Video Game

  • Title Slide for Portrait of a Tyrant, Episode 6
  • A scene set at the Statehouse in Boston in 1768
  • A Funeral Lamentation of the Death of Liberty, one of the historical documents used in the game
  • Portrait of a Tyrant Scene on the Gaspee

Portrait of a Tyrant is a six-episode adventure game for students to learn about the Declaration of Independence, its historical context and contemporary relevance. It is designed to be embedded in a six-week curriculum unit on political institutions and the philosophical foundations of democracy.

The Declaration is a text which at points makes far-reaching, open-ended philosophical claims, using words and phrases (“all men are created equal,” “inalienable rights,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” “consent of the governed,” “a free people,” “justice”) that inherently require interpretation. We hope that the immersive and inclusive nature of this game will help inspire students to engage with the philosophical aspects of the Declaration thoughtfully.

The game’s heroine, Briana Little, is an adolescent person of color, living in an insecure state of freedom, who adheres to a persecuted religious faith. Along with her, players learn how the colonists assembled their various complaints into a shared list of formal grievances, and about the basic concepts that gave the Founders a blueprint for a democratic republic. Briana spends the game adventuring among, and often aiding, other relatively powerless people in colonial America: shoemakers, sailors, horse thieves and peddlers, smugglers, Native Americans, traders, poor frontier settlers, and maroons living in the Great Dismal Swamp. Through their eyes, the player sees how the grievances in the Declaration were powerful forces that affected everyone, from the richest to the poorest in society.

Briana was raised as a Baptist, a faith widely regarded at that time as heretical. Several of the other characters in the game are immigrants who either share her religious faith or are part of some other community of faith regarded as disreputable. Thus the game shows students how many in colonial America faced bigotry and discrimination, and hoped to benefit from the notions of universal rights embedded in the Declaration and Constitution.

With events ranging from a ship being burned by colonists to an illegal meeting of local representatives that ends in a tar and feathering, players learn the text of the Declaration from the types of individuals who felt most aggrieved. The final episode is set in Philadelphia in July 1776, as the Continental Congress is debating and deciding upon the final text of the Declaration of Independence, including the excision of the grievance addressing slavery.

Along with engaging game mechanics, the game makes ample and innovative use of large numbers of primary source images, texts, songs and poems. It includes images and texts from leading newspapers (The Constitutional Courant, The Journal of Occurrences, Georgia Gazette, Virginia Gazette) and broadsides of the era. Some of the poems are by Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet.

Players are faced with a series of complex moral and political choices, as early Americans were in their dealings with the British, slaves, and Native Americans. Should Briana support the colonists’ protests, even when they turn violent? Should Briana’s father, an escaped slave, support the Sons of Liberty, join Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment,” or remain hidden in the Great Dismal Swamp?

In some respects like a field trip across the diverse communities of colonial America in all of its diversity, Portrait of a Tyrant also puts students center stage. Forward progress in the game often rests on the extent to which the student can master both the rhetorical forms and political substance of the arguments the colonists were having in the years leading up to the American Revolution (on “winning” adventure-game-style arguments and other conversations with non-player characters). As they play, students synthesize their historical and conceptual learning in an experience of agency, which we hope they will carry over into each week’s close readings, discussions and the other classroom activities that constitute this curriculum unit.

There is an episode guide to provide teachers and students with additional information about the specific elements out of which each episode has been composed and that will suggest ways to integrate the game into weekly classroom discussions.

Portrait of a Tyrant is currently in the pilot stage. If you are a Massachusetts teacher interested in the pilot of Portrait of a Tyrant, please contact us at democraticknowledgeproject@gmail.com.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Video Game
Harvard Ed. Magazine, Fall 2016 issue

It might seem an odd direction for a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. But in an age where the life of Alexander Hamilton can be turned into a hit Broadway hip-hop musical, perhaps bringing the Declaration of Independence into the digital age might not be such a wild idea and, in many ways, is an ideal vehicle to make the declaration relevant and interactive for young people.

Read the full article