15 February 2016

Mission US--Fun and Educating Social Studies Gaming

 (Which role will you play in the Revolution, Tory or Patriot?)
(Immerse yourself in Boston as the world is set alight with talk of freedom)

Oh, the dilemma of 21st century education. How can educators expect to compete with Xbox, Playstation, Facebook, Instagram, iTunes, or any other of the myriad distractions that teens are faced with everyday. In comparison to the exciting social networking world that students participate in daily, even the best efforts of educators to make their content exciting only serves to produce an unbearable ennui for students, who are constantly engaging in the much more exciting world of communicative technology. The dilemma then, is to make the content as interactive as possible. Students want the freedom to make their own decisions. In the words of Erikson, an adolescent must be given the necessary freedom to create and/or experiment with their own identity, or they may become susceptible to identity confusion. This this is where Mission US comes into play (literally).

Mission US is "a multimedia project that immerses players in U.S. history content through free interactive games" (http://www.mission-us.org/) Through partnerships with the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, this website provides interactive games that give students a fun experience and concomitantly allow them to develop the deep understanding of content knowledge that teachers so desire.

How, you may be asking yourselves, can a game on a website fulfill the needs of identity experimentation in adolescents? The genius of the Mission US games lies in the interactive properties of the games, leading to an autonomous experience for the player.

Yes, I understand that in essence, all video games provide teens with an opportunity for autonomy (which is perhaps the reason why they love video games so much to begin with), but anyone who has played a video game knows that oftentimes, the sense of autonomy is limited. The developers of many video games storyboard the major plot lines (much like a movie screenplay), leaving little room for the creative independence that teens so desire. As a result, within the last few years the world has witnessed the explosion of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) such as World of Warcraft and Everquest. Also, Xbox and Playstation have both created online delivery systems, wherein players compete not only against Artificial Intelligence (AI) but against other players from around the world.

One can certainly make the case that the prime reason for the rise in online gaming in teens is the opportunity for players to cultivate their own online identity, independent of the pressures of adolescent life. Rather than letting the game developers choose the story for them, MMOGs and online gaming allows the player to create their own story. The Xbox platform even allows the player to create their own avatar, that represents them in the world of Xbox Live and follows them from game to game.

Recently, the Xbox game The Walking Dead (based on the television series) made headlines for their "tailored game experience," in which actions and decisions made in the game affect the story's arc. The player does not know how their choices will affect them until a later point in the story. This allows the player a relative autonomy with the implicit knowledge that their decisions affect the destiny of the character. For obvious reasons, this style of game play is especially effective at reinforcing the fidelity of the identity v. role confusion stage of development.

Of all educational games that I have researched,the Mission US game type most closely mirrors the "tailored game experience" of The Walking Dead game and other identity reinforcing experiences. There are three separate games available on the website. The first interactive game allows the player to participate in the American Revolution in Boston. The second game takes place in Antebellum Kentucky, as you become a runaway slave, making the difficult decisions (stay with the family or break up) that will either make or break your chance of freedom. The third option mirrors life on the plains for a young Cheyenne boy trying to keep his culture alive in the face of American expansion. The newest game starts in 1907 and follows the life of Lena Brodsky as she becomes one of many thousands of immigrants arriving in New York City.

While playing, the gamer becomes acutely aware of the magnitude of their choices and the resulting outcomes. Each game can be completed in between 45 and 90 minutes and provides the student with a wealth of informative content knowledge about each respective era. Throughout the interactive journey, the player must make decisions which affect the direction and identity of their character. This reinforces the idea that history is not simply a chain of events inevitably leading to the present moment but a collection of choices that reflect the society of the time.

Overall, the website for Mission US is a very valuable resource for any Social Studies educator. They offer many primary sources, explanations, and lesson plans to use conjointly with the game. The educator may choose to have the students play the entire game for one night's homework, or stretch it out over the course of 5 or 6 classes, depending on how in-depth they would like to go with the material. I would highly recommend using this interactive game and the supplemental materials on the website to any educator covering the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or Expansion eras.  Take a look at the trailers for the Mission US games below and see what you think.

For Crown or Country
Flight to Freedom

A Cheyenne Odyssey
City of Immigrants


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