The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley

Game review by
Chad Sapieha, Common Sense Media
The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley Game Poster Image
Student-made game depicts dangers faced by escaping slaves.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this game.

Educational Value

Kids can learn about the lives of American slaves in the 19th century, particularly the challenges faced by those who decided to escape and make a bid for freedom in the North. The game describes the Underground Railroad, explores the reasons why slaves would decide to try to escape, and depicts some of the potential results of their escape attempts, both failed and successful. The experience wraps up with a brief look at the end of slavery, including details on the Emancipation Proclamation and the political actions that followed. This isn't the most traditional game experience, but it's a great supplementary tool for classroom lessons. As students relive a troubling period of history, The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley provides an opportunity to learn and think.

Positive Messages

Designed to make players consider and appreciate the hardships slaves experienced prior to the Emancipation Proclamation as they tried to flee northward to freedom.  

Positive Role Models & Representations

Players take on the role of a courageous slave risking capture and potentially death to find freedom in the North. The player's character has no avatar or dialogue, but choices help to loosely define the character. 

Ease of Play

Play is very straightforward: Click where you want to go, and choose from multiple choices when presented questions. That said, successful escape is far from assured. You're likely to wind up recaptured more often than not (this is part of the game's learning).

Violence

The game's opening contains an historic photo of a slave with countless whip scars on his back. Text and voice dialogue mention hardships faced by slaves such as being beaten and forced to march in chains.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Underground Railroad: In the Ohio River Valley is an educational game meant to give kids an idea of the dangers faced by American slaves from the 1820s through the 1850s as they tried to escape northward to freedom. These dangers are depicted non-graphically: Dialogue boxes discuss chained marches and dying from exhaustion, and one old photo shows a slave with a severely scarred back, but that's as far as any depictions of death and violence go. It's suitable for middle school students studying history and social studies. 

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What's it about?

Designed in part by students at Ball State University, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: IN THE OHIO RIVER VALLEY is a free educational game for PCs and Macs that depicts the journey of slaves from the southern states to Canada in the 1820s through the 1850s. It begins with a brief description of the historical setting and situation, then puts players in the role of a slave who must forge a path north through counties and across rivers. Players weigh risks and choose whether to divide their trips into longer or shorter segments through Underground Railroad safe houses. All decisions carry the risk of capture and the possibility of lowering your energy bar, which is meant to represent the fatigue felt by escapees during their flight. There's as much chance that you'll be captured and marched back to your master as that you'll find a new life in the North.

Is it any good?

By using real locations and names of infamous slave hunters and describing the perils faced by the escaping slaves, this game provides a brief but authentic glimpse into American history. The Underground Railroad lasts only a few minutes, but it invites repeat plays to see how differently the stories might have ended. You may be caught by a bounty hunter, take up residence in a newly established community of escaped slaves, or join the Union army during the Civil War.

Once completed, players will be led through a series of slides that provide a little more information on the political changes that eventually ended slavery. Though it's not designed to be fun, exactly, the game is certainly designed to make kids think, although its short duration will probably also leave players a bit bored after they try it once or twice. As a result, The Underground Railroad gets students to think and is a good supplementary tool for a history lesson, but it doesn't really stand out on its own.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the concept of slavery. Why do you think slave owners thought it was OK to treat people as property? What would you risk to secure your freedom?

  • Talk about the Underground Railroad. What sorts of dangers did the people who sheltered slaves and helped them escape face? Do you think you'd have had the courage to do what they did?

  • Do you think you learned about history by playing this game?

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