Education Through Video Games: Mission US

Hell everyone I hope you are all staying safe and healthy. I am here to talk about one this week’s readings, the grant for Missions US Online Games About American History and the NEH Digital Programs. Confession: I was not able to use the link in the syllabus to access the document but through Google and the NEH website I was able to find the document for if not the same grant proposal, then likely a follow-up proposal. The document I was able to find is linked below.

https://securegrants.neh.gov/publicquery/Download.aspx?data=EbwGdSyLkD7zoB3W75cvd%2bXST%2bWypC%2blmf81G7Qn66tQ0lEeRLure6v%2ft8C24StgbHpZe3fgRVvV0ZFJt2xhnk0bqV4wqUtC6K2bvnzT55hYlJByttA3kco4SBEEhdNcZZ1mlIC6cm3vObJhrdFsNcE7fHbA92Iv

First some background on Mission US. Mission US is a project developed through a partnership between WNET, the American Social History Project, Electric Funstuff, and Education Development Center. The goal of the project is to create various interactive games, or Missions as they call them, set in different periods of American history, allowing a user to learn about a topic in an immersive setting. When developing this project, WNET intended for this project to be usable both at home, and in the classroom to assist teachers. Based on the grant, it seems these games have made their way into many classrooms across the country.

The Homepage for Mission US

Mission US currently has five fully developed educational games free to play on their website, as well as a timed trivia game available on the Apple App store. The five main series games cover topics of slavery, the trail of tears, the American Revolution, the Dust Bowl, and immigration in the early 20th century. All of these games are playable on their website mission-us.org with their first game, the one about the revolution, called For Crown or Colony recently getting some graphics and content updates

While the mission of the project is simple enough, the grant provides some insight into the struggles that they face to keep the project operating. The first challenge is in keeping the game up to date. WNET constantly monitors works by historians on these subjects to make sure that their games are still relevant to the current historical discussions. They also found that many of the students who would be playing these games, usually middle school or high school aged, did not have a full grasp on the historical context for the games. So they are trying to expand the content in these games to further explain the historical context and the importance of different choices a player may make, for example why drinking tea with a loyalist in Boston would upset the main character’s patriot leaning boss. WNET is also implementing systems into the games to make them more accessible to people with disabilities. They are also trying to convert the games to be playable on mobile devices instead of just computers.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that WNET has faced is in updating their outdated technology. The games were originally built with Flash but with support for that ending this year, they have had to rebuild their games with a new framework. They settled on Unity for this, though the process of converting their games seems to be ongoing. This part of the grant stuck out to me the most as this project that has existed in classrooms for years could have come to an end because support for Flash was ending. It begs the question of how creators of digital content are expected to continue supporting their projects if the frameworks they use lose support and they lack either the knowledge or funding to convert the projects and keep them alive.

I found this project and their grant proposal for the games’ upkeep to be very interesting. It’s clear that WNET intends to keep these games up to date and sustainable, ensuring that they can be used for the forseeable future. The game’s themselves certainly sound interesting and immersive education is an interesting concept for teaching subjects, though I do have some questions about how they depict the content of these topics in an immersive way, as some of the topics would have very graphic content and the games are intended for kids. I’d be very interested to see how they continue to expand and update these games.

7 Replies to “Education Through Video Games: Mission US”

  1. Hi Connor, thank you for this great post! I also had trouble accessing WNET’s grant proposal so I spent time examining the website and playing the City of Immigrants Game. I appreciated how once Lena arrived at Ellis Island and throughout her time there was a cacophony of people speaking intermingled with a child crying, an officer saying next, and possibly the sound of a young woman speaking a different language. The intersection of labor and immigration during the turn of the twentieth century is extremely omnipresent throughout the game, such as when a man on a soapbox starts speaking Yiddish exclaims the benefits of socialism. Political activism was present within immigrant enclaves as they were integral to the development of modern infrastructure yet they received minimal pay despite hours of hard labor. The way it integrates the physical, social, and cultural landscape of the period encourages students to learn about the realities of life for newly arrived immigrants. Including the Educator Guide and the standards, the game meets possibly makes this game more inviting to educators. With the current situation, it would be interesting to see if any teachers specifically those in New York, since this is part of the New York State and Local History and Government Collection, are encouraging their students to use play these interpretive games.

    1. Hi Connor, thanks for the great post! I had similar questions about these games and how they are used within the classrooms and you and Leah. Leah, your description of the City of Immigrants game is super helpful and sounds multifaceted and promising. I wonder how teachers use these games to discuss current events and how they complicate historical interpretations of concepts like “immigration.” Roots of the current immigration discussions occurring today are certainly grounded in early 20th century immigration, but so are some of the deeply-held untruths about this country as the “land of opportunity” and the “promise” of Ellis Island. An interesting approach for a game of this nature might be to look at specific locations, such as Ellis Island, and analyze how their meaning/the way they are conveyed in popular culture or discussion evolve over time.

  2. Great overview! I also had trouble accessing the website, and even the document included. I’m curious why the creators chose to name the games ‘Missions’? It seems to play into the colonialist nature of some of the other games discussed in other posts this week. However, it is clear these games have a different approach and intended outcome. It is clear that these games are best paired with readings/classroom instruction. Maybe presented in the middle of a unit, so that the students have a little bit of background information and are then encouraged to draw their own conclusions based on their knowledge and outcome of the game. I am not sure, however, how to address the issue outside of the classroom. It could certainly work in a museum setting where there is more information around the player, or someone present who could answer questions before/during/after the game!

    I think I’ve said it before, and I’ll certainly say it again. I think content creators (historians, journalists, tech people, etc.) have an obligation to at least TRY to preserve their work. This can be as simple as backing up material in more than one format for when one inevitably goes obsolete. Not only does this preserve the work, but also enables people in the future to update the game or work with the newest information. I appreciate that the games keep changing, and that they address a wide variety of topics.

  3. I’m glad you were able to find the actual grant proposal, as the multiple search functions on the NEH website did not get me any closer to it! This overview was very helpful, and helped me connect some dots between the description of what the grants are meant to do on the NEH website and how Mission US achieved those goals. It seems that they were able to reach a large, broad audience, and created something that is educational in an engaging and interesting way. I also have concerns about how topics like slavery and the Trail of Tears might be depicted in a game meant for middle and high schoolers, but at the same time it is important for everyone to understand the realities of these events. Learning about these things in video game form might be a good introduction into a very hard topic for students and educators. Although I do agree with Ani that giving context and having one of their games be part of a larger lesson plan would be the best way to present it. I do wonder what kind of research has been done on the advantages of using something interactive like a video game to teach history, as opposed to a regular lesson. I’m not sure that it would help the lesson be more effective or not. Either way, this is a cool project that definitely achieved the goals the NEH had with this grant.

  4. Hey Connor, this was a great post. I couldn’t access the article either and for some reason, it won’t even let me play the game. However this is an interesting concept, I remember when I was younger my teachers used games to teach us about the Underground Railroad which was effective in some ways, but oftentimes with games that discuss slavery it focuses more on the concept of escape which I feel like that sort of focus can often convince young children that escape was a more frequent occurrence then it was. I think though the concept is a great one it is unfortunate that it will surely take a while before it can be played by a wider audience because of its outdated concept.

  5. Great post! Thanks for doing that detective work to get at the grant document. For anyone having trouble getting to the proposal document, you can access archived copies of it from the Internet Archive (https://web.archive.org/web/20170125130056/http://www.neh.gov/files/grants/wnet_mission_america_onling_games_about_american_history.pdf )

    I think it’s worth underscoring the point that you have drawn out about the challenges they team on this project have faced, building and maintaining a successful educational game is hard.

    This connects back to a lot of work we read earlier in the semester about the challenges of framing and thinking through the nature of a “project” as a unit of digital public history work. You can finish a game and make it available, but it’s continued usability is tied up in the longevity of the platforms you’ve built it in.

    I always find it useful to read these kind of grant writing documents as they tend to get down into the nuts and bolts of how things have and haven’t come together.

  6. Thanks for the post, Connor! Before this course I hadn’t really been exposed to history education video games. I want to echo some of the other concerns about role-playing in the classroom especially as it relates to slavery and Native American history (unfortunately, at least a few times a year there are news reports about schools around the country where students are asked to role play the Middle Passage or a slave market). I have seen a broader shift away from role-playing activities in the field of education. I wonder if that shift extends to these video games.

    I think it would be interesting to see an analysis of this game like Owens’s and Mir’s analysis of Sid Meier’s Colonization to get at the “particular ideological model of the world” it presents (Mir and Owens, 92).

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