Mission U.S.: Teaching History through Games

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the first annual CUNY Games Festival in New York.  The conference brought together academics and game designers to discuss means and methods of using games in higher education.  For me it was certainly a ‘these are my people!’ gathering and while I enjoyed presenting my own work (on my interdisciplinary World of Warcraft course), the highlight was learning about a variety of games that are available and useful for the college classroom.  Ill be posting about many of them in the coming weeks.

The first is Mission U.S, a series of free online games aimed at teaching American history to 5th-8th graders.    Designed by historians, each of the three games casts you as a fictional character at a crucial time in history–as a printmaking apprentice on the eve of the American Revolution in Boston; as a young slave in 1848, or as a Northern Cheyenne boy in 1866. They are all essentially single-player role playing games.  The major events are set (you cannot, for example, prevent the Boston Massacre) but you are free to take sides and actions as you choose.  For example, in the first Mission, you can choose your words or actions to support the Sons of Liberty, or to remain loyal to the British.

The games are most appropriate for history courses, but could also certainly be used as an out-of-class assignment to inform introductory or niche courses in American Politics.  For example, I always start my introduction to American Politics course with the historical background preceding the Revolution and the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. The first mission could either substitute or complement that lecture, and really set the stage for students to understand the complaints of the colonists and how their experiences informed the writing of those documents.

I also quite enjoyed the gameplay.  Despite the pitch at a younger audience, the games would work quite well for the college crowd.  The interface is easy to use; the gameplay fairly simple but filled with interesting choices that impact the game (the path you choose does matter in terms of options available to you later); and the graphics pleasing.  The games are divided into chapters, which makes it easy to assign concrete chunks to students, and you are free to save the game at any time.  The creators also made educational guides for instructors available, which include lesson plans, learning goals, how-to guides, and cheat sheets.

Again, this is a niche game, and political science professors may find more value in playing it for their own interest and refresher than as an assignment to students.  It may be something to pass on to your colleagues in history–but it also may prove useful in various American Government courses.

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