Practicum: iCivics

Link: https://www.icivics.org/games/race-to-ratify

iCivics is an online resource for educators and families to teach children about civics. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded the website in 2009 to teach kids about democracy, and since then it has grown into the “nation’s premier non-profit civic education provider of high-quality, non-partisan, engaging, and free resources to more than 9 million students annually, in all 50 states,” or the majority of the U.S.’s middle and high school students. The goal of the site is to better the nation’s democracy, prepare children for civic engagement, and build trust in the U.S.’s democratic institutions.

I have used the resources in this site before because it has great lesson plans and activities for students. I want to draw your attention to the parts circled in red. iCivics is compatible with popular online teacher resources like Google Classroom. Which means that the programmers of this game are keeping up to date with current trends in teaching. Also, the educator tools are free. This is great for teachers who often have to resort to spending their own money on materials to help differentiate their lesson planning.

While most of the iCivics’ fourteen games are civics and not history focused, Race to Ratify is a history focused game about the efforts to ratify the Constitution.

The loading screen says this was made with help from the National Endowment to the Humanities.

This game is more advanced than the “You are the Historian” game because it allows you to have more agency in your choices. You can also restart a previous game and save the results from your current game if you want to play again and get a higher score. The game begins by having you select a character piece, of which there are four diverse options, then you pick either free play game or historical game. I chose the historical game.

In the first part, you speak to a non-player character (NPC) that tells you the convention has decided to write a new constitution with a stronger federal government. You learn that there are two arguments, one for (Federalists) and against (Anti-Federalists) this new constitution.

Here I got an argument token for “Solving a Known Problem.” You get argument tokens by talking about the different arguments NPC’s have. If you’re talking to an NPC and you forget what they said, you can click the top right button with the speech bubbles on it to review a transcript of what they said. The question mark also provides a reference of the various parts of history and civics in the game for players who are confused.

The game doesn’t really do anything if I place the token in the wrong area.

After I got that argument token I could apparently use it to “invoke that idea in speech or writing.” At the end I will write a pamphlet but first I need to collect more of those tokens for the by speaking to other characters before I can move on. When I finished this introductory part, the game told me that speaking to a person in a state will tell me if they are leaning towards the Federalist or Anti-Federalist side.

I think this is the game telling me that I only have a certain amount of turns before the vote is held and I can’t change people’s minds anymore.

The first state to ratify according to this timeline will be Delaware. The game suggests that I need to go talk to more people, so I talk to this guy:

I was able to speak to two different people in this round. I found that if I kept asking them questions until the game made me move on instead of moving on immediately, I was able to get more tokens. I also have to select the right questions to produce a good argument. If I ask questions that are not useful, the game won’t give me more tokens.

Now I have enough tokens to write about the side I want to advocate for.

I got to pick a pen name, which was different depending on whether I selected to write for the Federalist or Anti-Federalist side. If I try to publish with the wrong type of argument token, the game informs me I made a mistake and will make me do it again, but if you do it more than once you lose points. Once I corrected the mistake, it let me print the pamphlet. They you have to move your printing press to cover the states you are interested in persuading. Once I printed the pamphlet, it causes states to be more in favor of the perspective I am advocating for. At this point the round is over and the game totals up my points.

After I get my points, I learn that there is another NPC that is printing pamphlets in opposition to mine. It makes my job harder.

In the second round, with the addition of the new NPC and the fact that there are now three people I could potentially interview even though I am still only allowed to interview two, I have come to realize that this game involves a lot more strategizing than I first thought.

Its nice that they acknowledge how the Constitution did not deal with slavery, calling it a “moral” failure.

In this conversation the NPC talks about slavery and the three-fifths compromise. I think this is an important part of the discussion around our Constitution, so I am glad they included it. This NPC was against the Constitution because it didn’t properly handle slavery, but after I spoke with him, the game allowed me to interview an enslaved character who was in favor of the Constitution.

I was surprised that her argument differed from the previous NPC’s argument.

At this point strategy was becoming more important, and I had to make some tough decisions in order to get the best results. I kept interviewing Anti-Federalists–it’s hard to know which side they are for until you talk to them, at which point it’s too late–and ended up not being able to sway New Hampshire to the Federalist side. I think it is good that the strategy is challenging because this game is for middle and high school students. If the game was too easy, then they would get bored.

Whoops. I made a mistake in the last round and lost the last three states. Oh well, I still got it ratified.

At the end you learn facts about the actual ratification process, like that it took three years to complete and the Bill of Rights wasn’t added until 1791.

Conclusion

I think this game is great for explaining the reasons why people were for and against the ratification of the constitution. It gives many nuanced arguments that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had, packaging them into a format that is easy and fun to understand. The other great thing about iCivics is that teachers can assign a quiz before and after the game to test students’ knowledge and ensure that they engaged with the game. Teachers can also see the points students received for the game. iCivics claims that this game takes between 30 and 45 minutes, however, I think if you read everything and are trying to get the best score, it will probably take you longer.

There are two things that are different about this game versus “You are the Historian.” The first is that this game doesn’t aim to be historically accurate in the game play. It is more important that students understand the civic arguments than the actual historical events. This is clear from the fact that players’ storyline will not match up with the timeline of events from the ratification of the Constitution. The second is that this game is less accessible in that it does not read all of the text to players. Because this game is meant for older students, programmers probably expected students to read for themselves, but it still provided them help if they needed it. Also this game required a lot more strategy, which would be difficult for younger students to manage.

I still think it is a great and engaging educational tool. Even though the history isn’t perfect, it still does provide players with plenty of historical information.

5 Replies to “Practicum: iCivics”

  1. Hi Sara!

    Thanks for the indepth look at another super cool resource. Its interesting to see how games level up and concepts level up alongside the age of the intended audience. Federalists vs Anti-Federalists is a tough topic and this game not only helps students concretely understand the debate but also the actual struggles of ratification. This feels like accessing a deeper aspect of historical understanding, beyond grasping complicated subjects and into imagining the actual processes people went through during these critical eras.

    Thanks for your work on this!

    -Caroline Morales

  2. Hi Sara! Great blog post.

    One issue with a lot of games that engage with history is that they oversimplify things out of necessity or convenience. They’re not like historical monographs that can wring out every last drop of nuance. It seems like this game did pretty well with that by, for example, letting you hear two different anti-slavery opinions on the Constitution.

    Is there anything about the game that you wish was more nuanced? Or that you think was too nuanced and would have benefitted from being simplified?

    1. Hello Jessica,

      Thank you for your comment! That is a good question. I do think all the arguments the NPC’s made were as simplified and as middle school age appropriate as developers could make them without diminishing the nuance. So I would say that they really hit the sweet spot when it comes to nuance in that respect. The one thing I felt could have been fleshed out better was the course of actual events that led to the ratification of the Constitution. For example, at the end, the game mentioned that the continental congressmen had to make additions (like the Bill of Rights) in order to get the Constitution ratified. I think players would have benefitted from having a simplified version of the constitution read to them. I think this game assumes a certain level of background knowledge.

  3. Hi Sara! This is such a great blog post. It’s so informative and I definitely want to take some time to play the game and see what it’s like.
    I find it really interesting that the game does not emphasize historical accuracy but focuses more on the processes and questions involved in making big decisions throughout history. It would be interesting to examine how U.S. history teachers would use this resource differently than Civics or Government teachers. I’m sure it would be put to good use in either class, but I think they would have to approach it differently.
    I know in the “You are the Historian” blog post, you mentioned that this game does a good job of being accessible to students with low-vision–does “iCivics” do the same thing, or is that something that it still needs to work on?
    Again, such a thorough post. Thank you!
    Molly

    1. Hello Molly,

      Thank you for your comment. As far as accessibility, I would say that the iCivics game does not have as many accessible features as “You are the Historian.” While some parts of the game are narrated to players, many parts are not. Another major issue with accessibility is the choice of text and color, for example some fonts are much smaller. One major issue that I hadn’t considered in my original post was that sometimes options have red text on a red background. Red is a common color that cannot be seen
      by people who are colorblind, so this use of red really hurts accessibility. Luckily most of the important text has high readability, but I do think it is something iCivics should work more on to improve.

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