Ethical Design Principles

Mission US aims to get students to care about history by seeing it through the eyes of peers from the past. In each mission, players — supported by classroom educators — take on the role of a young person at a pivotal time as they meet historic figures, witness or hear about key events, grapple with multiple perspectives, make difficult choices, and experience consequences in a historical scenario with no easy answers. In doing so, they practice perspective-taking and develop historical empathy, gaining deeper awareness for the choices, big and small, that enabled ordinary people to shape, and be shaped by, our past.

We strive to design and develop the Mission US games and curricular materials in a way that positively impacts all learners, guided by the following principles:

1. Safety first.

Interactive storytelling creates unique opportunities for active learning, but also requires carefully set guardrails to protect and guide students through challenging material. We understand that some parents and educators are wary of historical games because they are concerned that games may trivialize traumatic content, or lead to disrespectful classroom encounters. To limit these risks, the Mission US team works with a range of instructional experts to establish the respectful treatment of difficult historical subject matter and foster age-appropriate student understanding of these topics.

Throughout the development process, researchers from the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT) conduct user testing with diverse groups of students and teachers to identify areas of need and inform our design of experiences that are both impactful and safe. Some practices that have emerged from this research and guidance from advisors in age-appropriate and trauma-informed game design include:

  • We limit immersion. We limit the immersiveness of the in-game experiences, to prevent students from feeling that they are actually happening in real life. The menu, controls, and other visual elements that appear on screen provide connections back to the real-world classroom. Students are not asked to customize or personalize the fictional main character, and they are encouraged to play in shorter increments (15-25 minutes).
  • We exercise careful judgment regarding the level of closeness and detail when depicting historical violence or discrimination. We weigh the needs of historical accuracy with the capacities of middle-school students. When we determine it is important to depict such experiences, it is done in a manner that is age-appropriate, and avoids sensationalizing or trivializing.
  • We provide guidance and support. Mission US provides videos and webinars to support teachers with effectively implementing the games and curriculum materials in their classrooms, as well as recommendations for ensuring safe, respectful practices. When historical content has the potential to cause confusion or discomfort, we advise students and educators of this, so that they can make an informed choice about whether the experience is right for them.

2. Accessibility of learning.

Learning games should be simple, easy, and flexible to use. Mission US is guided by universal design principles and seeks to make our games accessible for a wide range of learners and instructional settings.

The games are available for free, online, and don’t require special hardware (i.e., game console), apart from a computer and internet connection. The games are divided into parts, each of which can be played in 10 to 20 minutes, making them easy to fit into a regular classroom period.

Additional supports include:

  • text-to-speech supports that enable struggling readers or English Language Learners to hear all dialog responses and virtually all other on-screen text read aloud; 
  • play/pause and closed captioning for all animated cutscenes; 
  • “smartwords” and glossary features that define the most important vocabulary and concepts about the historical time, supported with images and text-to-speech; and 
  • multi-track audio control, which enables teachers and students to control the sound levels of music, sound effects, and voice, to better suit their individual needs.

The Mission US team is always seeking ways to increase accessibility for our users as part of our commitment to continuous improvement. If you have suggestions, please e-mail us.

3. Grounding in evidence-based practices and research.

Part of an expanding body of “serious games” that encourage perspective-taking, discussion, and weighing of multiple kinds of evidence, Mission US draws upon 30 years of research and evidence on how people learn. (Clark et al., 2014; Joan Ganz Cooney Center, 2014). Mission US animates the study of American history by using the affordances of digital games –– immersion, player agency, storytelling, “just-in-time” feedback  –– to enact key game principles (identity, interaction, risk-taking, agency, situated meaning, and systems thinking) and mechanics (characters, goals, badges, feedback) that have been found to motivate and sustain user engagement (Garr is et al., 2002; Gee, 2003). 

Like many novels, oral histories, memoirs, and films, Mission US harnesses the depth and specificity of first-person storytelling. Each game highlights the experiences of one individual and their local community in order to spark curiosity about the past and build empathy with a range of historical perspectives.

Each mission is unique to the time and place being portrayed, yet all are grounded in extensive research and collaboration between project partners, subject-matter experts, community stakeholders, diverse young people, and educators. In addition to consulting academic scholarship, primary sources, oral histories, and interviews, the Mission US team seeks ongoing guidance from external advisors. Learn more about our research and development process.

4. Communities portrayed must be active participants in telling their own stories.

Mission US proactively seeks out and involves community members in the development of storylines, characters, game interactions, and curriculum materials. We feel this is particularly important for communities who are underrepresented and/or misrepresented in the media. These collaborations enrich and strengthen the content of our games and educator resources, while ensuring that our discussions and representations of particular experiences of racism, discrimination, and oppression are thoughtful, nuanced, and appropriate.

For instance, for A Cheyenne Odyssey, the team met with representatives of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe at Chief Dull Knife College, a tribally-managed institution on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, who later consulted on educational content, scripting, design, and casting for the game. For Prisoner in My Homeland, which focuses on the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, the team consulted with the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community as well as historians at the Denshō archive and at the Manzanar National Historic Site, who advised on the content, scripting, and design of the mission. For No Turning Back, our mission about the civil rights movement, the team consulted with former SNCC activists to solicit input from their personal experiences as young people organizing protests in Mississippi in the 1960s.

5. Continuous learning and improvement.

The Mission US team’s work is never, and should never be, “done.” We seek to learn from and improve what we create, and how we create it, continuously. Over the past fifteen years, the project partners have evolved new design practices and approaches, increased supports for educators, expanded our editorial team, and engaged in dialogue with experts, advisors, and educators to better understand the complexities and challenges of history education today. We are currently (and hopefully always will be) engaged in initiatives to make our games and educational materials more accessible, more impactful, and more responsive to the needs and concerns of all our users.

As always, we welcome input and feedback from students, educators, and other Mission US users. Please email us any time at