Mission U.S., a free online history game created by producers at public television station WNET Thirteen, gives middle schoolers the chance to learn about American History while walking in the shoes of characters who are living it.

In Mission 1: “For Crown or Colony?”, which was released in 2010, players take on the role of Nat Wheeler, a printer’s apprentice in 1770 Boston. When in Boston, Nat encounters both Patriots and Loyalists, and when rising tensions result in the Boston Massacre, he must choose where his loyalties lie. At every turn, players choose among several options for Nat, and each option dramatically effects what happens next and his ultimate outcome.

In Mission 2: “Flight to Freedom”, which just launched in January 2012, players have the chance to be Lucy, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky. As players navigate her escape and journey to Ohio, they discover that life in the “free” North is dangerous and difficult. Players encounter a diverse group of people – from abolitionists to slave owners – and make decisions that affect the game’s outcome, while learning about the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement. Other missions are planned for release in 2013 and 2014.

A game to teach middle schoolers about slavery? Could be cringe-worthy; I had to try it. I enlisted my 7th grade son to play it with me, and off we went into the world of Lucy the slave. Two minutes in, we were hooked. We helped Lucy figure out a plan to escape the plantation to escape being sold away from her mother and brother, avoid being captured en route to freedom, make her way to a free state, and figure out if she could reunite with her brother.

Along the way we were able to use a fascinating collection of maps, posters, runaway ads, slave narratives and other materials. From time to time during the game my son eagerly clicked on “Smartwords” used in the story for additional vocabulary and historical literacy skills building (and extra points). At every turn Lucy had tough choices to make: Should she disobey the master? Could she trust a stranger along her escape route? Dare she try to rescue her brother? Each decision required us to carefully consider her options and what we would do in her position, and each had different consequences.

My son’s complaints were minimal: the anime-styled graphics weren’t as sophisticated as those in his favorite video games, and he would have enjoyed more mini games within the mission. But this did not stop him from wanting to help Lucy on her journey, and absorbing historical information as he did it. We look forward to trying Mission 1, and playing Mission 2 again.

You can find Mission U.S. at http://www.mission-us.org. Encourage your middle school sons to check it out!!