Injustice Isn’t a Game

John Spencer Current Affairs, Games

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At first, I thought it was a joke. I thought it was something The Onion had put together showing how ridiculous the “they can learn it through a simulation” mindset had become. It was an article about a slavery simulation game where users could earn badges as they tried to move up into the safety of the north. Here kids from any ethnic background could appropriate the role of a 14 year old black slave girl as she risks her life to get out of the south.

When I realized that this recommendation came from Graphite, I had to wonder if Common Sense Media had suffered a temporary lapse in common sense. After reflecting a little more, I now see it as indicative of the socially-neutral white noise of the ed tech industry. Take a glimpse, for example, in how Common Sense Media tends to define digital citizenship. Notice that advocacy, injustice, power and privilege are all absent from their curriculum. The message is clear. Digital citizenship is all about playing nice.

It’s no surprise, then, that the educational technology industry gets it so wrong when trying to tackle history. The same white noise that permeates their discussions on digital citizenship surround the development and promotion of games that deal with injustice.

As I looked into the other Mission US games, I noticed one on Native Americans and another on immigration. As a teacher, I have sat with students who wept after their parents were deported. Nothing can simulate that. And the notion of turning it into a game seems sick and cruel at worst and ignorant at best.

Here are a few of the issues I have with simulations that deal with injustice:

  1. The false notion that a child can “experience” what the historical person felt. While this is meant to show just how bad it is, the truth is that nothing in a game will prepare a child for the harrowing realities of slavery, imperialism or the mistreatment of immigrants.
  2. The use of appropriation. “Your students will be a 14 year old Jewish girl.” Um, no. No, they won’t. Asking them to simply step into that role without spending the time to get to know the cultural, social, religious, political and historical realities is dangerous for kids.
  3. History was actually far worse than the game. I can’t imagine that the slavery would show a simulated gang rape of slave owners assaulting slave children. I can’t imagine the Native American simulation would show the practice of using indigenous babies as target practice. I doubt that the immigration simulation would involve the hate crimes that happened to the Jewish immigrants.
  4. The lack of somber respect for those who suffered injustice.
  5. The fact that these issues are treated as something “way back when” and thus ignoring the reality of life as an immigrant, slave or indigenous people group in the U.S. There is a glib “glad this isn’t true anymore” attitude that tends to accompany these types of simulations.

So, what’s the answer? If we want students to feel the history of that time period, the answer isn’t a game. Instead, let them read real accounts of what actually happened. If we want them to grow in empathy, let them talk to a current immigrant and just hear story. Let them have an honest conversation about race and slavery. Let them talk with Native Americans about issues that continue to persist.

Just don’t turn it into a game.


John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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Comments 2

  1. Sandy Merz

    About two sentences into this post, I thought, reading about what’s being simulated would be better than playing it, and books by Primo Levi, John Steinbeck, Elie Wiesel, and Erich Maria Remarque came to mind. Even graphic novels about the Holocaust can be powerful. And not that you do, but I wouldn’t underestimate movies, either. On the other hand, while the Hunger Games series was bursting on the scene, I was reading, Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. A language arts teacher had given a writing assignment based on the HG and we were reading some of her students’ work. I don’t know the HG at all, but the kids had take on of two roles and explain why. The thing is, none of them had any depth or compassion. I think a simulation tends to depend on different cognitive functions than those that produce empathy, and that’s where I bet the kind of simulations you write about would fail. On the other hand silently reading Of Mice and Men in the back of Mrs. Reams’ 7th grade language arts one afternoon was foundational to my values as an adult.

  2. Jess Ledbetter

    Great post! I didn’t know about these simulations, but I am horrified at the thought. I think that it takes a great level of maturity to empathize with the injustice that has happened (and is happening to others!) Treating these things like they are something from the past that can be felt in a game seems like an immature viewpoint from the grown ups who concocted this idea. Interesting.

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