Practicum on Mission US: Serious History, Serious Games



Mission US is an educational media project that seeks to immerse young people in transformational moments from U.S. history. The organization is committed to teaching complicated and sensitive topics in American history with the hope that they can make a positive impact on history learning.

According to its website, Mission US sees its organization as taking part in the expanding body of “serious games.” Again, to Mission US, these games immerse users in historical and contemporary problems in ways that “encourage perspective-taking, discussion, and weighing of multiple kinds of evidence.” With this, the organization hopes to help develop the reading skills of students while simultaneously exploring rather challenging and, at times, emotionally heavy, content. All in all, Mission US offers a compelling tool for educators.

Mission US offers 6 historical games that span from the American Revolution (1770) to World War II (1941). For the most part, these games are cohesive. They have the same illustrative design and gameplay framework (RPG; Role-playing game). However, many of the adventure quests within each game remain unique. Often they require the player to partake in a similar mechanism but within completely different contexts. For example, City of Immigrants requires you to haggle in a New York City marketplace while within A Cheyenne Odyssey the player must navigate trading dynamics with a white fortsman. Apart from these initial parallels, many differences are present within this example alone.


A Cheyenne Odyssey, 1866: Westward Expansion

For the purposes of this practicum, I have chosen to outline Mission US‘s A Cheyenne Odyssey. Like many of the games offered by Mission US, A Cheyenne Odyssey is a player-choice RPG that has a playtime of about 2 hours. Within A Cheyenne Odyssey, players inhabit the life and mind of Little Fox, a young Northern Cheyenne boy whose life is drastically changed by the encroachment of white settlers, railroads, and U.S. military expansion. Thus, as the Buffalo population diminishes and the U.S. continue their expansion westward, players of A Cheyenne Odyssey are given a direct window into the Cheyenne’s life, culture, and persistence.

An account is required to play all Mission US games. I gather that this is so players can easily access their save files. An email isn’t even required when creating an account, which, if you ask me, makes Mission US a fantastic option for in-class activities!

To the right of the game, Mission US offers a variety of resources about the history of A Cheyenne Odyssey, lesson plans for educators, a downloadable version of the game, as well as a thorough bibliography of the primary and secondary sources the organization consulted in the creation of A Cheyenne Odyssey. Mission US even offers players a general instruction guide titled, “Top 5 Things to Know Before You Play Mission US.” It reads as follows:

(1) Mission US is a role-playing game (RPG). In each mission, you’ll step into the shoes of a young person during an important time period in US history. While your character and many of the characters in the game are fictional, they are based on the experiences of real people. (You will also encounter some actual historical figures and witness historical events in the game!)

(2) There are no right or wrong answers. The goal of Mission US is to understand history, not to win. In each mission, you’ll meet a range of people with very different viewpoints, explore historical settings, and witness key past events — and will have to make difficult decisions. All of the decisions represent real alternatives that people might have encountered.

(3) You decide your character’s fate. Like other choose-your-own-adventure stories, the fate of your character is based on your choices in the game. Some of the choices you make will unlock different badges, which will also impact the outcome of your character’s story in the game epilogue. You can replay the game and make different choices to see how your character’s story might have turned out differently.

(4) You will encounter difficult and challenging moments in US history. Mission US covers some troubling topics, including racism, injustice, and war, many of which remain challenges today. We think learning about such historical moments is essential for understanding both the past and present. We encourage you to reach out to a parent, teacher, or other adults you trust if you have any questions about the content you encounter in the game.

(5) There is never just one story. Like any work of history, Mission US games are interpretations of what happened in the past based on careful research. Since they can’t capture the whole story, we encourage you to learn more about this history by checking out the additional resources for each mission.


Game Mechanisms

For now, let’s focus on the mechanics of the game itself! First, the basics:

A Cheyenne Odyssey employs a variety of interactive gameplay features, however, for the purposes of this response, I will focus on 3 examples.

(1) Choices through dialogue. As mentioned previously, players can choose their own adventure. Choices appear within dialogue with other characters or through Little Fox’s internal monologue. These choices later influence Little Fox’s values and skills. The level of these values will later dictate what choices are available for a player to make. For example, Little Fox needs a certain level of “Horse Sense” to tame a horse. Training a horse will then provide Little Fox with the opportunity to pursue different side quests.

(2) The trade simulator. As part of the interactive gameplay, A Cheyenne Odyssey offers players a chance to try their hand at trading. Through dialogue, other characters demonstrate the mechanisms of the trade simulator. Many Horses will even give you tips on how to make a fair trade! A Cheyenne Odyssey utilizes the trade simulator as an easy and memorable way to present the intricacies of the trading relationship between indigenous peoples and U.S. forts.

(3) Moveable maps. I’ve played this game quite a few times. Doing so typically requires me to restart the game so I don’t happen to have any videos of this portion. However, I do have some wonderful screenshots.

As chief, Little Fox now has to lead his band through 8 seasons (2 years). As players, we are tasked with choosing a camp location each season and getting enough food to keep the members of our community alive/healthy. Each season, different camping sites are available. At the start of the season, you will choose a new place to camp.

When the train reaches the other end of the track, Part 4 will be marked as complete. We begin in the spring. Each potential camp has a description. Take the Hunting Grounds camp as an example:

To play strategically, the player will utilize these descriptions as clues to best prepare for the winter. That being said, this is still not easy. Oftentimes, the player ends up relying on the Agency for at least a season. Here, the threat of cultural conversion is very real. As a result, players must decide the worth of human life and culture as they grapple with remaining at the Agency or returning to their (food-scarce) camps.

As for the gameplay, you need to collect one unit of food per person. You start with 100 people, so you need 100 food for the first season. You need to maintain your band’s health at “surviving” or better. Otherwise, members will leave or die. You get food by hunting, trading, and raiding. You are given 3 actions each season, except in the winter.

By the end of Part 4, Little Fox must decide to either settle his people on a reservation or be considered an enemy of the United States. The game continues further into Part 5 and the Epilogue.


Evaluation

The interactive features of A Cheyenne Odyssey, impressive audio track, and well-researched information elicit an affective response in the player. It is clear that the designers of Mission US know what they’re doing when it comes to immersive game design. They have taken something so simple, specifically the act of clicking a computer mouse, and turned it into an impactful historical experience.

Moreover, the game creators respectfully cover the time period and culture of the Northern Cheyenne in a way that didn’t feel unusual or forced within the context of the gameplay. This was mostly executed through really clever dialogue. Through dialogue, characters were able to effortlessly reveal important cultural and historical information that made the experience more enriching than I had initially expected. Personally, I find such a design element impressive in its own right.

I also appreciate the fact that A Cheyenne Odyssey has achieved a perfect balance between being an RPG and an educational game. That is to say, many games of the same genre often lean rather heavily into the educational aspects. In particular, these games are often very dialogue-heavy and, subsequently, will have players making a choice every 5+ minutes. Of course, such a structure is fine, but not necessarily as attention-holding as a Mission US game. I would like to reiterate that Mission US appears to take the educational aspects of its games seriously. Their thorough research and interpretations are a testament to that. But the main difference between Mission US and other games of the same genre is that Mission US takes the mode of the game seriously as well. They find the vehicle of engagement just as important as the content, and they are better for it.

At this point, I have played A Cheyenne Odyssey (and City of Immigrants) quite a few times. I mean, I am still finding new side quests every time I engage with the game. Generally, I think this is a great option for educators— I know that I would have loved to play something like this when I was younger. I even had a good time playing it now!

9 Replies to “Practicum on Mission US: Serious History, Serious Games”

  1. Fantastic review Sam!
    I definitely agree that this seems like a great opportunity for educators in schools and I think this could even work in museum’s. With it being kid-friendly as well, it definitely seems to provide a unique medium to talk about these “difficult” histories.
    I think it is so interesting how you can make a variety of choices in this game, but you are still your character so you may approach different viewpoints at any given point meaning that anyone who plays this will have a different experience that the next possibly. It gives such an active component to the game that can shatter how people look at history as a singular narrative.

    1. Exactly— it’s kind of mind-blowing! With this, they do a good job of acknowledging that people are approaching the game from different cultural backgrounds/historical understandings so they try and rectify that in the game. For example, Little Fox does not speak to his sister out of respect for her. I didn’t know anything about this cultural practice so I approached Little Fox’s sister thinking we would have a chat. His mom stepped in the way and I, as Little Fox, was able to say “I forgot” which prompted an explanation about the practice. I genuinely learned so much! But you’re so right, it is an extremely active game. The immersive quality is no joke. I found myself really locked in at times.

      I’m glad you brought up the idea of a singular narrative. From what I gather, one of their main goals is to ensure that everyone understands that history is a story of multiple interpretations.

  2. Hi Sam!

    Thank you so much for your post! I think these are great tools and I am excited to try them out in my classroom. I love how these games have so many choices and would love to create a review exercise for students to complete after they are finished with a game to explain their thought process and how they got to where they are and how it compares to the history we have been learning. It would be cool to add this kind of element into a museum too at the end of playing the games.

    -McKenna Crews

    1. Hi McKenna!

      Well, lucky for you, they actually offer some lesson plans and activities! I’m looking now and they have a whole lot of document-based activities, vocabulary activities, writing prompts, and review questions for every part of the game. I hope they are helpful to you! I would love to hear what the general consensus in the classroom is if you decide to use the game…

  3. Hi Sam,
    I excited you got to review Mission US this week. I’ve actually played most of the games on the site as I’m always seeking out new history games to try. What I love about Mission US is that they work with other institutions to create their games. For instance, City of Immigrants was made in collaboration with the Tenement Museum. It’s also very accessible for student with disabilities with is great.

    Leah

    1. Yes! I love an institution that cares enough to engage with outside communities and stakeholders. It’s definitely not a unique occurrence for Mission US. I know that they also consulted with the representatives of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe at Chief Dull Knife College. What’s more, all of the voice actors for this game are Northern Cheyenne themselves! I know that something similar also happened for Prisoner in My Homeland (a story about Japanese internment). In making this story, Mission US collaborated with Japanese Americans (specifically the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community). They also consulted Densho which is a digital archive that preserves oral histories and other primary source materials on incarceration! Definitely a GIANT plus!!!

      I agree, that the game is pretty accessible for students with disabilities. At times, I can see how the game would present issues for people with visual impairments. The contrast of text with the background can be a little wonky sometimes, but they offer a lot of alternatives to reading. A lot of the text-to-speech options are really great and happen automatically for everyone much of the time!

  4. Great review of a great game! I was really pleasantly surprised at how fun this game was – the chapter where you spend several seasons moving around has a ton of replay value.

    I especially liked the histories of the descendants at the end – a great way to introduce a longer historiography and show Natives in the modern day. One of the biggest problems of portrayals of Natives is that they tend to be frozen in time, so including those stories made a big difference.

    1. Thanks! I definitely agree. I was also surprised to see how replayable the game is. Like I said, each time I played I discovered new adventure paths. What’s nice is that if you wanted to just keep replaying Part 4, that’s completely possible! You would have to unlock it on your account first (playing the game to that point), but afterward, you can keep returning to that scene within the home screen.

      Your observation about the portrayal of indigenous peoples as being a thing of the past/frozen in time is spot on! I think that’s what makes Mission US’s choice to consult with the Cheyenne and only use Cheyenne voice actors so important!

  5. Great post Sam! You do a fantastic job talking us through aspects of the game. I particularly appreciate the embedded videos! You also do a great job evaluating and analyzing the Cheyenne Odyssey game. I find these games to be particularly interesting as examples of what games can do as a kind of educational media for history. That is, the core mechanics of the games themselves are tied into learning about how particular historical decisions and contexts would result specific historical outcomes. In that context, it does seem like this game is rather successful, and quite useful in presenting players/learners with an opportunity to develop some level of an internal mental model of issues in that particular context.

    I’m also thrilled to see you and McKenna discussing use of these in K-12 education and drawing out the point that these games come with lesson plans. My sense is that the developers of these games do see k-12 schools and the primary context in which students would engage with and encounter these games. That I think brings up its own important contextual points about how to approach evaluating the games too. That is, unlike commercial games where the game publisher needs to market and advertise the game broadly directly to gamers, in this case, I would hazard to guess that most of the outreach that is done around these free online games is to teachers directly. In that context, it is likely the case that a lot of decisions about how to develop the games are also related directly to constraints about classroom environments. For example, the need to have it work for game play to fit into a school day schedule, and the need to make sure that the games relate to specific standards and topics that fit in with most curricula across the U.S.

Leave a Reply to lpmarks23 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *