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June 10, 2008

simulating citizenship

It seems to be the season for new civic simulations. Yesterday, I introduced "Budget Hero" from American Public Media. The same day's New York Times covered Our Courts, a simulation promoted by Sandra Day O'Connor. ("Our Courts" does not seem to be ready to play quite yet.) Then this morning's Washington Post mentioned Peace Corps Challenge, a site that allows kids to pretend they are Peace Corps volunteers in the imaginary village of Wanzuzu. They get a local guide, Narina, with whom they tackle problems such as water contamination and girls' education.

Simulations are as old as Model UN and mock trial. Critics say that they convey the wrong message--that real citizenship begins only later on, when kids turn into adults. Simulations do not tap the actual assets of young people (such as their knowledge of their own communities) or allow them to address real problems. And most children will never grow up to fill the roles that they simulate in the game. For example, there is only one US Representative to the UN, out of 300 million citizens. The Peace Corps is more accessible, but it still turns away, I believe, three quarters of its applicants.

But games have advantages, too. They are absorbing, intellectually challenging, and cost-effective. They can be carefully constructed to promote particular lessons or skills that may then generalize to other domains. The Peace Corps simulation, for example, will be a success if it plants the idea of joining the real Corps or if players learn community problem-solving skills that they can use at home.

June 10, 2008 9:32 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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