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.