Robert Gehl reports that some parents in Phoenix are livid that their kids are playing an online school computer game that simulates slavery.
The game, played by students in the city’s elementary school district, is called “Mission US: Flight to Freedom,” and has students take on the persona of a 14-year-old girl named Lucy King. She’s a slave girl in the 19th century trying to escape a Kentucky plantation.
Using the old-school “choose your own adventure” format, the students navigate through the plantation master’s demands and plot a river escape. In the game, the girl endures beatings from her slavemaster.
“I found out about it last week, when my son told me what happens in the game,” De’Lon Brooks, whose seventh-grader attends Emerson Elementary, told AZ Central. “I was just like, ‘No. Not at all. That’s not going to work.'”
“As a parent and as someone who grew up under civil-rights (movement) members, I couldn’t allow my son to be subjected to that without my permission,” Brooks said.
District spokeswoman Sara Bresnahan said the district was “unsure” how the game ever made it into the classroom and that the district had blocked access to “Mission US” as of Wednesday.
She said the district’s “pacing guide,” an online repository of instructional tools made available to teachers, did not include that mission. The guide did include the City of Immigrants mission, which involves a 14-year-old Jewish girl immigrating to New York from Russia in 1907.
Bresnahan said she agreed with parents’ concerns about the game and that the district was taking it very seriously to get the issue resolved.
AZ Central said nobody knows exactly how many students had played the game, but there was at least one entire seventh-grade classroom that used the simulation.
The game has actually received high praise from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided funding for the game, released back in 2010. It apparently received 20 awards and honors and the game included supplementary materials for teachers who wanted to use the game in class.
Though the creators of Mission US did not immediately respond to requests for comment, their online summary of the game says it “immerses players in rich, historical settings” and “empowers them to make choices that illuminate how ordinary people experienced the past.”
The simulations help students “develop a more personal, memorable, and meaningful connection with complex historical content,” it says.
Teachers and other education “experts” have showered the game with praise and glowing reviews. The game is described as a “powerful and compelling simulation about one girl’s attempt to flee slavery and reach freedom,” the non-profit Common Sense Media claims.
A 2012 review published by USA TODAY gave the simulation four out of four stars. The reviewer said the mission’s “branching storylines … are brilliant in their diversity and ingenious in how they weave together to create the fascinating story path of this game.”
Phoenix parents like Brooks, however — along with teachers and tech specialists from elsewhere who have criticized the game in recent years — feel the Flight to Freedom simulation downplays hundreds of years of suffering.
For instance, one decision in the simulation results in a screen that says, “You and Henry are beaten, locked up and sold south the next week,” before asking whether students want to play again.
“It doesn’t make sense for any educator with a clear understanding of what’s going on in society … to think that anything like this would be appropriate for a bunch of elementary-schoolers,” Brooks said. “I don’t think they’re mature enough to be using this program. My wife and I were really concerned about the violence.”
Neal Lester, an Arizona State University professor and expert in African-American literature, said simulations can be effective teaching tools for certain topics — but not this one.
“I just think it’s a horrible idea to move slavery into the realm of gaming,” he said. “Why does it have to be fun? Slavery wasn’t fun.”