J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The National Park Service’s Patriot Spy Game

I can’t tell if we’re supposed to see this website or if it’s still in development, but the National Park Service has created a simple videogame called “The Patriot Spy” for young “Webrangers.” Players move across a nice period map of Boston, with images of four surviving landmarks, and have to interpret political cartoons and documents from the 1770s to move ahead.

I’m hoping this is still a beta version since I want to make some changes. (I’ve worked for nearly twenty years as an editor; wanting to make changes is an occupational hazard.) Some are little edits, such as how the game explains its stakes:

In order to maintain control over the troublesome Massachusetts colony, the British planned to capture Patriot cannons hidden in the town of Lexington.
Those cannons were hidden in Concord—as the folks at Minute Man National Historical Park know because they’ve put one of those cannons on display.

The goal of the game is to deliver a secret message to Paul Revere about the British army preparing to march to those cannons. That means its action takes place before 18 April 1775, when the silversmith started his ride west. But Part 1 says British soldiers are stationed in Old South Meeting-House, and that didn’t happen until weeks later.

The first challenge shows an eighteenth-century political cartoon from London with the question, “Does this cartoon show support for the Tea Act?” Well, that all depends on what ”show” means. The drawing depicts opposition to the Tea Act. But it portrays that opposition as so brutish and nasty that it reflects support of the law.

Challenge 3 asks players to search a list of Boston’s elected officials for the names of three prominent Patriots: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Benjamin Church. The Benjamin Church listed there as “Mr. Benjamin Church” was the father of the Patriot physician (and royal spy) Benjamin Church, Jr. (The name of William Dawes, Jr., also appears at the bottom; he was elected an “Informer of Deer,” a traditional English game warden that was basically a meaningless honor in Boston.)

Finally, the game now has a weak narrative. It tells the player that he (the player’s silhouette is clearly male) must maneuver past British soldiers and Loyalist merchants. But there’s no connection between that sneaking around and succeeding at the challenges. Instead, the player moves past his foes because of one conveniently distracting animal after another. Surely our government can do better at constructing stories than that!

(More historical videogames for N.P.S. Webrangers here. I especially like the dendochronology challenge.)

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