iCivics creates online game to teach kids about the Constitution

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iCivics and George Washington’s Mount Vernon museum are announcing Constitutional Compromise, an online game that teaches kids about the making of the U.S. Constitution.

It’s a game about the civility and compromise that shaped the historic document’s creation that culminating in its signing in 1787. The game is being released today, on Constitution Day, for free on icivics.org.

To celebrate the launch, a live event will be held on the grounds of Mount Vernon today on Constitution Day, where over 100 students from Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., will gather. The event will feature a live stream starting at 9:30 AM EST, allowing students nationwide to participate virtually.

Award-winning Constitutional scholar Linda Monk, along with historical re-enactors portraying George Washington and James Madison, will engage in debates reflecting the topics covered in Constitutional Compromise. In-person attendees will have the opportunity to play the game and explore Mount Vernon’s grounds. Students across the country will view a livestream or a recorded version of that conversation. And then they are also invited to go and play the game.

It’s part of a movement to keep young students more engaged with lessons by putting them in a form they can understand better: computer games. The idea is to immerse students in the pivotal moments and compromises that led to the signing of the document.

“The secret sauce of iCivics games is creating games that are really approachable and have a balance of seriousness and fun,” said Julie Silverbrook, iCivics senior director of partnerships and Constitutional Scholar in Residence, in an interview with GamesBeat. “And we create game characters that feel accessible to young people. And it’s a great entry point into a variety of civics and now history topics.”

Constitutional Compromise marks iCivics’ first foray into creating a game specifically designed for use within a museum exhibit. The collaboration was made possible with the support of philanthropist Kenneth C. Griffin. The game will not only be accessible online but will also be available for on-site play at Mount Vernon, which attracts over a million visitors annually.

Designed for middle school and high school students, Constitutional Compromise transports players to Philadelphia in 1787. Acting as delegates, students are tasked with the responsibility of drafting the nation’s governing charter.

Guided by George Washington himself, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, players must navigate six key issues that shaped the Constitution: the scope of national government, representation of power, how population is determined, executive functions, the transatlantic slave trade, and whether the country should adopt a bill of rights. Washington of course went on to become the nation’s first president under the new Constitution.

“Pretty much any teacher of US history can rattle off the main compromises of the convention,” said Carrie Ray-Hill, senior director of digital learning at iCivics, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We really lean on those learning standards to create the learning objectives that then lead us to what mechanics make the most sense in the game.”

Ray-Hill said it has always been helpful to “kick down the door with the game and then have the kids have that context early on.”

Constitutional Compromise

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Teaching kids about Constitutional Compromise.

Constitutional Compromise challenges students to grapple with intense debates and weigh the arguments presented by the delegates. As they make choices, students can compare their decisions with the actual historical outcomes.

Silverbrook said, “Through Constitutional Compromise, students will gain foundational civic knowledge, while also understanding how compromise and civility are essential to a healthy constitutional democracy. We are thrilled to bring this game to young people through our partnership with Mount Vernon.”

The educational game was developed by Filament Games, an award-winning developer in Madison, Wisconsin, that specializes in educational experiences. Some of the work got going a year ago and much of the development took place within the last nine months.

Filament Games CEO Dan White said in a statement, “We’re always proud to partner with iCivics, because their platform is one with critically important content that has a massive impact on young learners. This game in particular is important, as it makes clear that compromise is a core part of our nation’s founding, and our identity to this day. Educational games like Constitutional Compromise empower students not only to learn about history, but also to apply our nation’s democratic principles to current issues and challenges.”

Doug Bradburn, CEO of Mount Vernon, said in a statement, “Now more than ever, it’s critical that Americans have a firm grounding in the important framework that the U.S. Constitution provides for our democracy. Mount Vernon is delighted to have the perfect partner in iCivics as we worked together to create Constitutional Compromise.”

Constitutional Compromise will serve as a valuable resource for educators during Constitution Week lessons. The game and supporting materials will be made available to educators in the weeks leading up to Constitution Day, ensuring ample time for preparation.

As the nation commemorates Constitution Day, Constitutional Compromise stands as a testament to the enduring importance of civility, compromise, and the preservation of democratic values established by the Constitution. By 2026 (America’s Semiquincentennial), the game will move into a new permanent exhibit on George Washington at Mount Vernon. Constitutional Compromise is not only available in English but also offers full support for Spanish-speaking students and English Language Learners.

Lessons for today

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Constitutional Compromise is an online game for middle school and high school students.

While the game’s setting is rooted in the past, its themes of civility, compromise, and the common good resonate profoundly in today’s society. Indeed, it feels like today’s politicians need a lot of reminding that such practical notions are part of the nation’s history. In fact, a lot of people don’t know much about the Constitution, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Many people have declining faith in public institutions.

The creators said the game teaches how our founders reached compromises on divisive and polarizing issues and gives an important lesson in the lead up to the 2024 elections about how we can engage in debate with civility and reach compromise for the common good.

“The most important thing is iCivics is we’re nonpartisan and doing quality civics content,” Silverbrook said. “I think that’s really critical. And that’s, that’s been a really critical piece of building trust, both with educators and with partners, and the field.”

Ray-Hill noted that the notion of compromise was an important skill and that taking five minutes to read it in a textbook doesn’t really get across the importance of compromise.

“That is missing in today’s hyper polarized political environment. And I think something that’s really important to understand is that in the convention of 1787, there were very, very strong views. There wasn’t a consensus,” Ray-Hill said. “I think a lot of people appreciate even after the Constitution was signed in 1787, and then ratified, how fragile things were in the early republic in America. Leaning in on the importance of compromise as a value and a skill, while also being careful about the fact that many of the compromises made at the convention, including those that protected the institution of slavery, are not moral choices that we would make today.”

She added, “Those actors operated in a very different — both moral universe and set of facts — than we do. I think it’s really important. The Constitution sets out a more perfect union, it is not perfect. It left to future generations, including us today, the work of creating something that’s more perfect.”

iCivics background

iCivics has created 17 games to date.
iCivics has created 17 games with 180 million plays to date.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 to provide tools for civic education with 17 free games like Counties Work and We the Jury, which are all available on the web. It also has games like Executive Command and Win the White House, on iOS and Android.

The group is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it is a nonprofit organization working to inspire lifelong civic engagement by providing high-quality and engaging civics resources, and advocating for civic education through its CivXNow Coalition of 295 organizational members.

“This is something that was really important to our founder, Sandra Day O’Connor. And when she stepped back from public life in 2018, she put a call out that everyone needs to step up and commit to K through 12 civic learning,” Silberbrook said.

iCivics is the country’s largest provider of civic education content and is currently used by up to 145,000 educators and 9 million students annually. All of its resources are free, nonpartisan, and available online at icivics.org. The games have been played more than 180 million times.

Two years ago, iCivics partnered with the Council on Foreign Relations to do a game called Convene the Council, which focuses on the decision making of the National Security Council in the executive branch. Constitutional Compromise is the second historical game for iCivics.

The first historical game was Race to Ratify, set in the 1780’s in the United States as the 13 individual states vote on whether or not to ratify the Constitution. A few more historical games are coming by 2026 (America’s Semiquincentennial).

Ray-Hill noted that a younger generation of teachers is coming in now and they’re more likely to be familiar with games. She said that teachers and administrators were skeptical at first, but she felt that iCivics turned the corner around four years ago as games just became legitimate tools to use in the classroom.

“There is robust funder interest in gaming. People are seeing the value of games as a really great gateway into deeper civic knowledge,” Silverbrook said. “In particular, we’re seeing increased funding interests. And a big piece of that is that iCivics has really become both the premier provider of civic education resources, lesson plans, other kinds of interactives and video games that have just beyond video games, but also we’ve really taken on a prominent role in promoting civic education across the country.”

Games work

As far as making games that appeal to kids, the focus isn’t on high-end 3D graphics. The games have to stay within a given budget, and the focus is on the learning experience — to get across ideas without feeling stodgy, Ray-Hill said.

“History games like placing you in that moment, exactly perfectly without a little bit of a whimsy,” she said. “You can lose kids that way. So having the right view of the actors with some acting, if you will, rather than just reading to kids ups the ante a little bit for students. I rarely hear kids complain about the production value because they’re not playing triple-A games in school.”

Silverbrook added, “You don’t want to create a graphic experience that detracts from the learning experience. So creating balance is really important. Our numbers speak for themselves. People have also come to expect the style of our games. And so they’ve become hugely popular.”

Silverbrook joined iCivics in 2020, and perhaps five years before that she was skeptical herself.

Silverbrook added, “Games work, right? There’s just been a shift in the educational field. It’s part of the reason why we’re actually seeing partner organizations proactively reach out to us to co-develop the games. When you go into a classroom and you see the kids use the game, you see how animated they become. And then you actually see the knowledge and skills they acquire by playing the game. That’s all you need to convince a skeptic that this works.”

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