Would a Kid Make a Better President?

By Louise Dube and Carrie Ray-Hill
More than 300,000 students every month are now playing Win the White House–a game that teaches students in grades 4-12 about the what it means to run for office by empowering them to create and manage their very own presidential campaigns.
The game puts kids in the driver’s seat as they learn to strategically raise funds, poll voters, launch media campaigns and make personal appearances–all while keeping a close eye on the map as they travel from state to state battling over electoral votes.
While teaching the election through a textbook may have proved difficult in the past, students all over the country are excitedly taking on the challenge this game presents.
But what makes a game take hold in a classroom?
Drawing from our experience at iCivics in developing games and classroom resources that have been adopted by almost 50% of middle school social studies teachers, we’ve created a checklist.

Let’s keep it simple and call them the 4Ps of educational game development:

1. Purpose: What learning objectives and standards do teachers need help with?  
If it doesn’t help teachers do their job, they won’t give up valuable class time to play the game.
Election cycles provide plenty of opportunity (and more than a little anxiety) for teachers responsible for covering the road to the White House. From the procedural systems of the Electoral College and primaries to the persuasive tactics applied by campaign directors, the list of learning objectives is long and it is not without some risk. Focusing on the standards helps concentrate learning without losing players in the weeds.
2. Process: How well do learning objectives translate into game play? What data is needed to translate back to show the learning actually happened?
The game play should allow for contextual learning–not provide poorly veiled drill and kill instruction.
Win the White House provides students with a way to explore the electoral system and the content of presidential election campaigns without overwhelming them or their teachers. To address the need for teaching the larger system, the game challenge students to think strategically across a 50-state playing field as they battle over control of electoral votes–much as we see the campaign playing out in the news. In combination with an overall resource management scheme using campaign cash, this creates just enough of a challenge to propel the gameplay forward. Additionally, the game places the content delivery within a debate function and campaign messaging, so the player can see the impact of the content.
Live feedback is critical to forming promoting good learning within a game. The debate provides opponent responses that let the player know how well they understand the platform issues. Success of campaign speeches and media efforts depend on understanding the audience and the message. End game metrics also provide insight into the larger efforts of fundraising and persuasion. The game uses play design as a means to foster literacy connections. Yes, the electoral tally is the thing that players care most about, but it is still important to show some of the efforts that went into that win or loss.
3. Practicality: How does it fit into classroom instruction?
The game has to be WORTH the time teachers take to teach with it, so support the game–support the teacher.
Win the White House was designed with the realities of most classrooms in mind. We worked to address the competing demands of tech access, time management and instructional styles.

  • The game saves as the student plays, preventing loss of progress if the fire alarm goes off or the server gets a case of the hiccups.
  • Although most game experiences are best in a 1:1 setting, Win the White House works well in a pair-play arrangement, or whole class projection mode. (Discussions that emerge from multi-player set-ups provide great insight into the learning process.)
  • Our game guide walks teachers through the mechanics and features of the game, as well as provides discussion prompts and activity ideas to take the learning even further.

4. Playability: Is it fun? Will they keep playing?
All of the work that goes into creating a game is wasted if the kids won’t play. And play. And play. If students want to play, teachers have willing learners. Read that again: willing learners. From the content to the animation to the sound effects, Win the White House was designed to motivate a student to explore, push through challenges and own the experience as a resilient learner.
We also wanted to make sure that the game was replayable. Students have multiple opportunities for customization. They can select their party, they can select different issues within that party and even run as a maverick! Within the game, they can also choose to run more positive or negative ads, and try different state strategies. Multiple plays not only provide more practice at the game, it allows for greater exposure to content and strategy.
While the rules of good game design are relatively straightforward and the theory of instruction well known, it is a question of measure and balance–balancing gameplay with instructional goals, balancing digital gaming with other classroom activities. This is the real work that lies ahead.
For more, see:

Louise Dube serves as Executive Director at iCivics. Follow her on Twitter: @louise_dube.
Carrie Ray-Hill is the Director of Content for iCivics and a former teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @carrierayhill.

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1 Comment

Lisa Mims

I introduced ICivics toward the end of school. (Unfortunately). I introduced it with the game, Win the White House. I had 2 SS classes, all the students were at varying levels. They LOVED it, They were playing on the last day of school. The discussions were so rich. They talked to me, they spoke to each other, they used strategies, they used the vocabulary within the game. I do not think I could have taught these kids about the whole White House process as well as this game did.I am not waiting until the end of 2016-17 to introduce ICivics!

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