Mission US: An interactive way to learn history
New York Public Television developed Mission US: For Crown or Colony as the first in a series of free, online adventure games focused on various periods in U.S. history. In For Crown or Colony the player takes the role of 14-year-old Nat Wheeler, a printer’s apprentice in 1770s Boston. While completing errands for his master, Nat witnesses acts of violence between colonists and soldiers and discusses British colonial policies with Boston residents. Ultimately, Nat must decide whether his loyalties lie with the colonists or the crown.
The game is designed to teach players about the debates over British policies, the roles of various colonial groups (women, apprentices, slaves, etc.) in protesting those policies, and the forms such protests could take. Nat’s adventures in Boston are divided into a six-part story, each of which can be played in 15 to 20 minutes. In the course of fulfilling his duties, Nat learns more about the growing tensions between the colonists and the British troops stationed in the city. He meets various historical people (Phillis Wheatley, Paul Revere, and John Adams among others) and hears three basic responses to the tensions with the British: loyalty to the crown, support for the Patriot movement, and neutrality. Three main characters represent the three basic responses.
Royce, the roguish but good-hearted apprentice, zealously supports the Sons of Liberty and the Patriot cause. Constance, the sophisticated daughter of importer Theophilus Lillie, believes that the colonists should remain loyal British subjects and the Patriots are troublesome agitators. Solomon Fortune, a former slave turned sailor, is not particularly interested in the merits of either side, preferring to mind his own business.
In addition to conversing with these and other characters, Nat will witness several important historical events culminating in the Boston Massacre. He ultimately must testify at an inquest on the shootings. After the inquest, Nat must decide to support the Patriots, side with the Loyalists, or stay out of the conflict. The effects of his choices are revealed at the end. Finally, an animated epilogue narrates the events after the Boston Massacre that led to the outbreak of war and the Declaration of Independence.
Consistent with the adventure game genre, the player experiences the game by visiting various locations in Boston rendered as fixed illustrations. The player can interact with objects and people in each location that are highlighted in yellow when the mouse hovers over them. Clicking on highlighted objects provide more information about them. In the screenshot below, for example, Mr. Edes’s print shop has a variety of objects the player can click on, ranging from the press itself to the paper supplies and type trays. Clicking on this printing press:
The loophole in this sort of design is that the uninterested player can avoid clicking on the vast majority of the objects and still play the game to completion. This is a challenge of the adventure game genre as a whole, however, and it is certainly reasonable that the designers provided the extra information for the curious. Teachers may want to instruct players explicitly to investigate carefully as they play and follow up with discussions about the items in the game and what they suggest about Boston in the period.
Interacting With Characters
Clicking on a highlighted character initiates a conversation with that character, the great strength of the game. The player sees and hears the animated character speak; the dialogue is also captioned in text. Choosing different responses for Nat will lead the dialogue in different directions. Much of the dialogue concerns how different characters perceive the events around them and whether Nate agrees with those perceptions. So, for example, if Nat sells a newspaper advertisement to Constance, the niece of loyalist Theophilus Lillie, Patriot Mr. Edes refuses to print the ad. His rationale: “She is the niece of Theophilus Lillie. He is breaking the non-importation agreement and all good patriots must oppose him.” The player has a variety of choices for Nat’s response ranging from inquiries, to arguments, to simple acceptance. Through the dialogues, Nat can try out different points of view, gain the approval and disapproval of various characters, and encounter many perspectives on British rule in colonial Boston. There are a variety of interesting characters, and the dialogues are well designed to achieve the learning goals of the game—namely, leading players to analyze the tensions in late colonial Boston and the main responses to British colonial policies.
Also included in the dialogues is the SmartWords vocabulary system. Certain conversations with characters bring up highlighted yellow terms representing key vocabulary—terms like apprentice, Sons of Liberty, and Townshend Acts. Clicking on highlighted terms adds them to the player’s SmartWords collection and shows the player a definition. As with the clickable background items, there is no guarantee a student will be motivated to have the types of conversations that will reveal these words. Turning the search for vocabulary into a side game, however, is not an unreasonable approach to the problem of presenting key vocabulary in a game.
The game’s great strength is its focus on making choices. The course of past events is so regularly, and mistakenly, perceived as inevitable. This game, on the other hand, reminds players people in the past made choices that had consequences. Nat can buy imports or local goods, side with Constance or Royce in disputes, and make friends with Loyalists or Patriots, among many other decisions. These decisions affect how the dialogues unfold and, to a lesser extent, the options Nat has for completing his tasks.
Best of all, the trend of Nat’s choices throughout the game changes the way he perceives the climactic events of the Boston Massacre. When Nat finally must elect to side with Solomon, Royce, or Constance, he muses, “With the freedom to choose my own way, I knew that my future lay down one of three paths.” But choosing one of these three paths does not end the game immediately. Instead the player is invited to make a few more decisions about Nat’s adult life after 1770 that are woven into a short narrative. This final adventure, in addition to reinforcing the idea that the past was not predetermined, also helps make a potentially important point that the Revolution was not the only thing that mattered for people at the time.
In a different light, however, the main weakness of the game is also its handling of choices. Despite the affects of decisions on smaller aspects of the story, the player’s choices have too little impact on how the main plotline unfolds. Regardless of what Nat does along the way, he still can choose to be neutral, Loyalist, or Patriot at any point. This is probably a reasonable design choice to make sure students are exposed to the central conflict until the end of the game. It somewhat weakens the power of decision making, however, when Nat can act as a revolutionary all game long, for example, then shift with complete ease to the Loyalist cause.
Uses in the Classroom
One of the great challenges for using a simulation game in class is incorporating the game into a coherent and well-designed lesson and unit structure. Mission U.S. has, laudably, completely removed this obstacle. The support materials provided are, quite simply, outstanding. The designers conceived of For Crown or Colony as an integral part of a rich and comprehensive unit on the road to Revolution. Accordingly, each section from the game is accompanied by a summary of the game, well-organized lesson plans, reflection prompts, discussion suggestions, and all manner of resources. Best of all, 20 relevant primary sources are included, each with a brief source note to aid in analysis and comprehension. Between the materials provided and the links to additional materials off-site, Mission U.S. provides more high quality resources and guidelines than could possibly be employed by any single teacher in a single unit.
The game, plans, and resources are tailored for a middle school audience, grades five to eight. Each section of the game takes approximately 15 minutes to play, and the game can be saved so play can spread over a number of sessions. If possible, playing through the game several times and adopting different stances each time can contribute to students’ abilities to analyze the variety of viewpoints and options colonists had—subsequent playthroughs take considerably less time. Alternating between gameplay, discussion, and use of the additional resources could easily fill a week or more with rich lessons on the road to Revolution. Since the interpretations of events and attitudes embedded in the game are solid and defensible, the game could also be assigned to high school students as a lighter overview for homework. To prevent older students feeling they are being patronized and to make the level of intellectual challenge age-appropriate, remind students that the game was designed for younger students, and that their special task is to criticize areas they perceive to be oversimplified. This can enable older students to play through the game and gain from the immersion into the world, but also hone their argument skills by explicitly looking for areas that they feel could be explored more thoroughly in the game.
(Edit: Since our original post, Mission US now features 4 more full length adventures for students):
- Mission Two: Flight to Freedom, students play as Lucy King, a 14 slave in Kentucky trying to make her way North to freedom.
- Mission Three: A Cheyenne Odyssey focuses on a young Cheyenne boy living on the Great Plains in the 1800s.
- Mission Four: A City of Immigrants focuses on the beginning of the 20th century in America and the role that immigrants played once they got here.
- Mission Five: Up from the Dust, focuses on the midwest during the Great Depression. You play as children living in the Dustbowl trying to survive.
Looking for more online games appropriate for the U.S. history classroom? Jeremiah McCall introduces Do I Have a Right?, a game that teaches constitutional rights, in Tech for Teachers.