Throughout my life, I have had many experiences with video games, both good and bad. While I admit I’m not nearly as big of a gamer as many of my friends are, I’ve spent a lot of time around them and would say I have an above average awareness of the gaming world. This started with my dad’s old Nintendo Entertainment System from college, where I would spend hours playing original Mario games. These games, although they have some tough technical controls, are easy to follow along with and understand, so looking back, it was a great way to learn some of those technical skills early. As I progressed forward, I continued with Nintendo games, getting into Zelda, Super Smash Brothers, Kirby, and much more. It was not until an older age that I got an Xbox and began picking up on open-world games such as Skyrim, which is an extremely long-form role-playing game that has an endless and seemingly ever-expanding list of tasks and missions. This game, when I was around age 14, certainly peaked my interest the most. I enjoyed the idea of an open-world game where I could customize a character and personally navigate their journey. I, to this point, had never really played a game that didn’t guide you through a set path. There was something highly engaging about this, which is something I have kept in mind when searching for games to explore.
That being said, I wanted to search for social studies games that could capture student interest through a more immersive, open-ended game, because this is what peaked my interest as an adolescent. While games like Mission US provide some extremely good content, it lacked the level of critical thinking and problem solving skills that I was looking to explore. I wanted to see if more open-ended and immersive games could provide higher engagement. In my searching, I found the iCivics games to be closest to what I was looking for. These are role-playing games where players can act as international leaders, lawyers, congresspeople, judges, and much more in order to learn about United States civics and democratic participation. The site attempts to express content about voting, legislation, local government, and a myriad of other topics by simulating their inner workings. There is no one path to complete most of these games, students are rather required to use their own critical thinking and judgement to succeed as they see fit.
One of the particular iCivics games that stood out to me was the “Community Works” game. This is a role-playing game where you work as a county supervisor to address needs of the public, grow your county, build community resources, and balance the budget. In playing the game multiple times, I realized that the game and its outcome are indeed highly customizable and volatile depending on the decisions the player makes, which I know was something that drew me in at a young age. This game also stood out to me because it stresses local government, which is something that is actually extremely accessible to students at a relatively young age. I think this game has the potential to open a students mind to addressing issues within one’s local community. On top of this, the game points students in a direction to address these specific issues. For example, one concerned citizen within the game wanted to expand mental health services. As the county supervisor, I assigned the county department of health to expand these services. I think enforcing the idea that substantive change can come from a concerned citizen at a local level is key to getting students interested and involved in civics.
Technically, this game is relatively straightforward and, in my best estimate, developmentally appropriate from about fifth grade on. There are also varying levels of difficulty for students to choose from, so older or more advanced students may be able to play the high-paced versions. The game required you to click to move to concerned citizens, construction work, or expansion sites. From here you have the ability to click to solve citizens’ problems, develop new community resources, or expand your town. Most of the game is driven by the dialogue and the only true technical aspects are clicking to move forward. This is helpful, as it helps the game be straightforward and to-the-point in delivering content while still being interactive and immersive.
I think “Community Works” does a great job of expressing local civics content. In order to move forward in the game, the player needs to learn which community problems correlate to which department. This helps students better understand the inner workings of local government and the various bureaucracies within it. They also learn how different community projects can affect the public. For example, when one builds a school, population and approval increase, and when one builds a waste-water center, clean water is provided and community health goes up. These two pieces of content are essential to social studies curriculum, as well as the formation of an informed, active public. Certainly it does not take into account all of the (seemingly infinite) moving parts of government bureaucracies, but the game certainly can help express the importance and capabilities of local government and public works.
Pedagogically, I think this game could be implemented into the classroom with ease. While the game can be completed in roughly 30 minutes, its content is closer to Shapiro’s description of long-form games in his “MindShift- Guide to Digital Gaming” (p.23). It is open ended, as the player is autonomous in making decisions about the county and can stop after one year, or continue to develop further. It involves long and short term goals, and involves some level of critical thinking and problem solving. These aspects indicate that it could be highly engaging for students to play. It also has some built-in scaffolds, as there is an assistant students can click at the bottom of the screen when they are stumped as to where to send a concerned citizen. It would take a teacher who is comfortable with the game and technology, and active in bouncing around/checking in on students, but overall I think this game could certainly be implemented into the classroom. Shapiro writes that a similar role-playing game where students act as the US President “supplements typical classroom content, students see how their new knowledge manifests as better in-game performance”, also noting that “The knowledge is contextualized and the motivation is intrinsic (p.23).”
One problem that I could see educators having with this game is time constraints. While the game does not take an extremely long time, it requires students to continue to build on knowledge and experience as they progress through, and it would take a time commitment (perhaps a full class period or two) to reap the benefits of the site. On page 41, Shapiro notes that this is why teachers tend to favor quick, short-form games in the classroom. He quotes Lauri Takeuchi in saying “Few teachers are using learning games of the immersive variety, the kind that lend themselves to deep exploration and participation in the types of activities that set digital games apart from more didactic forms of instruction (p. 41).” I think as educators we need to push the boundaries in the ever-changing world of technology, and we cannot be afraid to dedicate significant time to games we see to be immersive, engaging, and enriching. There is no denying that technology and gaming are playing increasing roles in the lives of students year after year. This is the direction our students are going, and it is our job as educators to adapt to them, not vise versa.
Overall, I think I’ve gained a firm understanding of this game, and feel that with a bit more training I could implement it into the classroom comfortably. Still, I recognize I discovered this game based on my own lived experience as a student, and other people may recognize or struggle with different aspects. So, I look forward to hearing from my peers and assessing other strengths and weaknesses that this type of gaming experience may have.