Video game aims to teach black history to youth

Nova Scotian children grow up without a proper education in black Canadian history – at least that’s how Antoine Abawajy sees it. He’s hoping a video game he helped develop will change that.

Antoine Abawajy plays Preston at Pink Dog on Blowers St. (Nathaniel Basen photo)

By Nathaniel Basen

Nova Scotian children grow up without a proper education in black Canadian history – at least that’s how Antoine Abawajy sees it. He’s hoping a video game he helped develop will change that.

“They don’t teach black Canadian history in history class,” he says. “We have black kids failing [African Canadian Studies]. That’s bad. This is a way to get them involved in their own history.”

The game, Preston, follows the journey of the historical figure Richard Preston on his path from a slave plantation in the American south to his home in Halifax.

“It’s 100 per cent historically accurate,” he says, “it’s teaching you the whole time, but it’s also really fun, and that was tough to do.”

The journey starts on a plantation, as you try to buy your freedom from a slave-owner. You then cross the country, making money by putting together quilts, while completing missions along the way. In one mission, a house is on fire and a baby is trapped inside. You have to put out the fire, but as it is the early 1800’s, water is not readily available. “You have to go back and forth with your pail, getting water,” says Abawajy.

Antoine Abawajy talks about the power of shared learning in history

Abawajy is a project manager for Pink Dog, a Halifax production company who specializes in “make a difference” films. For this they partnered with Willie Stevenson and Silverback Productions, a Halifax company that specializes in video game production. “They put in tonnes of work. They were able to take this from a 2D game to a 3D game, and just made it so good,” says Abawajy.

Much of the work, though, was done by the target audience. The Akoma Family Centre, operated by the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children,  brought in teenagers to help create the game. Historians and videos taught the kids black history, and then they chose from a list of black heroes to be the focus. “Almost everyone chose Preston,” says Abawajy.

The children, with help from Pink Dog, helped lead the research. Further workshops were held across the city to test the game throughout its development.

Dawn Harwood-Jones, Executive Producer and ownership partner at Pink Dog hopes to see the game in schools across the country. “It’s a gentle way of teaching a terrible time in our history,” she says, “and you really are learning in a much more interactive way then is available.”

Dawn Harwood-Jones tests video equipment (Nathaniel Basen photo)

She also sees it as a way to share learning. “You have kids playing together, they can all play at the same time reading and understanding.”

“Parents can play too. Never will you see your mom sit down and play Call of Duty with you, she’ll throw a slipper at you to get off of it” adds Abawajy.

The game is available on the iPhone, iPad, and online to teachers for free, and interest has been growing. “The public schools are very interested. We think this could really spread across the country,” says Dawn.

Initial feedback has been good. Children in the workshop “are always begging to stay, you know, ‘can we play just a little bit longer?’” she says.

The goal was to make a game that “children would learn about in school, but then rush home to play,” she adds.

Despite the initial success, the game isn’t much of a money maker. Part of the problem is, it’s given away for free. “We’re hoping to expand into international markets,” says Harwood-Jones, “that way we can make some money to fund future projects.”

Dawn Harwood-Jones talks about the origins of Preston

But that’s not primary on the minds of those at Pink Dog. “They call it African-Canadian history, but it’s not. It’s Canadian history that hasn’t been taught,” says Harwood-Jones.

“Black Canadian history started in Nova Scotia with Matthew DeCosta. Those are things Canadians need to know,” adds Abawajy.