What cost freedom. (historical simulation about slavery pulled from market)
by Paul C. Schuytema
MECC has been at the forefront of educational software development for years, paying special attention to classroom-based games. Its Oregon Trail is a classic - and is still a vibrant educational tool after more than a dozen years.
Last fall MECC released Freedom!, another historical simulation. In it, children in grades 5-8 assume the role of a slave attempting to escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
The game's historical detail was provided by African-American scholar Kamau Sebabu Kambui. Freedom! attempts to recreate the experience of the antebellum period in the eastern U.S.
Players choose a character who has certain skills, such as literacy (though usually the character is illiterate). Children, as slaves, have the option to speak with elders on the plantation to glean necessary advice such as "Moss grows on the north side of trees."
Play proceeds as children attempt to travel from safe house to safe house, learning survival and communication skills plus resource management. One of the game's most exciting aspects is the way it handles illiteracy: If a slave can't read, then any notes or signs encountered appear on-screen as indecipherable symbols. Children can learn to match symbols to see if they're on the right track.
Freedom! hit classrooms last fall. By the beginning of 1993, it had been pulled from the market and all its field licenses had been revoked. Why? Freedom!, as a simulation, opens an interesting Pandora's box of questions.
A parents' group in Merrillville, Indiana, objected to several prominent features of the game. After meeting with the group, Kambui, and an NAACP representative, MECC decided that the parents' objections were of sufficient magnitude to justify pulling it from the market.
Paulette Davis, spokesperson for the parents' group, told me that Freedom!, introduced into the school's open computer lab, was offered as something students could explore with their free time. No curriculum was attached.
Freedom! attempts to recreate the attitudes, prejudices, and speaking patterns of the times. Davis felt that the slaves' uneducated, dialect-heavy speaking manner presented the wrong impression of African-Americans to a predominately white student body. She felt that the school's few African-American students were being alienated and misrepresented.
Davis also felt that since the game's outcome is either winning freedom or losing by being killed or recaptured, and since it's a very challenging simulation, children with strong computer skills had a serious advantage. Consequently, other students were not receiving healthy feedback or positive reinforcement.
Perhaps her strongest objection - that African-American history doesn't begin with slavery, but in the kingdoms of Africa - is not so much a fault of the game as it is a fault of historical curricula in general. For Davis's group, Freedom! trivialized and "Nintendoized" a traumatic and difficult period. Thus, it sent the wrong messages to students.
On the other side of the argument, Helen Cartier, librarian and computer educator at the Hoover Elementary School in Wisconsin, was shocked when MECC pulled her school's licenses for Freedom. She had it installed on over 30 computers in fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms.
In her experience, Freedom! provided an exciting vehicle that enabled students to understand some of the challenges that African-Americans faced when fleeing captivity. Her students reacted better than she had hoped to the game's handling of illiteracy. She found them challenged to learn new problem-solving skills and excited enough to seek more information.
For Cartier and other teachers across the country, Freedom! was an exciting addition to their curriculum, presenting the time's struggles, prejudices, dialect, and history in an interactive manner that challenged students to think and learn, not just to memorize.
Cartier feels that the parents in Merrillville had the right motivation: to enhance awareness of and education about the African-American experience. But by initiating the action that pulled the game, they actually hurt their larger cause by depriving students of a valuable educational tool.
The question is, While prejudice, ignorance, and cultural ethnocentrism remain with us, how should we approach games and simulations such as Freedom!, which portray a time when the attitudes we're trying to eradicate were the norm? Do they trivialize the struggle and further ingrain the long-standing attitudes, or do they provide an exciting, kid-friendly vehicle with which to educate and inform?
If there's one thing that both sides adamantly agree upon, it's that a game such as Freedom! should not exist in a vacuum. It's up to parents, teachers, and school systems to ensure that a solid curriculum supports such a product. Only then will its educational merit truly come through.