Using Computer Games to Teach Civics

I teach social studies at a high-achieving, nationally acclaimed public high school in California. In other words, I teach at a school with a longstanding history of excellence and an entrenched culture of high expectations.

Despite this, computer games are a staple of my instruction, with some of the best games (listed below) found on the iCivics website.

  • “Win the White House”
  • “Executive Command”
  • “Do I Have a Right?”
  • “Supreme Decision”
  • “Represent Me”

I first heard of iCivics, the nonprofit founded by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that provides a free, digital games-based curriculum to teach civics, in 2010, a year after the launch of their first two games. My initial reaction: “Yeah, right. Computer games for students at my school?"

When a talented colleague challenged me by saying, “Don’t be a snob. There’s so much value there,” I felt compelled to give them a try.

A couple of years later, I approached the start of the school year determined to engage in serious iCivics experimentation. By the end of the year, I’d learned that iCivics can be used:

  • As a hook to introduce new learning
  • As the primary learning activity
  • As an assessment activity
  • As an extra credit opportunity
  • As a tool for English-language learners
  • As a learning tool for struggling learners
  • As an enthusiasm generator
  • As a dependable set of plans for a substitute teacher

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Students Who Benefit the Most From the Games

I’ve found that the students who often benefit the most from playing iCivics games are the energetic and the struggling learners.

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Energetic learners easily connect with the games from both a gameplay and thinking perspective. They are eager to talk about a game and the knowledge it imparts, both while playing and immediately thereafter. These are the kinds of students who, long after the game has been played, will explain how something from the game relates to current subject matter.

The struggling learners, be it a result of a learning disability and/or a language barrier, tend to be hesitant and shy, often unwilling to publicly join a learning activity. These are the kinds of learners who, during and immediately following gameplay, often shock their classmates with an inquisitive question, an enthusiastic outburst or a thoughtful insight.

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Incorporating the Games Into an AP Class

Periodically I have the students in my AP U.S. government (APGOV) class play iCivics games. This is not a thoughtless undertaking, especially given the daunting structural constraints that come with AP: an impossibly large topical array; a breadth-oriented, high-stakes summative test; and the test-prep pedagogy for which AP courses are generally known.

My experimentation has proven that the iCivics computer games help my APGOV students make sense of complex government concepts and processes that, when presented in more traditional methods, tend to lack context and relevancy.

Put another way, the games cultivate deeper understanding of important APGOV curriculum, including checks and balances (“Branches of Power”), the federal budget (“People’s Pie”), the dreaded Electoral College (“Win the White House”) and, more recently, the powers of the president (“Executive Command”).

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What My Students Think About the Games

To find out what my students think about the games, I periodically ask them: “On a scale of 1-10, to what extent did you find this game interesting, informative and engaging (10 = very interesting, informative and engaging; 1 = not at all interesting, informative or engaging)?”

On average, students answer “seven,” which I consider to be a high score.

A Final Word

Given that iCivics was founded by one of this country's truly great judicial pioneers and exists today in an age of rapid technological development, I expect that the company will bring even more high-quality, educational civics-related games to the forefront in the near future.

As my wise colleague once told me, “There's so much value there.”