“Pardon Me, Have You Seen My Dog, Thimble?”: Video Games and “experiencing” the Boston Tea Party

In the virtual game, Mission America: for Crown of Colony? There is fourteen year old boy named Nat Wheeler living in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1773. He knows he cannot inherit his father’s farm because he is a second son. His father lands him the position of printer’s apprentice in Boston.

There are three identities tied up in a video game character: the virtual identity of the character, the real-world identity of the player, and the projective identity of the player onto the virtual character (Gee, 49-50).

There are three identities tied up in a video game character: the virtual identity of the character, the real-world identity of the player, and the projective identity of the player onto the virtual character (Gee, 49-50).

Nat’s mother says, “Nat, your father and I are so proud of you. We know you will make a wonderful printer’s apprentice.” Nat has the option of saying either, “ Thanks Ma, I won’t disappoint you,” or “How much money will I make as a printer’s apprentice?”

This is just one of the first of many choices Nat will have to make as he navigates the tumultuous environment of Boston, Massachusetts leading up to the Boston Tea Party. But Nat does not have to go it alone. He is teamed up with a student from 5th to 8th grade in a modern day history class. Together, Nat and the student make a series of choices, based on the people, opinions and events they encounter, which ultimately culminates in a final choice. Does Nat remain a Loyalist to the British Crown? Does he become an active supporter of the Revolution? Or does he choose to follow in his parents’ footsteps and try to stay out of the conflict altogether?

Such is the initiative of Mission America, a multimedia digital game meant to:

“engage students in learning and analyzing U.S. history. Adapting the most popular emerging technology in young people’s lives – gaming – it will immerse students in the dramatic struggles of Americans from the Revolutionary era through the 20th century.”

But…but…but…What is wrong with good old fashioned history textbooks? What is wrong with quizzes about significant names, dates and places? What could video games possibly teach students about the past?

To all these questions, the makers of Mission America answer “quite a lot,” in their National Endowment for the Humanities Grant Proposal. They argue that learning history should be more about exploring emotion, diversity of arguments and the possible outcomes of different choices. Importantly, video games create an environment of action and experience, rather than static events listed in a history textbook.

“Role-playing elements of the game put students inside crucial moments in U.S. history, and help to challenge assumptions about historical inevitability.” Or, as one 8th grader Umar describes the value of Mission America, “The game actually puts the American Revolution…in your hands. It helps you get a better understanding of your environment as you go through.”

Thanks bostonteapartyship.com, but if I am not using these facts for situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and connectionism, its all in one ear and out the other.  courtesy of http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/boston-tea-party-facts

Thanks bostonteapartyship.com, but if I am not using these facts for situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and connectionism, its all in one ear and out the other.
courtesy of http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/boston-tea-party-facts

Thus the makers of Mission America want users to realize that historical events, like events happening in the present day, did not unfold inevitably—they were created by many people making choices everyday. Tapping into that understanding through video games seems very powerful, and emotional—just what we want students to get from any history class.

Indeed, Mission America seems to speak to many of the issues that James Paul Gee highlights about school teaching in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007). He argues that video games have the potential to hone students skills in situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and connectionism, which are three areas he argues that today’s schools address quite poorly (Gee, 8-9).

Situated cognition, explained in the context of Mission America, is when the student (through Nat) experiences the events leading up to the Boston Tea Party, rather than memorizing the name Paul Revere or the date 1773 in a history textbook. In the video game, the student has the opportunity to embed themselves in the material, social and cultural contexts of Boston during the Revolutionary Era. What does this look like exactly? Just as one is embedded in the social, cultural and material contexts of the present day, video gamers are introduced to virtual reimagining of the types of experiences a printer’s apprentice might have experienced in 1773. Not only that, they are introduced to the active choices people in the past made that created who they were and how they impacted history. A well-off niece of a loyalist shopkeeper, for instance, stops Nat as he makes his way down the street. “Pardon me, have you seen my dog, Thimble?,” she asks. If the student agrees to help her, they will eventually spot the dog and run after it, following it into an alleyway where they happen to run into an armed confrontation between British Soldiers and revolting colonists. I don’t know about you, but this experience would stick in my mind much better than reading that the confrontation happened on some obscure date in 1773.

New Literacy Studies has potential in the gaming world of Mission America, or,

“a body of work that argues that reading and writing should be viewed not only as mental achievements going on inside people’s heads, but also as social and cultural practices with economic, historical and political implications (9).”

Vocabulary lessons in schools often teach words detached from their social, cultural implications in the students own lives. I mean, thanks for giving me extra credit on that vocabulary test, Mrs. 7th Grade English Teacher, but when will I need to use the word “cupidity” again? Rather, Mission America situates vocabulary in user experiences. “Nat, your father and I are so proud of you. We know you will make a wonderful printer’s apprentice.” The student has the option to click on the word ‘apprentice,’ to learn its meaning, and to reuse it periodically throughout the game. The student learns the word because it is relevant and significant to Nat’s lived experiences.

Lastly, connectionism, or the understanding that humans are very good at recognizing patterns, and learn best when they can connect the problem at hand with lived, embodied experiences. I see this playing out most explicitly in a game like Mission America when it comes time for Nat to make his final choice—Does he join the revolutionary cause? Does he remain loyal to the crown? Does he find avoid involvement in the escalating violence entirely? As Nat (and his student companion) encounter many different viewpoints, embodied by different characters, it should become clear to the student that each character is making a choice in his or her best interest. And that choice is different based on the characters position in society, their embodied experiences.

I’m sold by the argument the Mission America team makes for their grant, and Gee convinced me of the potential video games have to engage students in history. I would wholeheartedly support the furthering of video game class activities like Mission America. Yet, I also see issues with Mission America that have less to do with the video game capabilities and more to do with the content being taught (and asserted) as significant American history. The video game series selects five topics deemed highly significant to American history, by a group of all white historians, and I am afraid it shows. While I have not played any of these games, the content does appear to lean heavily towards the Eurocentric. There does not appear to be any deep ventures into Native histories (if at all) or Asian American histories (besides Chinese laborers on the railroad system) explored in any of the games, and the one game with an African American protagonist, titled Flight to Freedom, apparently spends a good portion of the time occupied with contextualizing the abolitionist movement. While this is not a critique isolated to the game Mission America, I do wonder, in this regard, if the games are as polyvocal and contextualized as the makers claim them to be.

While I would argue that there is still work to be done on content and presentation of historical events, I am encouraged by the interactivity that games like Mission America can offer in the classroom. I am quite certain that if I had a game like this in the classroom, I would have experienced the emotion and ethical dilemmas that the makers argue connects students to history. And I probably would have learned a lot more as a result. In fact, I am tempted to sneak into one of those classroom sessions and accompany Nat during the Revolutionary War myself.

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4 thoughts on ““Pardon Me, Have You Seen My Dog, Thimble?”: Video Games and “experiencing” the Boston Tea Party

  1. Hey Chelsea,
    Great post! I really enjoyed your analysis of Mission America. I especially liked when you said “Thus the makers of Mission America want users to realize that historical events, like events happening in the present day, did not unfold inevitably—they were created by many people making choices everyday.” I liked this point because it supports your points that these video games help students learn by situating themselves in the experience of the era but also because it has implications for the future. You are right that things of the past and things of day all occur because people are making the hard choices. I think that these games allow children to see that which gives them a more diverse understanding of the world we live in today.

    I also appreciated your analysis of the whitewashed nature of the games. I agree that there is work to be done here but perhaps we first have to recognize video games as a viable option for learning and once that takes hold, we can work to improve the content since it will be reaching many students. I’m with you- I would love to sneak into a classroom and play this game, navigating Nat through the Revolution. I do wonder however how this can be coupled with textbooks to create a comprehensive learning experience because it doesn’t seem feasible for students to play a video game for every unit or time period of history they’re studying. I think your points show that this field has a bright future ahead of it and maybe as time goes on these improvements can be made.

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  2. I completely agree on NEH’s point that “history should be more about exploring emotion, diversity of arguments, and the possible outcomes of different choices.” This relates to a point I have blogged about several times, that to be more relevant in the digital world, historians and museum curators must be able to create interactive experiences online. Whether that’s through open source collections, apps, or just updated websites that cater to the patron’s experience whether they set foot within our walls or not. All of this comes down to what you refer to as “an environment of action and experience.” This is the key to interactivity and only when we can harness that will someone be both interested and invested in history.

    I’m more interested in your critique of the Colonization game as lacking multiple voices and context. As Mir and Owens say, “it would be impossible to create a value-free simulation of the past.” At the end of the day, we have to remember it’s just a game, and it cannot fill all the roles of the learning process, instead these absences are better able to situate the role of the teacher or public historian toward critical thinking.

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    • Thanks Sam and Kit for your thoughtful comments!

      I am very curious to see how Mission America fares in the classroom, and am kind of jealous I was born 15 years too early. I think it most definitely has the potential to create discussion, foster a more dynamic understanding of social history, and create situation-based learning opportunities that Gee argues is severely lacking in schools today. I do agree with you Sam, that this would need to be contextualized with other classroom resources, because you are right, it does not see feasible to play a video game for every unit. But I do think it has the potential to be a very good supplement that fosters critical thinking skills and a more dynamic understanding of history.

      And Kit, I think you are spot on that it is important to remember that this is just a game, it cannot fill in all the roles of critical thinking. What I was trying to get across is that I do see Eurocentric leanings, despite the polyvocality that the game makers project in their grant. I think this is a reflection of what is expected to be taught in public school classrooms, and also a reflection of who is making the game. While I am in favor of the game and think it has a lot of potential, I do think those are important things to consider, and hopefully address in future games as game makers (and public school systems) reinterpret what constitutes an important historical moment, and what is important for future generations to learn about the past.

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  3. Sam,
    This concept of connectionism is very intriguing. I think it is especially pertinent for our field of public history. As argued by Freeman Tilden personal connection is essential for effective interpretation, thus connectionism as it is realized in the virtual realm is also rooted in best practices. Presumably, connectionism implies critical thinking and focused inquiry which are also essential to historical comprehension. Thank you for bringing up this notion, I think it appropriately describes one of the major merits of history video games.

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