The Worst Idea in the History of Educational Computer Games…From the People Who Brought You “The Oregon Trail”


If you attended an American elementary school at any point between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, you probably have fond memories of The Oregon Trail, an educational computer game that simulates the experiences of 19th century pioneers heading west.  The cottage industry of Oregon Trail nostalgia speaks to the fact that, at least for Americans under 35, the game most likely overshadows the actual events it was based upon in the popular consciousness.  The Oregon Trail was the brainchild of the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation, or MECC, and one can imagine MECC’s leaders, after the success of The Oregon Trail, tossing around ideas for other historical events that could be turned into educational computer games.  This lead to the release of a new game in the early 1990s entitled Freedom!

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Little information about Freedom! can be found on the internet, and while dozens upon dozens of YouTube videos depict users’ journeys along the Oregon Trail, I’ve only been able to dig up one video of Freedom!  Why was Freedom! destined for obscurity rather than Oregon Trail-style glory?  If you clicked the YouTube link and watched a clip of the game, you’ll already know why.  But in case you haven’t, I should tell you that in Freedom!, the player takes the role of an enslaved African American trying to escape to freedom in the northern United States.  Yes, this is what MECC tried to turn into a kids’ computer game.

This September 1993 article is probably the best resource on Freedom! that I’ve been able to find.  It tells the story of the backlash that greeted Freedom! upon its introduction in schools and MECC’s eventual recall of the game.  Freedom! is that rare example of a double-level disaster – a bad idea that was executed poorly.  I have serious doubts that any educational children’s computer game could depict the brutal realities of American slavery without trivializing them or portraying them as fun puzzles and challenges rather than all-encompassing oppression.  But even if it were possible to make such a video game, Freedom! sure isn’t it.

I’m willing to give the game’s creators the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were sincerely interested in creating a game that depicted the reality of slavery in an educational way and that they did not consciously desire to offend anyone.  It may well be the case that the nonstandard English the game’s African American characters use is similar to the actual speech patterns of the day.  (The whole idea of “standard” or “nonstandard” English is a social construction, but that’s another story.)  Similarly, I don’t doubt that many slaves were illiterate.  The problem is that, when children play this game during the last thirty minutes of the school day without close teacher supervision, subtle points about the difficulty of obtaining literacy in the face of the overwhelming structural obstacles and hardships involved with slavery are not likely to be received.  Instead, it’s much more likely that kids would come away with straightforward and harmful ideas about African Americans, particularly, as the article I linked to earlier points out, in schools with few African American students.  In that sense, the game’s designers should have been much more thoughtful about their ability to convey a non-harmful message in light of the  technology available to them, the context in which that technology is used, and the people (children) using them.  There’s a certain level of social responsibility that comes with the position that MECC honchos held in the early 1990s, and with Freedom!, they definitely didn’t live up to it.  The issues I’ve identified here aren’t limited to Freedom!; even the beloved Oregon Trail could be accused of downplaying, for instance, the impact upon Native Americans of settlers’ travels and claims to “undiscovered” land.  But Freedom!‘s level of awfulness truly puts it in a class by itself.

Screen shot 2013-05-10 at 3.52.56 PMBy the way, the slavemaster character in this game (right) looks awfully similar to the University of Virginia’s cavalier mascot.  He’s even orange and blue.  I’m never going to look at CavMan the same way again.

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10 thoughts on “The Worst Idea in the History of Educational Computer Games…From the People Who Brought You “The Oregon Trail”

  1. I’m inclined to say no…the words “game” and “all-encompassing oppression” just don’t seem to go together very well. But then, could a well-designed game expose people to oppression that they might have previously been oblivious to? Perhaps…

  2. This reminds me of recent trends in the “gamification” of everything, including history lessons. While I think this game lands on the ridiculously terrible end of the spectrum, it can be seen as a lampoon on the flattening out and cheapening of a gamification approach as it becomes applied more broadly in classrooms.

  3. I’ve found a place on the internet where you can play this game. My opinion of it hasn’t really changed, but I have found that some people are portrayed positively in the game – Jews! At the beginning of the game, your character’s elders tell you that Jews will almost always help runaway slaves. Yay for Jews!

  4. Matthew, please tell me where you found a playable version of this game on the Internet. I’ve been searching for this game for years.

  5. Thanks Matt. I am not adverse to a runaway slave game and find the idea no more aborhant than any typical war game. (Yes I am a gamer). The current game market is filled with post apocalyptic zombie survival horror games. I think the real horrors faced by a runaway could be a very compelling game story. OTOH, when the game developers try to throw in so called authentic “slave” speech you have a project going downhill. It’s curious why so many media makers feel so hooked about authentic “slave speek.” But why it is not really a requirement in so many other historical pieces? My favorite period piece “I Claudius” has the whole Roman Empire speaking in an English accent. Who noticed?

  6. I have to disagree. I played it as a child, and it was educational, in showing different methods slaves used to try to escape, and it showed how extremely difficult it was to actually get away. You really do get a sense that you are being hunted the entire way and could be caught at any moment..

    You really don’t back your position at all, as to why you think it is offensive or harmful. Simply because characters were often illiterate? Well that was just the truth of the situation.

  7. I also played this game as a child, I even managed to beat it once. I didn’t know until recently why the game disappeared from the computer lab. In many ways it was better than Oregon Trail. The player had more options than go forward or stop. The mini games were not so much of a detraction that I lost sight of the main objective. It felt that every decision had a consequence. I remember that game more than any class room discussion about the antebellum south.

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