New computer games promote civics education

The iCivics program is based at Georgetown University Law School.
The iCivics program is based at Georgetown University Law School.

An “unintended consequence” of the No Child Left Behind initiative has been a decrease in civics knowledge, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said May 26 in promoting an expanded version of a web site that uses computer games to put a fun spin on learning about government.

The federal education program appropriated funds “based on good test scores in math, science, and reading,” she said, but it did not distribute money for history or civics.

She made the remarks at a conference where she was promoting, a new web site designed to remedy civics ignorance among middle-school students. Launched on May 24, is a rebranded, expanded version of an earlier site called

“Barely one-third of Americans can even name the three branches of government, much less say what they do,” O’Connor said. “Less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how civic participation benefits our government. Less than that can say what the Declaration of Independence is, and it’s right there in the title. I’m worried.”

Games on iCivics include “Do I Have A Right,” in which the player runs a virtual firm specializing in constitutional law; “Executive Command,” which offers a chance to play president; “Supreme Decision,” about the Supreme Court; “Branches of Power,” which gives the player control of all three branches of government; and “LawCraft,” in which the player is a member of Congress.

The iCivics program is based at Georgetown University Law School. O’Connor is the project founder and leads the board of the nonprofit iCivics Inc., iCivics spokesman Jeffrey Curley said. The project began in 2007 and is in use at schools around the country, he said.

The online role-playing games on iCivics are free, teacher-friendly, and effective—and kids like them so much in school that they play them at home, too, O’Connor said.

“I’m an old grandma; I’m not a techie,” O’Connor said, but noted she has been converted to the notion that kids can learn through playing the games.

No Child Left Behind, the controversial 2001 act championed by former President George W. Bush, pushes schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students. Critics have complained it focuses too much on test scores.

Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, of which O’Connor is co-chairwoman, said that the decline in civics education started before No Child Left Behind, but “studies have shown that the emphasis on raising reading and math scores has had an effect in narrowing the curriculum further.”

A handful of state legislatures in recent years have imposed requirements on schools to teach civics, most recently Florida, which this session passed what it called the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act, McConnell said.

O’Connor got a good round of laughter from the audience when she said iCivics is aimed at middle-school students because “by the time they go to middle school, the light bulb has turned on if it’s going to, and they’re eager to learn, but they’re not spoiled rotten teenagers yet.”

The conference was organized by Games For Change, a project to promote computer and video games for social change.


Games For Change

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