Underground Railroad Video Game Tells The Whole Story

Illustration for article titled Underground Railroad Video Game Tells The Whole Story

After what she says was ages of misrepresentation in books, films, and television, Norfolk University history professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander wants to tell the true story of the slave-liberating Underground Railroad using a video game.

"The underground Railroad was a much more complex issue that it's been made out. When you push a person to a point where they have nothing to lose, that's when you create a formidable enemy. Ultimately, human beings are going to be free."


The story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad that was responsible for liberating so many slaves during a darker time in our country's history is often over-simplified, in order to present a more appealing version of the story. Such simplified tales provide both children and adults with a clear hero and a clear goal, making it easier to understand without going into some of the more disturbing details on the length that slaves would go to take back their lives. As Newby-Alexander puts it, "When you ask people to describe the Underground Railroad, they think of Harriet Tubman on foot, with a gun. Most slaves didn't escape that way."

In fact, many slaves never escape at all, losing their lives in the cramped holes of smoked-out ships, or simply captured, punished, and returned to their "owners". This is the sort of realism that the professor seeks to elicit in her video game. The player will be forced to make decisions - which path to take; who to trust - and not every decision will be the right one. The player, in the role on an escaped slave, can potentially be captured or even killed, but Newby-Alexander assures, "Even wrong choices in the game will lead to learning." In fact, while the game is aimed at middle and high school students, the plan is to make it challenging enough that success isn't always a foregone conclusion. "I don't want to dumb-down the game." If only more developers felt this way, right?


In order to facilitate the project, the professor was recently awarded a grant of $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create the interactive video game. She will pull on her own knowledge gained through extensive research of the Underground Railroad in the Norfolk, Virginia area in order to help assure the game's authenticity. She's working with a local playwright Terrence Afer-Anderson to write the script and develop characters, and next year will work on programming with the aid of various other professors and historians. The plan is to launch the PC game locally by the year 2011.

I'd expect the subject of an Underground Railroad to drum up the usual criticisms and arguments. Video games are not the medium to respectfully depict tragic or profound events. A video game version of the slaves' struggles to be free would trivialize sad struggles. Still, I believe that if handled with the respect it deserves, the video game could shed new light on the truth behind one of America's darker eras.

Source: The Virginian-Pilot July 5th 2009 Edition

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Vin St. John

I'm glad this is happening. One of the strengths of "games" - interactive goal-based simulations, if you don't want it to sound like it has to be fun - is the ability to educate a person about complex systems. I feel like this is a great opportunity and I really hope that the project gets the care put into it that an idea like this deserves.