Enhancing Civic Education with Game-Based Learning

We are experiencing a rising tide of advocacy for high quality civic education across the nation. There is also increasing interest and promising research around the impact that gamification can play in instructional design. Therefore, how might we leverage the power of gamification and game-based learning to enhance civic education?

Why Simulations?

Let’s start with a proven practice in civic education: student participation in simulations of democratic process and procedures.  Providing students with opportunities to participate in civic practices is a powerful way to spark student engagement and deepen civic understanding.  Doing so, however, can be quite challenging. The ability to have students travel off-site has logistical roadblocks, and some experiences are simply too difficult to replicate in a live classroom environment. Fortunately, online game-based learning can provide students with greater access to these experiences while also taking more traditional class simulations to the next level.   

Examples of Game-Based Learning for Civics

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The most prominent example of this is the high quality collection of game-based simulations developed by iCivics.  Founded by former Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics ramps up the traditional class simulation by layering in gamification and game-based learning principles.  The result is an expansive collection of engaging civic education experiences for students. In “Do I Have A Right,” students design and run a law firm specializing in constitutional law and must determine which of their client's rights, if any, were violated.  In “News Feed Defenders,” students assume the role of online journalists that must identify “dubious posts that try to sneak in through hidden ads, viral deception, and false reporting.”  In “Activate,” students must choose an issue and develop a political movement to make a positive change in the community aligned to their chosen issue.

Games for Change is another developer of online games and simulation that can be leveraged to enhance civic education. This organization creates and distributes “social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.” In Fake it to Make it, students take on the role of someone who produces false stories in order to make profits. The goal is for students to “learn how misinformation is created, spread, and emotionally targeted, and leave better prepared to be skeptical of misinformation that they encounter in the future.”  A much different, although equally powerful game, is The Migrant Trail.  This game is designed to teach empathy of multiple stakeholders in the migration issues at the United States’ southern border.

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The Redistricting Game is another powerful example of using games to teach complex and difficult to understand ideas through play.  Students are tasked with redistricting a hypothetical state. The challenges begin with creating equal-sized districts, then progress to partisan gerrymandering, bipartisan gerrymandering and the creation of districts to increase minority representation as outlined by the Voting Rights Act. The game makes understanding the complex concepts of cracking, packing, and hijacking accessible to students. The redistricting game also has basic and advanced challenges so that students who quickly grasp the concepts can move on to more complex tasks to deepen their understanding. When finished, students must submit their plan to the legislature for approval, get the signature of the governor, and face legal challenges in court.  

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An example of an “offline” game worth checking out is Politicraft.  This collaborative game, which is endorsed by the National Council for Social Studies, is an action civics card game designed to help students identify and solve social issues through varying levels of civic engagement. The goal of the game is to “accumulate the most Social Impact points as you work towards a solution to a social issue, all while telling an engaging narrative.”  You can see the game in action here.  

Emerging Research

Recent research conducted by Dr. Karen Shrier points to several design considerations that could enhance the impact of games and simulations for civic education. Shrier suggests that games should “provide connections to real-world civic issues, include authentic civic problem solving, enable iteration of civic solutions, be customizable and personalizable based on one’s community or civic interests, and encourage community interactions.”  These are important considerations when selecting games or creating your own gamified learning experiences for students.

Looking Ahead

Game-based learning resources, such as iCivics and Politicraft, are powerful tools to engage students in simulations of democratic process and practices.  I can only imagine that the next generation of games and simulations, particularly those amplified by augmented and virtual reality, will create even more immersive and impactful experiences for students. Another way to take these to the next level is to follow up these simulations and game-based experiences with real civic action. Whether part of an actual curriculum (ex. Generation Citizen), or a civic action that students take beyond the course, real-world engagement in our democratic processes are powerful learning experiences that will help prepare students to contribute to our society in positive ways in the future.  

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Join Tom Driscoll and Shawn McCusker this summer for their Modern Digital Citizenship and Civic Education workshop in Boston and Chicago.  Learn about these and more workshop offerings here!  

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