New video game allows fourth-graders to travel along the Underground Railroad

Topics: Immersive Learning, Emerging Media, College of Sciences and Humanities, College of Applied Sciences and Technology

November 8, 2012

Fourth-grade students will better understand just how dangerous it was for runaway slaves to make their way north along the Underground Railroad, thanks to a new online game from Ball State University.

"The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley" is a strategy game that puts schoolchildren into the role of runaway slaves. The game is being produced by Ball State students through an immersive learning experience under the direction of Ron Morris, a history professor, and Paul Gestwicki, a computer science professor.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, thousands of escaped slaves traveled across Indiana and other Midwestern states on their way to Canada. These fugitive men and women frequently altered their routes and the locations of their stops in order to avoid detection and possible recapture.

"Even though the Underground Railroad has been well studied, there are a lot of myths and legends connected to the era," Morris said. "We hope to enrich the curriculum and instructional practices of teachers and students by creating a way they can experience some of the decisions while trying to get to the safety of the north.

"Students will learn about the different attitudes of people who will help them or turn them in, as well as the physical hardships of traveling that distance while exposed to the elements. They will learn about the physical geography and the dangers. The game is designed to be very challenging, so most students probably will not make it to freedom the first time they play."

The project started last summer when Morris' classes began to develop the game through research and writing, and then tested it with fourth-grade students. This fall, Gestwicki is leading the digital production effort through his game programming class.

When released in early 2013, the game — with curriculum materials written by students in an elementary social studies methods class — will align with common core state standards for fourth grade social studies classes and related teaching materials in schools in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky.

The game is the second created in immersive learning classes under the direction of Morris and Gestwicki. In 2011, their team released an educational computer game focusing on what today is known as Morgan's Raid,  a highly publicized incursion by Confederate cavalry into Indiana and Ohio in 1863. The raid is named for the commander of the Confederates, Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

The game delves into the compelling characters, difficult travel, political maneuvering and moral complexities of Morgan's Raid. Teachers have infused the game into their curriculum. Gestwicki, anthropology professor Mark Grover and their students have gone on to create digital archeology simulations for elementary students and educational games for The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

In addition to university and departmental support, funding for the latest historical gaming project was provided by the Entertainment Software Association Foundation as a result of the team winning a national award for similar educational efforts.

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