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The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley

Affecting but limited experience can open up discussion

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Subjects & Skills

Character & SEL, English Language Arts, Social Studies

Price: Free
Platforms: Mac, Windows, Web

Pros: The use of primary source material helps ground the subject in real history.

Cons: Rudimentary design may impact students' attention.

Bottom Line: It can be a valuable supplement to learning about the Underground Railroad -- assuming students don't mock its simplistic design, and teachers emphasize the gravity of the subject.

Editor's Note: The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley is no longer available.

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.

Learning Rating

Overall Rating

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


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.


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

Community Rating

Underground Railroad basics with factual info interspersed

The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley is an online game that provides a strong, basic introductory story for students who already possess some foundational knowledge about slavery.

The game includes mentions of actual participants in the Underground Railroad and provides their historical backgrounds, which was the most fascinating part of the game.

The most informative and educational components were the introduction and conclusion to the game, but there is no way to ensure that students are actually completing these portions.

The Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley requires "Unity" video player, which takes some time to install on multiple student computers; I had seventeen students installing it simultaneously, and it took at least fifteen minutes.

Once the player is installed, the game is minimally engaging and takes about twenty minutes to complete.

The graphics are primitive and do not offer a full screen option.

The object of the game is for the player, who has assumed the role of a runaway slave, to make it to Canada and freedom.

Players must look out for their own safety through experiences such as crossing rivers or venturing into towns where they may be captured.

The game provides players with a graphic of the county through which they pass, but there is no large view map, so players have no perspective on where they are geographically or how far they have traveled.

Overall, the game, which is reminiscent of the original Oregon Trail, is informative for students with a basic working knowledge of slavery and can be completed within one class period, but the graphics are less than impressive and students may have a hard time staying engaged.

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