Could video games teach civic involvement?

Researchers at Tufts University's are developing an interactive video game to try to engage students in civic responsibility. Could it miss out on the important lessons learned through real-life civic interactions?

Lisa Suhay
Madison Jamison, 6, plays chess against an older opponent at the Park Place Library in Norfolk, Va. on Saturday, January 25.

Researchers at Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service are developing an interactive video game to try to engage students in civic responsibility, leaving parents to wonder if the only winning move is not to play video games at all, but to get out and do more.

Civic Seed is the name of the game created in collaboration with the Engagement Game Lab (EGL) at Emerson College. Its mission: “to see if it can better prepare college students to engage with the community – and if it can do so more effectively than a non-gaming alternative,” according to a press release by the school.

“Student under-preparedness for working in communities is a pressing issue," says Mindy Nierenberg, senior student programs manager at Tisch College and director of the leadership minor in Tufts School of Arts and Sciences in the press release.

As the mother of four avid gamers interested in multi-player games, I read that and wondered if this is a lot of chasing our tails.

If the issue is that students are not getting out there enough to know how communities work in real life, then maybe the answer should not be online, but instead in the real world.

Many kids aren’t getting engaged in civic activities at the high school level, perhaps partially due to spending too much time online.

“Tufts students will be randomly assigned to either the interactive video game or the self-paced non-game training,” Ms. Nierenberg says about the study. 

According to Nierenberg, “Both groups will complete a pre- and post-test questionnaire that will measure things like critical thinking, communication with diverse populations, individual motivations and values and understanding the importance of certain buildings and pieces of land in each community.”

As much as I would like the gaming version to win in order to vindicate me for allowing my sons to game, I am also rooting for the “old school” field team to win so I can feel better about where society is headed.

Frankly, this may not be a fair testing environment, because there are things students will learn in real life interactions that no game can teach them.

Many video games breed a form of detachment, the opposite of “engagement,” because players are conditioned by previous experience to know it’s not real. Players who “die” in a game, or freeze, or burn, or get injured, realize that it leaves no mark on real life. 

Utilizing just video games might not be the best tool to teach civic engagement, however finding games that transfer between online and real life scenarios might help to support the research.

Chess is a perfect example of this game theory shared by the Tufts team because it can be played online or in person.

For the better part of the past six years, I have run the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) as a free, all-volunteer program with the bulk of our volunteers coming from local colleges and universities.

One of the very first lessons a college student learns when they walk into a community center, school library, or public building to play chess is that there is a world of difference between playing solely on a computer and playing a human face-to-face.

“I’m a Master level player online,” is a common greeting I get from college volunteers. They are all confidence about their years of online experience, until a six-year-old little girl smokes them in five moves they never saw coming.

They can’t fathom what just happened to them when beaten by a young child who just started playing months ago. Guessing by their real-life opponents age, they have underestimated her potential and become overconfident. There is no skill building around reading an opponent online.

My advice is to play all the online games you want in order to get some fundamentals across to students.

However, to really teach them something about civic engagement, it might take bringing a game to real-life, such as starting a chess club at a Title One school or community center in a low-income neighborhood.

Students can then learn civic engagement, critical thinking, and real-life skills for interacting with people of all backgrounds, while earning valuable volunteer hours.

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