Video Games on Active Citizenship: Justice O’Connor’s Passion

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Democracy

March 27, 2016; New York Times

In the midst of this year’s heavy campaign debates and increasing chatter regarding our political parties’ unwillingness to compromise, a video game is working to educate future generations on the importance of involvement in politics and civil education.

After twenty-five years serving as a Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor has just released the latest in her political video game series that targets middle school students. Win the White House was designed for gamers to experience the presidential campaign trail while learning how to compete for the commander-in-chief position civilly. Children pick the characteristics of their candidate, including if he or she is clean-shaven, and the color of their skin and hair. They choose whether they are Democratic or Republican, and then begin a game of competing with other video game Presidential candidates on issues such as immigration and gun control. The game encourages problem-solving and educates by using neutral descriptions of each of these areas of debate.

This work has been a passion of O’Connor’s since retiring from the high court in 2006. She had noticed the general public’s lack of understanding of the role that judges play as neutral arbiters—above politics—and felt compelled to educate others on the branches of government.

Just three years into retirement, she acted on these concerns and founded iCivics, a nonprofit that works to prepare young Americans for active and intelligent citizenship. Over the past seven years, the organization has creatively implemented programs focused on civic education in U.S. schools. This includes the rollout of 19 free online programs that reached an estimated 3.2 million students last year alone. The programs have generated documented success, with students involved with iCivics found to be 38 percent more likely to write “excellent” civics essays compared to those not involved in the programs. Win the White House is the group’s latest project.

The technological mind behind the game is Jim Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University. Gee is the author of “What Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.” Gee told the New York Times that at the time O’Connor was considering using video games as a mechanism to reach children, he told her that games were not all about shooting people: “They were about problem solving.”

When the Times interviewed Justice O’Connor, she said, “We have to have a system that allows young people to approach problem solving from many different viewpoints.” According to research from the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, kids who receive a high-quality civics education are more tolerant of others and they take greater ownership of their actions. In her interview with Newsweek in 2011, O’Connor said, “Nothing about the program would suggest that you’ll be more effective if you yell and scream.”

O’Connor stressed the importance of civics education to young people in a 2008 interview with WIRED Magazine. “We can’t forget that the primary purpose for public schools in America is to produce citizens who have the skills and knowledge to sustain our form of government. Public education is the only long term solution to preserving an independent judiciary and constitutional democracy.”

In countless interviews, Sandra Day O’Connor, one of our most notable women leaders, has been quoted as saying that she believes that her work educating future generations will be her legacy. She said that she “hopes the students [involved in iCivics] next stop will be the voting booth, town hall, or even the campaign trail.”—Michelle Lemming