Mission America Online games about American History Grant Proposal

This article was a grant proposal for the web-based game Mission America which detailed its intent to “advance humanities education” by utilizing “interactive media to engage students in learning and analyzing U.S. history.” The opening paragraphs discussed how only about 17% of eighth-graders (fewer in underprivileged areas) performed at or above proficiency level in U.S. history, and the way Mission America intended to reach its audience of 5th-8th graders was through a hobby that 97% of boys and girls aged 12-17 do: gaming.

The game was focused on Revolutionary through 20th century American history over the span of 5 games in which students take on the role of apprentice, slave, railway worker, journalist, or a family member during the Great Depression. Mission America‘s intent was to allow players to “navigate historic settings, interact with key figures, investigate primary documents, witness pivotal events, and ultimately decide their fate in the face of history.” They also discussed how important it was to foster the “core skills of history education” by including actual evidence to allow students to form interpretations, understand cause and effect, and identify turning points in history.

Learning Goals and Goal Achievement

The proposal discussed a series of 3 goals the project had including helping students learn the story of America and recognize its struggle for liberty and equality, understanding the role of the ordinary man and woman in history, and developing historical thinking skills to perpetuate further understanding and perception. To do this, they had planned out 5 narrative-driven “missions” to cover events and nation-shaping ideals and institutes; they wrote stories informed by the most recent historical scholarship, created immersive environments that allowed unfettered interaction with characters, and created the idea of choice to create a picture of cause and effect, incorporated primary documents to enhance interpretation skills, and created authentic designs to immerse players in the visual culture of the time.

Prototype Mission

They went on to discuss the prototype missions they had planned, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to discuss the first one only: “For Crown or Colony?” In this first mission, students play as 14-year-old Nathaniel (Nat) Wheeler in the week leading up to the Boston Massacre. Nat works as an apprentice to Patriot publisher Benjamin Edes, and the game involves completing a series of tasks set forth by Mr. Edes and his wife to introduce players to the “full strata of Colonial society and the growing tensions within it.” During this time, students are also presented with primary documents to interact with and historical figures like Paul Revere or Phillis Wheatley.

The whole point of the game is to promote a valid interaction with the time period, so students will be presented with emotional and ethical choices to make it feel like what they do matters. Nat likes a girl named Constance, but her uncle is a Loyalist while he is working for a Patriot printer. When Nat witnesses the Boston Massacre he’s faced with a decision to continue his work for the Patriots, move to London with Constance and remain loyal to the Crown, or run away to sea to escape everything entirely. While there are no wrong choices, students are given the opportunity to see what would happen if they apply modern ideas (such as forgetting to doff their cap at a superior) to the past (Nat gets hit on the head), and they get to see the result of their choices by the end of the game when they either follow a Loyalist path with the girl they like or fight alongside Paul Revere.

Audience and Accessibility

The main point Mission America hoped to come to beyond a renewed interest in U.S. history was accessibility. All of their resources would remain free and there was an accompanying website where students could interact with primary documents and character biographies, and teachers could find a plethora of PDFs to help bring the game into the classroom beyond the bounds of the computer. As it is a text-based game, they noted the threshold for vocabulary was quite high, and there were students who may not meet the base requirements needed to get the most out of the game. While in the proposal they noted their “Smartwords” feature was still a prototype, they planned to make an interaction where harder words (like deposition or apprentice) could be pulled into a student’s inventory where they’d then be able to read a definition of the word.

In their own test that they ran on about 120 students, most of them showed measurable gains in their knowledge of American history as well as improvement in their ability to identify historical arguments and points of view. Kids seemed interested in the stories and went on to discuss them, and the history surrounding them, outside of the classroom and among themselves in their peer groups which speaks volumes about the success of the game in that controlled setting. It also presented cause and effect as well as ethical dilemmas to children so that they were faced with the consequences of their actions. Unlike Civilization IV: Colonization, there was no right ending because the point was to give students a better understanding of American history through their own interaction with the world, rather than pigeon-holing them into one type of victory through conquest and the superiority of the American spirit.

-Bailey M

Discussion Questions

  1. When they stated how they hoped to achieve their goals, they noted that Mission America was going to utilize the most recent historical scholarship to highlight certain events. As history changes over time (and video games do as well), would this game need to be remade or updated to continue to display accuracy?
  2. Is it important to cover more nuanced historical topics with middle schoolers or should it be kept at a more “overview” level? E.g. the first mission is about Nat, a boy who lives in Boston during the Boston Massacre. Is it important to discuss with students why their character is a boy and they don’t have a choice since playing as a girl in the time frame would have a drastically different outcome (no apprenticeship at a print shop, exploring the world would look different, etc.)?
  3. Where does this game fit in relation to a game like Civilization IV: Colonization? Since it has to fit within a middle school curriculum, does it also need to remain “sanitized” (not covering harder topics in great detail) even though the second mission covered the conditions of slavery in the 19th century?

5 Replies to “Mission America Online games about American History Grant Proposal”

  1. Hi Bailey!

    Great job on your post! I really enjoyed learning more about the bones of the game and how it came to be. I think something that would help their accessibility with vocabulary beyond the definition would be to create versions of the documents with replacement words for lower reading levels. In my social studies education classes, this was always something that we practiced and talked about. You should also denote the word if it was changed and give readers a chance to see the original word (and a definition too!). I have always had a hard time with changing the authenticity of the document as a historian, but as an educator, it is something that a lot of students need because even definitions can be too hard to comprehend and retain. That would be my suggestion for them as an educator to help continue the idea of accessibility!

    -McKenna Crews

    1. So, from my understanding of how the game works today, they kind of do similar things to what you have described. They did end up implementing the smartwords feature. Here, they highlight more “difficult words” as well as words that would have been understood differently within the historical context of the game. For example, in A Cheyenne Odyssey, they underline the word “horse.” They then use the definition of “horse” to make a comparison between what we know as a horse and what the Cheyenne know (both in terms of biological difference and cultural significance). Of course, A Cheyenne Odyssey is a different situation because the Cheyenne characters aren’t speaking English so I’m sure that makes using original words a bit more complicated (I mean, all of the characters names are in English rather than Algonquian)? I absolutely love your idea of having an option to change the level of vocabulary/simplify the script! I think that would be a fantastic addition to the game. I will say, a lot of the vocab can’t necessarily be changed in the games I played since they typically are tribe names, regions of the U.S., etc. but I think even having a simplified version of those definitions could be helpful. Creating different versions of the game for different education levels would surely benefit everyone!

  2. Hi Bailey!

    What an interesting question… I think that if Mission US wanted to maintain its mission at its most effective, yes, it would be necessary for the organization to update games to reflect the newest developments in history scholarship. I also think that Mission US does do a good job of making clear that what they are providing is just one historical interpretation out of many. In general, historical accuracy in games isn’t really a major concern for me. I tend to perceive that genre as more “history-inspired,” as I would a historical drama. However, as previously mentioned, Mission US games are in a far different dilemma as education is at the core of their values.

  3. Hi Bailey! This game seems super interesting. I think for students having this option in the classroom is a great opportunity! It seems like it makes history accessible and fun. Having the vocabulary definition option seems like a great thing to include. I think having the different levels of vocab seems like a great idea for kids of all grades (it would be accessible for multiple grades). I feel like the main difference between this game and Civilization: Colonization is that this was designed with the intention of being an academic/educational game. I think the design of the game shows that as well, this one seems more well rounded and isn’t as sanitized. I think middle schoolers are able to handle some of the more difficult or complex aspects of history and having them learn about them in this way could be a great way to retain the information because it isn’t presented in a boring text book.

  4. Great post Bailey! You nicely covered all the components of the grant proposal. Given that we don’t often read grant proposals, I hope you all found it useful to see the kind of work that goes into making the case to fund a digital project like this set of games.

    I also really appreciate your question at the end about how we could/should think about analysis of games like this and big budget commercial games like the Civ series. My sense is that we end up in a situation where it makes sense to think comparatively to the way that something like film works. The same office at NEH that funded these games (the public program office) also funds things like Ken Burns documentaries that play on PBS. In both cases, that funding goes to support content intended to get at specific public outcomes or learning outcomes.

    In contrast, something like a major game studio is a lot more like a major film studio producing films intended to be commercially successful. In both cases, (commercial and public supported non-profit) can and should be open to criticism, but I think it’s also important to respect the different functions and goals of different types of media.

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