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Helping the Next Generation Build Detroit and Some Pride

You can learn about modern day from the past. But can you learn pride in your city? That is one possible outcome from the new “Building Detroit” game.

The Detroit Historical Society this week launched the snazzy online game, aimed at giving elementary-aged children a feel for the city’s history from the 1750s through the 1890s. They will see Detroit at its humble beginnings, a fur-trading, working-class village of sorts. But they’ll also see the city rapidly moving toward its apex – a great industrial giant that changed the way the world moves.

Nataki Talibah fifth grader Mecca Durhal and Society's Ashley Powers at the game reveal

Education + pride = kids that stick around, become useful citizens, make their city great. Granted, it’s not that simple. But it’s a start.

Here’s how it works. Players select one of five economic role-playing scenarios. You start by picking out a career: farmer, fur trader. Then, you select a mate and whether you should change occupations in time to start a family. You can try to save money, but little things will get in your way, such as historical facts and economic factors. By game’s end, you’re either broke and donate your papers to the Historical Society or you’re a Hilton and you name one of the city’s future skyscrapers after yourself. Every choice comes with an outcome that you’ll live with for the rest of your days (that’s a good lesson in and of itself).

I hear the complaining now. So you gotta grab kids today with games? I say: So what? It’s online, something they love and understand. It deals with the big-picture stuff – supply and demand, quality or price – and does it in a kid-friendly way. It’s the “Oregon Trail” for Generation XYZ or whatever they will call themselves. And it’s fun.

“Every decision in ‘Building Detroit’ has a consequence and we believe the experience of playing leaves students with a lasting memory of what it might have been like to have lived in the historic times that shaped our city,” Tobi Voigt said.

Voigt, director of education for the Detroit Historical Society, walked me through the game in advance of its becoming available to area schools and the general public on the society’s web site. It is based largely on the “Frontiers to Factors” exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum. (Teachers this fall will have a full curriculum guide online to accompany the game for classroom use.)

“We knew education is changing and it’s not possible for as many schools to take field trips. So a few years ago, we decided to change our educational focus. We’d do more outreach and bring (the Detroit Historical Museum) to the classroom,” Voigt said.

The game has everything befitting the curriculum for grades 3 through 5, Voigt said. It teaches core educational basics like economics, geography, history and mathematics.

Oh, and one more thing. “It’s really personal,” said Voigt, who grew up in Southeast Michigan. “Everybody talked about the Motor City, but you didn’t learn that much about it when you’re a kid. … I didn’t like that stuff when I was a kid. It was all names and dates. But I wanted to know what happened in my neighborhood. Did Native American live here? What was it like?”

Detroit’s children need context, Voigt added. “We were founded in 1701. We’re a great city,” she said. “This game lets you see how the city developed – what pieces had to fall into the place to prime us to be what we are today. It gives students a historical context for the events and players that made Detroit what it is.”

Voigt, along with Society members, tested “Building Detroit” with a Teacher Advisory Board. Five Metro Detroit schools spent three months going through the pilot program. Those educational all-stars included Detroit’s Hutchins McMichael K-8 School, Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, McCollough Elementary School in Dearborn, David Hicks Elementary School in Westland and Trillium Academy in Taylor.

Here’s the disclosure part: The game was made possible in part through a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. And “Building Detroit” is an important part of the Detroit Historical Society’s “Past>Forward” campaign which launched in July. The $20 million campaign is an effort to foster new and expanded exhibits, technology upgrades and educational offerings to the Detroit Historical Museum, Dossin Great Lakes Museum and the Detroit Historical Society Collection.

So send them some money. If you cannot give even a hay-penny, at least go visit the museum. The Streets of Old Detroit are calling.

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