iCivics teaches and promotes citizenship through games. (Photo via iCivics.org)

I love to play games, primarily of the in-person playing-card and board-game type. You want to throw down some pitch, a night of poker, maybe some Sorry or Scrabble to pass the time? I’m your guy. It’s not something that happens often enough in my life today, but that’s what I grew up doing between jobs and chores and school activities in rural Missouri.  

Today, most gaming happens on phones, computers, and tablets. It’s clear that some people see this as a negative, even as most people understand that online electronic games are here to stay.  

Enter iCivics, an online gaming developer seeking to link youth passion for online gaming and apps with civic participation. Founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics has developed a variety of games that seek to inspire civic engagement and understanding of how local government works well in communities.

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The iCivics site has 19 games, which allow players to try their hand at solving international crises, arguing a case before the Supreme Court, running a public interest campaign,  sitting on a jury, and more.  

For people with an interest in small towns and rural areas, the obvious first stop is the game Counties that Work, created with support from the National Association of Counties. In this game, players take on the role of a county elected official, responding to a range of constituent requests and community needs. There are decisions large and small to make, constituents to please, and the everyday business of keeping a county government humming and in the black.  

One group of gamers are the students of Onaway High School (Michigan) social studies teacher Kymberli A. Wregglesworth. She said teaching social studies by including a civics game gives her a new way to engage students. 

“I came to iCivics because I’ve been looking at the benefits for some students of ‘gamifying’ my classroom,” she said. “Teaching high school, I know that many of my students are gamers. If I could reach and maybe catch some of those kids by presenting education in a gaming format, I thought that would be a good fit for some kids I have a harder time reaching using traditional classroom techniques.”  

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is a founder of the program. (Photo via iCivics.org)

For the teacher, iCivics isn’t just games. They also have more than 100 classroom lesson plans. 

“One of the things iCivics recommends is what they call the ‘game sandwich.’ You come into the day that you’re going to be playing the game with either a teaser or bell-ringer about the civics topic that you’re going to be covering for the game. I might start with something like, ‘what county do you live in?’ Our school district covers two counties, so there are some differences there. From there, we start brainstorming about what your county does for you, what services does it provide? The students throw out some ideas from there, like maybe plowing the snow in the winter time, fixing our roads and bridges.” 

Once the lesson is taught, the student play game.  

“We ask, what did you actually learn playing the game? The game reinforces what they’ve learned from the lesson because they’re actually using the information they just received. This kind of reinforcement really increases content re-call for the students, because they have a ‘here’s how things work on paper’ lesson and then the gaming simulation that’s more about real life experience. It’s about as experiential as you can get without hauling 50 kids to the county seat and turning them loose in running the county government.” 

I’ve played the iCivics Counties Work game numerous times. One thing I’ve noted in the simulation is that taking care of constituent problems (feed the hungry, help get transportation funding for senior citizens, fix ditches and roads, etc.) is popular. Cover those basics, and your political “approval rating” rises.  

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That said, providing services costs money. Generating revenue with property or sales taxes doesn’t make you the most popular guy in town. 

“If [students] raise taxes too much then their approval rating goes down,” Wregglesworth said. “I think that’s a good lesson because people don’t like to pay taxes even if they’re going to get benefits from those taxes. That’s really hard to make anyone understand. Yes, paying taxes can seem like a horrible thing, but look at all of things you get. Like the snow plowing in the winter time for us, that’s a very important thing.” 

The Michigan civics teacher has noted significant improvements in scores from students that focus intently on the game. “They improved a lot at answering questions quickly and directing residents to the right place. I know, as a teacher, that the more they play the game, the better they’re going to get at understanding county government. The other thing about gamifying education is that you can post leading scores, rank student performance and get them bought into playing more because they want to increase their scores. I can also see when students are playing, and I have several students that play outside of school a lot. That says they’re very excited about learning.”  

Wregglesworth noted that “it’s really the hope of every civics teacher in the country that we would educate and inspire entire groups of engaged citizens that are going to be passionate. Not just about voting, and that’s incredibly important, but also about being active citizens by participating in meetings, contacting their elected officials, volunteering, demonstrating, whatever form of citizenship they feel is needed.”  

The National Association of Counties, which represents county governments across the nation, supported development of the game to help get young people familiar with the role of local government, according to a statement from Bryan Desloge, who was president of NACo when the game was released.  

“Lessons in civics and civility position our young people to lead the nation forward as they come of age. These tools will help students understand how county government impacts people’s lives every day where we live and work.”  

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