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Using Games To Teach Essential But Difficult Topics

 In Recent Articles, Blog, Fun Learning

Hello all!

I wanted to talk a little bit today about Freedom: The Underground Railroad, a game that is, primarily, about helping enslaved peoples escape from plantations in the American South prior to and during the Civil War, but by virtue of that setting is also about slavery in America. If you’ve been watching our videos and keeping an eye on our blog, you probably know that we’ve actually launched a class about slavery that uses this excellent, cooperative game as a key educational tool on these topics. But you might be thinking, waitaminute — how can you use a game to teach a class about such an essential but tragic topic? Isn’t that in some sense doing an injustice to the real human beings that were treated as property by the owners of those aforementioned plantations? The human beings who might have lived and died without ever being treated like a human being?

So, I thought it might be best to start answering this question by talking a little bit about how I use the game in the class we run here at Online G3. Obviously, Freedom is a game about the Underground Railroad. In this game, you and some friends or family take on the role of a conductor, financier, or abolitionist firebrand who is helping enslaved peoples escape from the South and, with good fortune and hard work, getting away to live a life of freedom in Canada. Opposing the players are slave catchers, symbolized by colorful wooden shapes, who roam the cities and countryside between plantations and Canada, attempting to return escaped slaves to the plantations of the South. They are always reactive to the players’ actions. The players are proactive, trying to plot an escape and, with sustained effort, an end to slavery. The game itself reacts to the players, much as the institutions of the South reacted to abolitionism at every step to preserve the hateful institution of slavery.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad fully set up.

Any game, even this one, is only a simulation. A game like Freedom is filled with abstractions and systems that simplify the real experience of the Underground Railroad. The slave catchers are not humanized here. They are shapes. Pro and antislavery forces are pictured on the action cards that drive the game, including real human beings who bravely and desperately worked to free themselves from bondage. The enslaved peoples themselves are represented by these ordinary wooden cubes, which might seem dehumanizing almost in the same sense that slavery was dehumanizing. But the thing is that the game creates this very real sense of purpose in the players. These tiny cubes that you use your resources to help along the paths of the railroad don’t have to be anything more than cubes to engage the player. In every game I’ve played, we’ve become so obsessed with saving every single one of the enslaved peoples, that at times, it has caused me to undermine the overall effort, which is to defeat slavery itself. The reality of the Underground Railroad is that not everyone made it to safety. Some were caught. It might be uncomfortable to make choices that save enslaved peoples on one path, but sacrifice an escaped slave on another road. But isn’t that the point? To face that horrible decision. To confront the reality of what the Underground Railroad really was about? Freeing as many people as possible, but recognizing that not every effort can succeed?

Slave catcher tokens

Enslaved peoples (as cubes) on a slave market card.

In fact, this is reinforced in the class content, where students are introduced to more than one man or woman who did not successfully make it north on the first try. I think it’s important to see this, to recognize the bravery of those who tried, failed, and then tried again. To put in context that almost every human being running from bondage was doing so with very little hope for success, due to the systemic nature of disempowerment that slavery and slave codes put upon them.

To circle back to one last thing, because I want our young learners to think critically about Freedom as a game but also what the game can tell us about the realities of slavery, one of the first questions I ask them in the class is, “Why might the game makers have chosen to represent enslaved peoples as natural wooden cubes?” It’s an important question to reckon with. There’s probably an answer that the game designer can tell us. Below are a few of the insights my students have had in response to this question.

1 – “Wooden cubes fit with the style of the game and were cheap to manufacture. They are also convenient in terms of gameplay and tokens. I guess they are also non-controversial.”

2 – “I believe the creators of the game represented the slaves as wooden cubes because of how they were treated as commodities during the era the game was set in. The cubes are made of natural wood because of how the slaves had not experienced the modern revolution until captured and brought over by slave owners.”

3 – “They are represented as cubes because they are part of the farm. They are the inventory of the farm. They are not considered valid people. They are worth more as equipment than as people.”

With a simple question, students begin to plumb the horrifying realities of the commoditization of human beings represented by the institution of slavery. As the cubes are an abstraction, they are meant to represent many things. In Freedom, reinforcing the theme of the game, these cubes are human beings working their way north to freedom (the goal). That is the Northern and abolitionist perspective, the role the players take on. But within the game, which runs the plantations, the slave markets, and slave catchers, these cubes do represent a dehumanized product, filling the markets and the plantations and trying desperately to get away.

To learn more about our Learn about…Slavery with Freedom the Underground Railroad course, or the game, visit the class page here. Also, if this post has piqued your interest in the game itself, Rainbow Resource Center now has copies of the game back in stock.

Benjamin Smith is also known as Headmaster Galahad at  He teaches history, science, computer science, and social science at G3.

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