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!
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.
By 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.