Politicraft: A Game to Nurture Active & Engaged Citizens

There are many games that teach kids about civics, but what about games that actually help young people develop the competence, confidence, sense of agency, and a growing awareness for tangible strategies to be civically engaged? That is the mission of the partnership that resulted in the design and launch of Politicraft, a narrative-based card game that gives us a glimpse into the power and possibility of using games for deep and meaningful learning around civics. The initial pilot is over and it is now open to interested educators who want to purchase and use it this fall.

Over the past six months, I’ve been steeped in texts and research about game-based learning, testing out different types of games, and experimenting with my own rudimentary games. Along the way, I had an idea for a game to help future teachers, and I settled on the concept of a card game. As such, I started searching the web and came across the web site for Politicraft. Intrigued, I reached out the the developers and they were kind enough to spend an hour with me, explaining a bit about the history and vision of this exciting project. As such, I had a great conversation with Rachel and Kevin Lyle who work with I-IMPACT, along with Lucien Vattel, founder of GameDesk.

When you are designing a game to teach civics in a new and impactful way, where do you start? For this team, they turned to the National Council for Social Studies, more specifically Mary Ellen Daneels, a NCSS board member who is well-known for her immersive civics simulations at Community High School in West Chicago. In Mary Ellen’s class, students get out of the school and into the community. They learn by doing and through direct experience. While this is ideal, the team wanted to design a game that drew from Mary Ellen’s deep well of knowledge and expertise, providing a simulated experience that might not send students directly into the community, but has promise to do the next best thing. As the group explained to me, “Civic mindedness is not something you are born with. The knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective civic engagement must be acquired and practiced in a safe environment.  That is the purpose of PolitiCraft.  PolitiCraft embraces the best practices in civic education to prepare students for college, career and civic life.”

There are many games that teach how to do civics, but the designers of Politicraft went a whole new direction. They wanted to show students what it might look like to be actively involved in their community, providing ideas for how to be active, civilly engaged different-makers. To get at this, they eventually settled on a narrative card game where students pick an issue at the beginning of the game…something they care about. Then they work through the game to take civic action to solve this issue. They are engaged in a personal passion project while learning different ways to get involved in their community. Within the game, they might take actions to build a website, attend a rally, get elected, become a media mogul, and much more.

In this digital age, why a card game? The team explained that they originally started with the idea of some sort of digital game. Perhaps they will return to that idea at some point in the future. However, Lucien and his team suggested starting with this narrative card game idea and, after getting feedback from people, they quickly discovered that it worked and resonated with both teachers and students. As one teacher explained to them, “I love that it is a card game because I don’t have to deal with all the digital tech that I don’t have in my classroom.”

Lucien and the team at GameDesk had a key role in this project, and I was inspired to hear his larger vision for their organization. Originally funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Lucien explained that he is driven to show that experiential learning engaged with other people can be one of the more profound ways of learning. “Some think of schools as places of career and college readiness. I think they have potential to be incubators for the designers of the future of the planet…equipping people to be self-driven, self-aware, creative, and thinking outside the box.” This extends to many crisis areas in society. Imagine engaging and equipping students to tackle the health crisis, socio-emotional crises, and political crises. “What can we do to create great opportunities for kids to think strategically and experimentally about the structures in our society?”

That spirit is certainly what animates Politicraft. Students are introduced to a massive social system in which they are largely not engaged. Yet, within the context of the game, students are placed inside of the systems. They discuss, in an empowered way, how they would tell their story in the system and effect positive change. This is a game that is about nurturing agency in learners. In 45-50 minutes (although it can run longer if the kids are really leaning into their narratives), students play through a series of rounds, play different roles, engage in civil action and discourse, reflect, articulate, grapple with and use relevant terms, and understand those terms in a context that resembles the real world.

As they’ve piloted this game with students, Rachel and Kevin explained it this way. “You watch kids and they are engaging in a way unlike reading a book or listening to a lecture.” The pilot also showed that the engagement seemed to increase the second time that students played the game, giving even more attention to the nuances and context. As Rachel explained, “We see kids thinking about what matters to them, and that passion this brings to the game is powerful.”

Ultimately, this game is about agency. Students make decisions. In Lucien’s words, “students are creating thought forms in their minds that they have not had. Instead of seeing it as something removed from them. There is a door open in their mind that was not opened before because they have partaken with their voices and minds.”

Amid debates and conversations about the affordances, limitations, power, pitfalls, and potential of games in education, Politicraft is definitely a model that warrants closer attention.

The EduRiddle Challenge: A Multi-Modal Game for Educators

The EduRiddle Challange is a 4 phase, 20 level game about contemporary issues in schooling and education. Phase 1 starts with a series of simple riddles about schooling and education. The answer to each is the password to the next level. While you will experience riddles throughout the game, they are just a part of the challenge, as you will see if you make it to phases 2-4.

Anyone can play. There are two simple ways to join the fun. If you have a Twitter account, you can follow @bdean1000, find one of my Tweets that announces the game and provides instructions, retweet it, and wait. Within 24 hours you will receive a direct message with a link and password to get started. The other option is at the bottom of this article. Fill out the form and you will receive an email within 24 hours providing you with the starting link and password. New participants are welcome to join the game until it is closed (a currently undisclosed date in the future).

Why the EduRiddle Challenge? There are three reasons.

The first reason is a secret. You might just have to participate in some of my games over the upcoming year(s) to discover it.

The second is because I made a decision over the last year to start investing more time into the research of game-based learning, game design and gamification. I love to experiment, even with rudimentary designs, as a means of learning. One of my three words for 2016 is “design” and I had games in mind when I chose that word. I have lots of ideas scribbled in my idea book and drafts of potential future blog posts (many of which never go public), and I’m looking forward to bringing some of these ideas to life. I plan to experiment with web-based games, augmented reality, apps, simulations, project-based games, card games, multi-modal riddles and scavenger hunts, and much more. Along the way, I expect to learn a ton and maybe even have a little fun.

The third reason is because games and gamification are both integral aspects of the future of education. Their growth, impact, and potential is undeniable. While there are plenty of debates about the best or ethical uses of game-based learning and educational gamification, it seems to me that those of us in education really only have two choices. The first is to get involved; learn about them, join in a rich and robust conversation about the possibilities, applications, affordances and limitations; then strive to create, use and/or promote them in positive ways. The second is to stand on the sidelines and ignore them or lament their existence, which will likely do nothing to slow their growth. This is essentially the decision that I had to make in the 1990s with the role of the digital world in education. Will I join in helping to shape its use, or will I watch and complain? By getting involved, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’ve also had incredible opportunities to help shape where we go and how we think about the intersection of education and digital culture. I happen to think that the role of games and gamification, combined with the digital revolution, will greatly expand the ways in which we learn throughout life; and I have every intention of being actively involved with that.

So, why not join in by experimenting with the EduChallenge1?

You are a form submission away from joining the fun.

Meet Breakout EDU: Proof That Learning & Fun Go Together

In 2005, James Sanders started as a classroom teacher in South Los Angeles, where he continued for the next five years. In his words, he was “lucky enough to be one of the first teachers to use Chromebooks in the classroom” as a pilot with Google. Of course, there must have been more than luck at work as he went on to be head of innovation for KIPP Bay Area Schools, worked with education projects at Google, was co-founder of ClassBadges, became a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and more recently, James became the founder of Breakout EDU.

From their web site:

Breakout EDU creates ultra-engaging learning games for people of all ages. Games (Breakouts) teach teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting by presenting participants with challenges that ignite their natural drive to problem-solve.

James explained that the idea for Breakout EDU came when he and Michael Wacker were in Canada at an escape room with a group of teachers and students. If you haven’t experienced an escape room, you get locked in a room and work with others to solve a series of challenges/puzzles/riddles to get out. With his background in the classroom, James already knew that play was a powerful tool for learning. Combine the experience of a classroom teacher and that of a rich game design like an escape room and you get the birth of an education startup that is building an impressive community of educators who are excited about mixing games and learning.

Of course, there are problems with locking students in a room, but you can still use the game and puzzle part, and that is just what Breakout EDU does. They provide you with the starter kit or the instructions to build your own. It consists of a wooden box, a series of different types of combination locks, an invisible ink pen, and a few other items to get you started. Then there are the games. Among the 70+ existing Breakout EDU games, only a small portion were developed by the Breakout EDU team. The rest are built by the wonderfully creative and engaged Breakout EDU teacher community.

Richard Feynman Quote of PuzzlesJames is quick to note that the power isn’t in the box and locks but in the power of play, and putting these tools into the hands of great teachers. When you have that combination (pardon the pun), you get a community of students who are deeply engaged and working incredibly hard to solve problems. Along the way they are developing skills like collaboration and problem-solving, and they are gaining some content area knowledge as well.

At this point, Breakout EDU has not done any traditional marketing or promotion. They are still in beta and believe strongly in that, using this as a time to refine their ideas with the help of a vibrant community. Of course, the word is getting out, and the interest is growing, as evidenced by the robust Facebook group and the fact that I’m seeing presentations about Breakout EDU at EdCamps, regional education conferences, and in the online chatter among those in the larger educational technology community.

If you read my blog, I’m often talking in grand terms, speaking of potentially disruptive innovations or the wide scale impact of a new technology or company. James is cautious, even skeptical of such language, claiming that Breakout EDU is not a solution to any great educational problem. For James, “it is just a tool.” However, he clearly has a simple but compelling mission in Breakout EDU. He sees this as an opportunity to show people that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Breakout EDU is also completely open. It is an open community. They provide everything that you need to build your own kit, so anyone with less than a hundred dollars for supplies and a local Target or Home Depot has pretty much everything that they need to get started. Anyone can design a game or use the other games, and there is nothing proprietary.

In an education startup space where many are designing entirely virtual products and services, Breakout EDU maintains a keen interest in the physical element. Many of the existing games certainly have a blend of the online and physical, but James believes that, “there is something powerful in getting them to move around and work in groups.”

Such an approach in the classroom is also an interesting way to reconsider the role of failure. Where failure on a test or assignment is no laughing matter and often even a cause serious concern, failure in a game becomes part of the learning experience. A group might have 75-100 failed attempts at solving a puzzle before they find the right solution. This is a good thing in a game, and failure becomes just part of the journey to success.

In the contemporary education startup space of people positioning for large market share and massive financial support, Breakout EDU is a refreshing exception. They are not seeking venture capital. They are not quick to rush out of the beta phase. They truly embody the spirit of Nail It Then Scale It, but they seem far more driven by building a great model that helps teachers than creating some world-renowned educational gaming company. As much as I could tell from James, they truly are a mission before margin outfit, a fine example of social entrepreneurship in the education space.

In the past, I’ve written about how I see potential in being a humble radical in the education space, but Breakout EDU is a good example of what I mean. They have a compelling vision, but they are more grounded in the present than grand dreams of the future. They embrace the fact that what they have is a work in progress, and they invite a community of educators to help with that progress. They are providing something of potentially great value to educators, but they refuse to overstate the potential impact of what they’ve provided.

As such, I’ll give the Breakout EDU community the last word in this article. As our chat was coming to an end, I asked James about what sort of results teachers were finding from their games. James simply posted that question to the Facebook group, and following is how the community members responded.

Mindy C. I have found that my students earning D/F’s are often the ones solving clues! It’s awesome to see them participating and finding success.

Sara B. Yes! Students that don’t do well in “traditional” school assignments seen to thrive here. Maybe it says something about their thinking…

Bailey C. I know as a new teacher I’ve been really having a tough time getting my students on board with the idea that learning isn’t always a “show me on a quiz” process. It finally clicked with them now that I am doing content based breakouts and they are having fun exploring topics rather than focussing on “what’s going to be on the test.”

Jody M. I have seen a student who, in regular math class, refuses outright to do any math at all (very bright, autistic spectrum), but in a breakout sat twice with pencil & paper to show another student how she felt something should be solved.

Jessica G. The first two breakouts I did, I had one student who would completely give up because it was “hard” and he was “stupid.” Then, after a pep-talk about perseverance, this same student KILLED the next breakout, solving clues left and right. The smile on his face was priceless when he realized he could do it if he set his mind to it…..Attitude is everything! smile emoticon

Michelle J. Some students (who feel they are “not smart enough”) have been able to appreciate their own special gifts when they think differently and are able to help the group of solve a problem. The feedback process for me has been very important, as well as being able to give students the opportunity to design their own games.

Maria G. One of my favorite things I heard in the debrief after a game with 8th graders showed me what a big role inference plays in BreakoutEDU games. They were saying that they loved not being told what they were going to learn and having to figure it out by themselves. You can see a sense of empowerment that they felt. This to me was such a powerful positive example of what these games bring to learning.

Donna W. We played one game with 5th graders during their Media Center pullout time. None of the groups were able to breakout in the time allotted. However, every time they see the Media Coordinator they ask when they will have another opportunity to Breakout. They were engaged, thinking, collaborating during the activity. They didn’t give up and they want to try again- calling that a win-win!

Toni H. During a debrief session, a student(special education) identified that he became obsessed with the lock rather than using clues to solve it. He plans to use the clues in his next Breakout session. His teacher couldn’t believe he identified the issue and planned for improving.

Heather L. I found it interesting how my high level kids struggle with both the breakout box lessons and the weekly homework challenges. The lower level kids excelled during the breakout box lesson. I watched the advanced students get frustrated by the thought an…

Bailey C. Agree! I’m seeing similar things. However, my gifted students do not fit well into that mold. I’ve found mine get pretty competitive and proprietary over their solutions.

Learning as Work or Play

I’ve learned so much more outside of school than in it. For every book that I’ve read for a school assignment over the years, I’ve likely read 20 outside of school. I’ve conducted more interviews, written more, observed more, experienced more, and learned more. I’ve also surfaced far more insights outside of school than inside it. They’ve led to meeting and connecting with fascinating people; changing my beliefs, behaviors and convictions more than anything that happened amid my formative or higher education experiences. I’ve also enjoyed these activities immensely. I’ve lost track of time on late Friday nights. They’ve driven me to travel thousands of miles for a single conversation or a few hours of a new experience. They’ve left me  falling asleep at night with a sense of accomplishment and joy about a life of discovery and learning. They’ve also kept me from falling asleep, wanting to write or read just one more page, wildly scribbling out a new idea, chatting with a new friend, or dreaming of the possibilities. I had some wonderful experiences in formal schooling as well, but they just don’t compare to what I’ve learned beyond the walls of those buildings. Why?

In The Most Productive Ways to Develop as a Leader, Herminia Ibarra wrote the following:

In contrast, no matter what you’re up to, when you’re in “play” mode, your primary drivers are enjoyment and discovery instead of goals and objectives. You’re curious. You lose track of time. You meander. The normal rules of “real life” don’t apply, so you’re free to be inconsistent — you welcome deviation and detour. That’s why play increases the likelihood that you will discover things you might have never thought to look for at the outset.

This blog is play more than it is work. This is the place where I log and experience new discoveries. I am free to debate with myself from one article to another. I’m not trying to write like an academic. My thoughts are serious and I strive for substance, but this fun for me too. I don’t try to sell myself as much as I play with thoughts and experiences, exploring the possibilities and inviting others to join me in this play. Wonderful outcome emerge. I build new connections. The play extends. It often turns into “work” in the sense that money is exchanged, goals and planning emerge, tasks are accomplished, programs are developed, and agreements are signed; but for me it is still driven more by a mindset of play than work.

This leads me to wonder, if play is such a powerful lever for learning, why not take greater advantage of it in our learning organizations? I recognize that there are times when play might not work or it might not even be appropriate, but so much of what is done in school could happen through a culture of learning by play, as so powerfully and whimsically championed by the Institute of Play. Groups like the Institute of Play represent a movement in modern learning (not just schooling) and work that:

  • invites us to accept the challenge of addressing the engagement crisis in schools and workplaces;
  • helps us take advantage of our human propensity for play and discovery;
  • sees teachers as game-designers and architects of a culture of engagement;
  • invites students to participate in quests, challenges, adventures, and experiments;
  • and helps students learn to apply principles of games and play to direct their own learning throughout life.

Doesn’t that sound fun?

But how does a school full of games and play prepare people for the real world?

First, it helps them learn. Second, it helps them maintain that inquisitive, engaged, exploratory, adventurous spirit of their childhood. Third, it helps them chang the real world into a place with more curious, engaged, playful people. As Lincoln is quoted as saying, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Could the same thing be true for the communities and workplaces of the future?