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Use Game-Based Learning to Teach Civics

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Game-Based Learning (GBL) is another great pedagogical model for engaging students, and the term is more expansive and complex than you might think. It can range from pencil and paper games to massive online games like World of Warcraft to everything in between. Overall, it's about balancing gameplay with the learning of important content. The focus is on retaining the information learned, and applying it. This application can take place within the game itself or outside of it.

So how can we use this model for civics education? Luckily there are already resources out there to use as tools, or you can also create your own GBL games for teaching important civics content.

First, you need to start with the standards -- if you don't know your learning objectives, it will be impossible for you to create or use a targeted GBL game. This is where a myth around GBL, and games in general, comes up:

There are no defined learning outcomes.

On the contrary, every game has a specific objective designed for the gameplay. Whether it's collecting a certain item in a quest, defeating an enemy, or learning an important piece of information, games demand learning in order to succeed. In this case, the civics content needs to be at the forefront. The Center for Civics Education has specific standards that all teachers can use across all grade levels. Some of the questions to explore include, "What is government and what should it do?" and "What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?" Although specific to the U.S., they can be modified to meet civics education in all countries. Once you have the objective in mind, you can go in many directions.

Level One: Use iCivics to Teach the Content

If you are new to gaming, the games at iCivics are excellent and free for teachers to use with their students. There are also lesson plans! The games are broken down by topic from the "Separation of Powers" to "The Legislative Branch." Perhaps the students play "Executive Command" to learn about the powers of the Executive Branch. You can easily align the games to the Civics Education standards. The next step for the teacher is to create a great performance assessment (although iCivics provides great reflective activities to use after the game has been played). This is a great novice option.

Level Two: Pair the Right Game with the Learning Objective

This is a little more challenging and requires either a gamer's knowledge base or a colleague who is a gamer! There are so many games out there that it can be daunting to find the right one that meets your civics learning objective. As the instructor, you have to be comfortable knowing that the game may or may not directly push out the content you need. Maybe you'll use a game to engage students, but wrestle with content in a parallel situation. Or you may get lucky and the game you use will actually demand direct learning of the content. Either way, you the teacher needs to create lessons to meet the situation. Perhaps you'll use one of the many versions of Civilization to explore governmental structure, and pair it with important lessons and activities on American democracy. You would have to focus the gameplay itself, as well as make sure it explores the learning you need it to. Another idea is exploring races, classes, and worlds in the latest online MMO (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Players could travel to various worlds and interact with different characters to explore personal freedoms and rights. Again, gameplay and paired lessons need to be designed carefully. This method is a more intermediate approach.

Level Three: Design a Game Yourself

If you are a gamer like me, or have a friend you can collaborate with, you might be able to gamify an activity from your teacher's bag-of-tricks. The game will need to have specific aspects: leaderboards, incentives, and feedback. And of course, the game only succeeds if the student learns content. Another great resource I have is the Adding Play Toolkit. It provides cards describing a variety of game design must-haves -- where you as game designer and teacher, choose what the game will be about. You will choose the motivator for the game, the game mechanics, the victory conditions, and the social mechanics. There are many options in each of these categories, which allow you to create a variety of games. I would recommend this option for an experienced teacher or gamer.

I would love to hear about the games you have created, paired, or used, and how it engaged your students in learning critical civics content. I'm excited that time and energy are being invested in a civics education strategy that works!

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Jeffery Miller's picture

One thing that often gets left out of discussions of civics is the role of the citizen in community-level decision-making (apart from voting). Why not have students design games themselves? They may not have the technical know-how write the software, but they can certainly visualize it and explain how a player would advance from one level to the next, what challenges (community problems) s/he might face along the way, what strategies might be useful in meeting the challenges, etc. If students know what the standards are, they'll take responsibility for their own learning. Students get really motivated if (a) they can see themselves as teachers and (b) they know their ideas will be used, or at least seen by other people, especially those outside the classroom. Why not have them come up with the ideas for the game and then work with a developer to make it happen AND learn some technical skills at the same time.

2learn-englishCOO's picture
FOCUS: Enhancing the success of teachers/instructors AND students/learners.

It's always amazing when the world catches up to those who have "been there" for decades!

Elaine Kirn (Rubin) has been creating, using, and making available to others, Games for learning just about every aspect of ESL, English, Civics, ..., and even one for Gerontology 101, for over 40 years. See for yourself at: Look through the PDF Catalog, request a free sample to "Try Before You Buy," or order online.

Will Prettyman's picture
Will Prettyman
Social Studies teacher in an Early College High School in North Carolina

Thanks for the ideas! I knew about iCivics before but didn't put the time into looking at their game offerings. I used one just last week to teach the students about branches of government. I've also started playing with the idea of "gameifying" my C&E class later this semester when we start "playing" the stock market. I know the concepts have been out for while, but I really appreciate you taking the time to give some concrete examples on how to use them in the classroom. My kids loved the iCivics game and started exploring the site for more. One student blamed me for making her stay up late because I introduced her to the site. Please keep recommendations coming for ways to use games and game design in Civics.

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