Letter to the editor: Great care went into design of ‘Flight to Freedom’

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On behalf of the Mission US team, I am writing in response to Dru Sefton’s Nov. 3 article, “Second school district halts use of WNET’s ‘Mission US’ games.” We support every parent and school’s right to choose the learning tools and resources they feel are the best fit for their students and community. But we would like to address misconceptions presented in the article and provide important context.

Mission US was created to address a critical problem: Young people lack a fundamental knowledge of American history. Designed for middle- and high-school students, Mission US is part of an expanding body of “serious games” that immerse users in historical and contemporary problems in ways that encourage perspective-taking, discussion and weighing of multiple kinds of evidence. Educators have found that games are an effective way to help young people and struggling readers grapple with and explore challenging content.

In addition to serving a growing user-base of more than 2 million in all 50 states, Mission US has garnered praise from educators, parents, students, and critics and received endorsements from Common Sense Media, the Parents’ Choice Award, the Japan Prize for Educational Media, and the Games for Change Award for “Most Significant Impact.”

Flight to Freedom is based on the latest scholarship about slavery and the antislavery movement in the upper South and border states in the critical decade leading up to the Civil War. Because we recognized that slavery is a complex and challenging topic to teach, great care went into the design and scripting. As with all Mission US games, the designs were meticulously researched and based on existing historical images; narrative outlines and scripts were reviewed in detail by noted historians, educators and other stakeholders; and testing with diverse groups of students and teachers was an ongoing part of the design process.

No single history book, novel or film covers all the ills of slavery; Flight to Freedom is no different. The mission tells some ugly truths about slavery, including the work regimen of enslaved people, the inhumanity of bondage, the cruelty of abuse, the separation of families, the physical consequence of disobedience. At the same time, the mission shows the range of ways enslaved people survived and challenged oppression. It portrays enslaved African Americans with agency and personal power (even when social, economic, and political power was non-existent), and as central actors in their own destinies.

It was not our intention “to make it incumbent upon kids to unpack these messages on their own,” as implied by someone quoted in Ms. Sefton’s article. As indicated on the Mission US website, students’ role-playing experience is intended to be supported by classroom discussion and learning activities to help students grapple with the complex issues they encounter in the game. More than 300 pages of background information, discussion starters, primary source documents, suggestions for further reading and research, and other free resources help contextualize Flight to Freedom and support understanding of the difficult choices and circumstances faced by enslaved and free African Americans.

Advisor Christopher Moore, former curator for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has said of Flight to Freedom, “The game is about the choices that people made to bring about their own emancipation. As a descendent of slaves, I felt very moved by this game.  It allowed us to meet, to help, to become a slave. That helps us understand history a whole lot better.”

We believe that our visual approach, which includes animation, is a powerful way of bringing to life experiences and perspectives for which there is often limited photographic material; this is the case for the 1840s-50s, when Flight to Freedom takes place. It is also worth noting that historical photographs—which were suggested in the article — do not provide an objective view of the past, but reflect the values and perspectives of those who took the photographs.

A Cheyenne Odyssey, characterized in a quote in the article as “even worse” than Flight to Freedom, was developed in close collaboration with representatives of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe at Chief Dull Knife College, a tribally-managed institution on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. President Richard Littlebear and his colleagues consulted on educational content, scripting, design and casting for the game, and all actors voicing the roles of the Northern Cheyenne characters are Northern Cheyenne themselves.

A Cheyenne Odyssey is the first game to present the Northern Cheyenne perspective on real events our people experienced,” said Dr. Richard Littlebear. “However, this is much more than a game about the high and low points of our history. It teaches students how to make decisions and how to live with the consequences of those decisions, just as one has to do in real life.” This is the point of the series and the spirit in which each Mission US episode is created.

Evaluation shows that Mission US improves students’ knowledge of history and historical thinking, fusing high motivation with a deeper understanding of the past. Research by Education Development Center has shown that our approach is effective in helping students develop a more meaningful connection with complex historical content. Summative studies have found measurable gains in students’ historical knowledge and thinking skills, including 14.9 percent gains in the most recent study.

The Mission US team is proud of the work we’ve done to teach millions of young people about our country’s past through our experiential approach.

Sandra Sheppard
Director and EP, children’s and educational media
WNET, New York City