The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley is a website attempting to depict the experiences of slaves escaping their cruel masters in Southern states between the years 1820 and 1860. Developed by a Ball State University class, it features screens of narrated text that set the scene, explaining the concept of a slave and the cultural and emotional disposition of people who are regarded as property first, individuals second. Players are also introduced to the Underground Railroad, described as most slaves' only real hope for true freedom. The game begins with players taking on the role of a newly escaped slave frantic to travel hundreds of miles north through hostile territory.

Play is broken into turns in which players make crucial decisions regarding their escape. Which county should you travel to next? Where should you stop to rest? When should you cross a river, and how should you do it? Events between turns –- such as messages stating that your pursuers are closing in –- serve to heighten the tension. There is no scoring and no statistics are kept, but players do have a health bar they need to keep an eye on during their journey. If it drops to zero, their character will die of exhaustion in the wild. This health bar comes across as extraneous, however, and inappropriate given what it's depicting.

As they try to escape, players learn about the very real dangers slaves faced, risking death from exhaustion and recapture. Successful attempts result in the player reaching Canada, taking residence in northern communities composed largely of escaped slaves, or signing on with the Union army. Each game ends with an epilogue explaining how slavery was finally abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation, along with details on the political steps that followed.

This is a tough subject to tackle, especially in an interactive format. Where the experience succeeds is in using authentic photographs and images from the era, as well as names of real people and places. Every screen and piece of text is designed to impart useful information about this turbulent time and the people who lived in it. However, the rudimentary design and occasionally awkward point-and-click interface may prove unappealing, and the more game-like elements, such as the health bar, do not match well with the gravity of the subject matter.

Overall Rating

Engagement

Kids may have difficulty with the lo-fi presentation, which has a very basic look and feel and a lack of interactivity.

Pedagogy

There's valuable and informative primary source material, and the names of real people and places that remind players of the gravity of this subject. However, delivery is antiquated and some game elements undermine slavery's gravity.

Support

The game's website offers additional material about the era, as well as a complete curriculum that home-schooling parents or teachers might use to dive more deeply into the subject.


Common Sense reviewer
Chad Sapieha Educator