Education games have a tenuous history. I’m sure many readers brought up during the early days of attempts to put computers in school still harbor a deep loathing for Mavis Beacon and a deep confusion as to why teachers thought playing Oregon Trail exclusively for the hunting portion was educational in any way. Times have changed, and there has been ongoing progress in combining appeal and substance.
iCivics.org is an entertaining, educational site supported by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and developed by Filament Games. It takes a gamified approach in educating children about the foundations of the American system of governance. There are a variety of flash games to play with colorful, cartoonish graphics reminiscent of Zynga’s facebook-based offerings. Each focuses on a different role in our nation’s civic life. One has you leading a constitutional law firm, choosing which cases to argue using which amendments to the constitution. In another, you are the President, navigating a colorful cartoon world as you choose which bills to veto, which to sign, and what department to take your new laws to. The games dodge partisanship by being fairly vague about issues—the player can choose something both parties agree on, while the game leaves out the bitter divisions on how that good should be accomplished.
The site doesn’t shy away from nuance in the more judicial games, however. One game puts the player in the shoes of lawyers arguing various famous Supreme Court cases, and the player can choose (and win) as either side (with some exceptions—you can only choose Brown in Brown vs. Board of Education). At the conclusion, the game does tell you which prevailed historically, with links to the full opinions.
For children browsing the site from home, the games are likely to be the main attraction. However, the site goes further—it includes “Web Quests,” a series of short, informative pages with an accompanying link to another site with additional information on that particular facet of the topic at hand. Educators will also find full lesson plans organized by topic. They include printable handouts and discussion guides that provide both an introduction and conclusion for the issues brought up by the games.
To enhance the experience, social aspects such as achievements and leaderboards are included. In addition, if a player signs up for a free account, playing each game gains “impact points” which they can, in turn, use to vote for which of several projects they think iCivics should fund. This connects the abstract concepts to the real world; by playing the games children learn how to be good citizens, and can immediately feel that they are putting that into practice.
iCivics strikes an excellent balance between its game-based attractions—colorful, cartoon-like graphics, social-based leaderboards and cumulative points—and educational chops. The harmony between entertainment and learning should make it effective both in the classroom and at home.