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Ready, Set, Engage! Two Wildly Different Approaches To Games For Civic Engagement

Research shows that civics education is essential for an inclusive, engaged democratic system. Yet, we’ve seen consistently how civics education is under-valued in the US educational system leaving a knowledge gap in an area that affects the everyday lives of each person in the country. Games offer an essential opportunity to improve civics education, and engagement because of their ability to break down complex topics, and set aside biases. In this session, learn about the two very different game approaches GameTheory took to advance civic engagement with their projects The Good Citizen Challenge and GerryMander. Through the Good Citizen Challenge, over 500 kids across the US state of Vermont were challenged to engage in local civics through in-person activities, quizzes, and personal advocacy challenges. We set a universal goal that all players were working towards – complete enough self-directed civics challenges to win. We took dozens of ways kids could be engaged civically across the state and made a scorecard where each activity they participate earns them points towards completing the challenge. The bigger the impact, the more points an activity was worth. To acknowledge the exceptional work we wanted players to put in, we decided on an equally exceptional reward. Kids who beat the challenge were mailed a physical medal to recognize their hard work, and were invited to the state house to be acknowledged by the governor of Vermont.

In GerryMander, players can tackle the complex issue of voter manipulation through a quick and easy to understand digital puzzle game. Each level takes the form of a voting population where a “voter” is a piece in the puzzle that has a color, red or blue that the player can group. They’re given goals like “Make red win” or “Make Blue Win” or “Make blue lose by less” – and by drawing the districts they can try to group voters in such a way as to gain an advantage. Lastly, users can find and contact their elected officials directly through the game. Players get to write their own message and put into their own words why they feel this is an important issue.

Although these projects are very different in terms of their approach, together they’ve considerably improved civic engagement in our state. The kids playing have become better informed and better engaged by playing both in and outside of the games. By exploring these projects, we’ll take a look at what it takes to break down a complex civics concept into a game, and how these games can be used to explain, advocate, and empower while avoiding common pitfalls and political polarization. In this session, you’ll learn about methods for integrating real world connections with digital and in-person games, how to use games to empower civic agency, alongside civic literacy, and how to set rewards that change based on player actions and engagement levels. You can also learn about how games can be rolled out on a local level for community impact, and how to extend the life of smaller game projects using approaches like procedural generation and scalable design principles.

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