By Ben Wolff

iCivics: How Games Can Teach Kids to be Better Citizens from Spotlight on Vimeo.

Upon leaving the bench, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was concerned that civics education was faltering and that teachers needed better materials and support. (Watch her on John Stewart’s “The Daily Show” back in 2009 talk about how only one in three Americans can name the three branches of government.) So O’Connor helped start a web-based education project designed to inspire students to be more active citizens through online game play.

What began as the Our Courts Project for middle-school students has now evolved into the more comprehensive iCivics, a resource for educators and parents that teaches about the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the three branches of government through free online game play.

The project started at Georgetown Law School in partnership with Arizona State University. The initial games “Do I Have A Right?” and “Supreme Decision,” in which students assume the role of lawyers and argue cases, were so popular that the designers decided to broaden the curriculum beyond the judicial branch.
Games now include opportunities for students to assume the role of president or a member of Congress and to learn about the separation of powers and checks and balances of the federal government.
Unfortunately, says O’Connor, getting the games into classrooms can be a Herculean task because of bureaucracy and the decentralized nature of the public school system.

The games and comprehensive lesson plans to go with them are available for free at icivivs.org.
“Some of our games are meant to be played in the classroom on a single computer,” said Abigail Taylor, the project’s executive director. “Those games really focus on class discussion of each of the decisions in the game, so the class as a group makes decisions about how to proceed in the game and how to make their way through it. Others of our games really are meant to be individual experiences or small group experiences with the teacher or after school instructor or parent as a facilitator.”
Taylor said the project is also working to expand the games as a way to connect with what students are doing in their own communities.

“We’re hoping to create forums on our site for discussion around those activities, for recognition of particularly successful activities, and for organization of students around particular public policy issues and ways to tie the games to those issues that kids care about.”