington to Ohio (this is like, a short drive these days!) really stuck with me.
Every choice felt like life or death (and often was) - do I run from the hounds I hear? Will my food run out? Do I walk past the farmer I saw notice me, or do I run? It's very easy to make the wrong decision and get hauled off to jail, forcing you to try again. I found escaped-slave notices posted up in towns with my name next to Henry's, and I steered clear. But even then, there was no safe harbor - after a couple of tries, I wound up at a wagon shop and was caught by the owner trying to steal into the back of one of his wagons. Instead of turning me in, he kindly hid me and took me across the boarder.
What a relief that this stranger would help me! There was no rule-set for this. I didn't make it to Ohio due to my superior ability at the game — I made it due to dumb luck, which made my entire situation feel that much more random and precarious (and true to reality.)
Mission U.S. is a thoughtfully made game with a lot of effective creative touches. Lucy can't read very well, so documents appear with many of their words blurred out — only by studying and picking up "smartwords" in conversation can Lucy raise her reading score to be able to read the signs. Making various choices will give you one of a number of badges, from "self-reliance" to "rebellion." The badges don't actually get you powerups in the game, they just give you points towards determining how Lucy's epilogue plays out once you've finished all
After arriving in Ohio, I learned that I was anything but safe. Act three begins a year later, in 1849, and while Ohio was a free state, slaves were still deemed the legal property of their owners, so "Slave Catchers" would come across the border looking to catch escaped slaves and return them for a bounty. A whole new raft of troubles, danger and agonising choices awaited Lucy. What will happen to her? Only one way to find out.
I am deeply impressed with Mission U.S., both for what it's doing and for how it's doing it. It's a well-made game, and it treats both its characters and its players with respect. It manages to convey some important aspects about the experience of slavery in a way that is appropriate for kids (I haven't seen anyone get beaten or hanged or heard the n-word) but can be appreciated by adults as well.
Mission U.S. would certainly make for an engaging classroom aid, but it's so much more than that — it's an entertaining, well-made adventure game, a slice of livable history that every American should play for themselves.
Mission U.S. [Official Site]