Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

As a child of the 1990s, some of my earliest memories revolve around playing PC video games. Whether connecting to the dial-up modem to play a racing game with my grandfather or walking with my classmates to the school computer lab, video games sparked my curiosity and provided countless hours of entertainment. Today, as the world faces the uncertainties of a terrible global pandemic and the realities of stay home orders and quarantines, I have passed some of my free time playing classic video games from my childhood on MyAbandonware, a website with more than 15,000 games available for free download.[1] (I am not the only person thinking this way; a disclaimer on the website currently says “we are under [a] heavy load of retrogamers wanting to travel back to those old and safe times.”)

I did not grow up with an interest in the Civil War era, nor did I play Civil War video games. But I am now learning about and playing some of the classics from the 1990s: Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee: Civil War General, and Grant, Lee, Sherman: Civil War Generals 2, just to name a few. Like other military video games then and now, these titles combine decision-making, strategy, narrative, and compelling graphics to draw gamers into these imaginary worlds. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg in particular became an award-winning hit with more than 200,000 copies sold after its 1997 release.[2]

One thing sticks out to me about these Civil War video games, however. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these games did little to provide a larger context for the causes, context, and consequences of the war. Gamers could play as either the Confederacy or United States militaries and had to develop tactics and strategies for defeating the enemy, but what these militaries were fighting about was left unanswered. I then wondered if anyone had ever thought about creating a video game about slavery. To my surprise I discovered that the answer was “yes,” after reading about Kamau Sebabu Kambui in a recent, brilliant feature in the New Yorker by the journalist Julian Lucas.

This screenshot from Freedom! shows the introductory screen in which players learn more about their character’s attributes and shortcomings. Courtesy of the author.

Kamau Kambui was an esoteric black nationalist in Minnesota who became a leader in developing experiential-learning activities about slavery. According to Lucas, Kambui created a living history program called the “Underground Railroad Reenactment” in 1987, one of the first of its kind and a precursor to contemporary living history programs about slavery like “Follow the North Star” at Conner Prairie. He was also approached by Disney at one point to serve as a consultant for a ride (which was never completed) that would have recreated the experience of a fugitive slave running for freedom. “You can read in a book what [slavery] feels like. You can see it on a video. But tonight you have the opportunity to feel the Underground Railroad,” Kambui would say at the beginning of his Underground Railroad programs.[3]

Kambui’s interest in experiential learning also led him to a major role in creating Freedom!, the first computer game about slavery in the United States. Released in 1992, Freedom! was created by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), the same software company that created The Oregon Trail. Kambui served as an advisor to the five white programmers who developed the game’s feel and aesthetic. According to Lucas, Kambui stressed the importance of nature (swamps, prairies, and forests are prominent in the game) and was adamant that the enslaved characters in the game use period dialect and have “a distinctly ‘African’ look.”[4]

This screenshot shows a typical scene from Freedom! Note that the lettering on the sign appears unreadable because the enslaved character is illiterate. Courtesy of the author.

Freedom! starts in the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware in 1830. The gamer plays the role of an enslaved African American boy or girl (player’s choice) trying to run away to freedom. Players must converse with other enslaved laborers, navigate any potential warning signs (such as slave catchers with dogs, hostile free whites, and wrong directions) and maintain adequate levels of nourishment, stamina, food, and health during their journey. The developers also included a disclaimer at the beginning of the game, stating that Freedom! intended to teach students how to collect and interpret data, determine directions from observation, and predict relationships between possible friends and adversaries. In choosing to run away, the player must determine whether or not to seek advice from family members before leaving, “ask the master for a pass,” or to simply go it alone without help. In each simulation, the chosen enslaved person has different talents and challenges. For example, when I played the game the first time, my character was able to swim but unable to read or write. In the end, the game was very difficult and each time I played the simulation I was unable to get to freedom. Each time I faced the struggle of finding enough food and was eventually captured by slave patrollers with dogs.

Freedom! was distributed to one third of all public-school districts around the United States in the fall of 1992. It did not take long for controversy and legal troubles to emerge around the game. In Arizona, parents of an eleven-year-old African American student filed a lawsuit against the Tempe School District alleging that their son was “humiliated by classmates while playing the game . . . and that his civil rights were violated.” The mother, Sonia Campbell-Vinson, argued that her son “was hurt that people were making fun of the characters in the game. It was very condescending to [my son] as a black. He woke up crying at night. He was upset that he was being thought of as a slave.”[5]

Meanwhile, a parents’ group in Merrillville, Indiana, spoke with Kambui, MECC, and a representative of the NAACP in January 1993. The parents noted that the game was offered in the school’s computer lab, but that no curriculum accompanied it. Since the game was played during students’ free time, those who struggled “were not receiving healthy feedback or positive reinforcement” from teachers. A spokesperson for the group, Paulette Davis, argued that Freedom! trivialized and “Nintendoized” slavery. She asserted that “African American history doesn’t begin with slavery, but in the kingdoms of Africa,” a larger fault within the entire historical curricula of the school district. Following this meeting and facing mounting legal costs, MECC instructed all schools to return or destroy their copies of the game.[6] Kambui later passed away in 1998 from cancer.

The use of period dialect and stereotypical portrayals of enslaved African Americans throughout Freedom! generated much controversy from parents whose children played the game in school. Courtesy of the author.

The quick rise and fall of Freedom! can be attributed to numerous factors. For one, the game required additional historical context and curriculum materials that many teachers were unable or unwilling to utilize. The history of slavery did not have a central place in history education in many districts around the country during the 1990s. Equally important, while the game reinforced enslaved people’s agency by demonstrating their own role in ending slavery in the United States, some black children at majority white schools clearly felt isolated and stereotyped by their white peers. It appears that all too often students who were not black saw the game as a joke rather than a serious history lesson.

Freedom! nevertheless raises some interesting questions about the role of video games and experiential learning in teaching students about the history of slavery. How can this history be told in way that is meaningful, accurate, and respectful? Is Kambui’s vision of a history that is not just read but felt even possible? Are there certain historical topics that simply can’t be taught through experience? Can video games about war go beyond military tactics to also incorporate political decision making? What role can historians—from K-12 teachers to public and academic historians—play in using video games and visual mediums as educational tools?

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

[1] “Home Page,” My Abandonware, 2020, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.myabandonware.com/.

[2] Colin Campbell, “What’s Up with Sid Meier’s Antietam?, IGN.com, August 30, 1999, accessed April 30, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20020602050912/http://pc.ign.com/articles/069/069973p1.html.

[3] Julian Lucas, “Can Slavery Reenactments Set Us Free?,” New Yorker, February 10, 2020, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/17/can-slavery-reenactments-set-us-free.

[4] Lucas, “Can Slavery Reenactments Set Us Free?”; see also Joe Juba, “A Pioneer Story: How MECC Blazed New Trails,” Game Informer, April 7, 2017, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2017/04/07/a-pioneer-story-how-mecc-blazed-new-trails.aspx.

[5] “School’s Computer Game on Slavery Prompts Suit,” New York Times, August 28, 1995.

[6] Paul C. Schuytema, “What Cost Freedom,” Compute! Magazine, September 1993.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

3 Replies to “Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

  1. Thanks for this, Nick! I’m glad to see games like MECC’s Freedom! attracting more scrutiny. This is one of the games I analyze in my forthcoming book Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games (forthcoming from Univ. Press of Mississippi). I think the game has a number of key flaws, but certainly it was well-intentioned.

    1. Woah, that sounds like a really fascinating title. Can’t wait to check it out. Thanks for your comment, Alyssa!

  2. If you check YouTube there are some people, both black and white, who say this game opened their eyes to America’s history of slavery. It’s unfortunate that this caused trauma for some black players and amusement to some white players, and speaks to the importance of handling racialized topics with sensitivity…

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