What Kids Say About Games, and Can We Listen?


When designing games, focus groups may playtest and offer feedback to designers. The goal, of course, is to create the most meaningful and fun experience possible for the end users: the players. But what about educational games?


What Kids Say About Games & Can We Listen? was the subject of a panel at South by Southwest Education (SXSW EDU) this March, moderated by Games for Change’s president Susanna Pollack. Panelists included iCivics’ Louise Dube’, middle school teacher Steve Isaacs, and myself—Matthew Farber, an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado.>



Harnessing Student Voice

Steve Isaacs’ teaches 8th grade video game design and development in New Jersey, and his pedagogy is centered around the notion of student choice and student voice. His students are encouraged to follow their interests and passions. First, they play different genres of games, and then they reflect on the experiences through written blogs or recorded video. Finally, they code their own game experiences, which are published online (as are student-authored game reviews). As a result, his students have an authentic, real world audience. He posts student work on his Pinterest board, and on his class YouTube channel, which include reviews, tutorials, and “Let’s Play”-style walkthroughs.


By leveraging student voice in his classroom, Isaacs’ students are able to follow their passions, which helps to drive engagement. “Student voice and choice is important because I get more from students,” Isaacs explained to the panel. “They do more, think more, and retain more. Gaming is a wonderful way to integrate student voice particularly because students have agency in gaming, and they are experts.”

One example showcased to the panel was a video from a student named Manny. In it, Manny, along with Isaacs, led a game walkthrough of iCivics’ Win the White House:



Student Co-creators

As evidenced by Manny, students have lots of ideas about what should be in a good educational game! “We know what they want in commercial games, but often may not ask what they want in educational games,” Isaacs said.


Many of the games discussed in the panel were on iCivics’ platform. One of the largest free game and curriculum providers, there are currently 19 games—with one new one on the way! iCivics was founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and current Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits on its board. In 2017, over 5 million kids played iCivics’ games! For me, a former social studies teacher, iCivics was my “gateway” into game-based learning. To learn more on the story of iCivics, there is a chapter in my book Gamify Your Classroom, as well as in Games for Change’s Asi Burak and New York Times’ Laura Parker’s book, Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World.


As the CEO of iCivics, Dubé commented to the panel about the need for students to do more than just playtest new games, they need to be included in the ongoing part of the development process. There is a built-in tension between the needs of the developer and the needs of both teachers and students. Educators still have to teach standards, and games like those on iCivics’ platform have a deep amount of content. Students and teachers should be brought in together early on to help create games that are truly developmentally appropriate.


Games as Digital Texts


iCivics games scale well because students have a shared experience once they play their games, like a digital field trip. Teachers like Isaacs were not using games to teach rote learning; instead, games were often “read” as digital texts, which, as Shaffer, Nash, and Ruis (2015) observed, “provide students with mediated experiences.” I observed games being used in this way from the teachers studied in my book, Game-Based Learning in Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches With Games.




Student Voice and Civic Dispositions

The point of playing through a game on iCivics platform is not just to learn facts about how government works. Known academically as “dispositions,” or behavioral attitudes, the goal of a good civics game is not to teach rote facts about voting; rather, games should try to increase the likelihood that students will apply what is learned, that they will eventually participate in the democratic process. “For us to do our jobs, students need to develop an identity as citizens; that’s our goal,” Dubé explained. “Because students can’t vote in middle school, that civic identity will come later in life. Building an identity as a citizen starts by understanding that you matter in a democracy and that politics and government are relevant to you. That’s why we use role playing games, because many involve student choice.”


Civics games are less effective when they teach and assess fact-based content such as what is the voting age, or how many senators are from each state? Instead, good civics games, like those on iCivics’ platform, promote kids to be participants in democracy. Good games give students voice.



    • iCivics homepage, with free civics games and curriculum








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