Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Teaching Civics Through Play

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Arizona senator, first woman to serve as Majority Leader, first woman appointed to the Supreme Court and most recently, video game creator.

After retiring from the Supreme Court in 2006, Justice O’Connor started the iCivics group in 2009. iCivics is a non-profit organization “dedicated to reinvigorating civic learning through interactive and engaging learning resources.” A recent NY Times article describes Justice O’Conner’s realization that video games and interactive media could be used to teach civics in classrooms. Since 2009, iCivics has created 19 games that span topics ranging from immigration to constitutional law. “We have to have a system that allows young people to approach problem solving from many different viewpoints,” she points out.

Their most recent release, Win the White House, intends to teach players about the presidential campaigning process. Players customize their candidate, choosing appearance, slogan, party affiliation, and their stances on hot-button issues. Early on, WtWH shows us that not everything is completely black and white. The player is given the option to pick stances from the other side of the isle in order to have a wider appeal, or stick to their party to solidify loyalty. After character creation comes the campaigning. The player is pitted against a randomly generated opponent form the opposing party and given 10 weeks to campaign, with each week counting as a single turn. Every turn, the player is given 3 actions. Polling a state gains valuable info on the issues the state cares about and your standing in that state. It also unlocks the other two actions, media and appearance. Both media and appearance are ways of increasing your influence in a state. If a state is slightly leaning in favor of your opponent, you can make an appearance to add influence points to that state, increasing your influence every turn. This is where your chosen issues come into play. The media and appearances are only effective if you’re able to talk about an issue that the state agrees with, or if you’re able to identify an issue that your opponent supports that the state doesn’t. This is basically the equivalent of running attack ads. All 3 of these actions require funds, which you get from fundraising in a state at the start of every turn. The larger a state is, the more funds, and thus more actions, you’re able to obtain.

Win the White House left me uneasy. I’d won the presidency in a landslide with 350 of the total 500 electoral votes, but at what cost. After a win like that, you begin to reflect on the campaign process. I realized that Win the White House paints an uncanny, realistic, and unintentionally troubling view of the modern election process. To do anything in WtWH requires money, the more the merrier. There’s no grassroots campaigning or donations from inspired voters, the real money comes from the big private dinners displayed in the cartoon animations that pop up. You begin focusing your attention on the states with the most money and electoral votes. As I played against the computer AI, I found that we were stuck in a gridlock, fighting endlessly over California, New York, Texas, Florida, and a handful of other states; California being a major battle ground. My opponent would make an appearance, and since I wanted to overtake his influence I had to fight back or risk losing California. I had no issues that California supported, but luckily my opponent had an issue that California disagreed with. My campaign quickly became negative; I had no problem with tearing my opponent apart for 55 electoral votes. In addition, I ended up completely neglecting half of the country. I didn’t even bother polling 20 states, seeing as how I had enough votes to win no matter how they voted. It was a little unsettling, realizing that a handful of states with the most people and money completely determined the election. Win the White House is great at teaching the current election process, but fails to make a much needed comment of the system as a whole.

All of iCivic’s games are online and free to play, and I encourage everyone to give them a shot.

About William Enders

A sophomore Design and Technology major at Parsons School for Design, focusing on interactive media and video games.