Teaching with Games

posted Oct 24, 2016, 12:41 PM by Kevin Roughton
Last year for me was all about presentation and design. I redid nearly all of my PowerPoints to be more animation heavy and text light. While that process has continued this year I've focused much more heavily on creating games to use in my classroom - particularly with my 8th grade US History course.  Let's face it, teaching the Constitution for 6 weeks can end up being a little bit (maybe a lot) boring. I wanted some games to spice it up.

So, last week my kids played through a bunch of games on iCivics. While I realized I allotted more class time for them than necessary I'm still very pleased with the results. The students came away with a strong understanding of how each branch of the government operates and how difficult each really is to run. They had a great time playing the games and it has led to some excellent discussions in class. I highly recommend Executive Decision if nothing else. That game is tense and really helped kids realize how much it takes to be president.

Then today was the culminating game - one that I designed myself based on an iCivics lesson: Political Agenda.


My goal was to create a game that mirrored the many levels of agendas a typical government representative would have. There were individual agendas, group (or branch) agendas, and also a full class agenda. 

The class goal for the game was to create a new lunch menu for a school.

The District Representatives (Legislative Branch) were trying to create a menu with a certain enjoyability rating simulating the role representatives play in directly representing the desires of the people.

The Executive Chef Staff (Executive Branch) was trying to create a menu with a certain cost and difficulty rating simulating the responsibility of the Executive in making sure laws are actually executed. (NOTE: I almost immediately eliminated the difficulty ratings. Just having cost was plenty for the Executives.)

The Nutritional Judges (Judiciary Branch) was trying to create a menu with a certain level of nutrition simulating the role the court plays in ensuring the health of the government by ensuring the Constitution is followed. (A stretch, I know, but it worked.)

Then, each individual player had their own hidden agenda. Some earned bonus points for having specific items on the menu, some earned a bonus for getting things done quickly and others, the saboteurs!, actually won the game if no menu was created. I based (stole?) the idea from an expansion set to the game Resistance entitled Hidden Agenda. The idea of trying to complete a goal that is unique to you and is hidden from other players is a great game mechanic that I knew my students would enjoy. It also served to simulate how different government officials have different agendas.

The game started with the Representatives having 5 minutes to create a proposed menu (a Bill.) My big fear was that it would be too confusing and they'd just stare at each other. Well, that didn't happen - at all. Instead, it turned into chaos almost immediately (a perfect simulation of Congress!). The Speaker of the Representatives, who was chosen by random hidden agenda, was a quiet girl who had no control over her group. Next time I might choose that position myself or have him/her be elected. It wasn't a problem though. They got right to work on trying to create their menu. They ran a bit over their 5 minutes but as soon as I gave points to the other teams (simulating political pressure to get things done) they had a menu ready to present.

That menu went on to the Executive Staff. Once they realized that the president did not have to have a majority vote and could just decide on her own whether to veto or not the menu was signed and sent on to the judges.The judges did have to vote and quickly voted the menu down (apparently Jamba Juice, French fries, pizza, milk and salad is not the healthiest menu) sending it back to the Representatives to start over. 

This time the menu was vetoed by the Executive.

A third menu made it to the judges but was once again voted down. Time ran out and our game was over. We failed! We had no menu to present and the only people to successfully complete their agendas were the two saboteurs (Conservative republicans who were happy to see that the government would not get involved in menus.)

It turned out that one of the saboteurs was the most vocal in his group and kept purposefully suggesting terrible menus just to waste time. I didn't build it into the game but apparently it was such a spot on simulation that even filibusters made it in!

We closed with three debrief questions. When I collect and tabulate them I'll add student responses. This was absolutely a beta test so I'm eager to see what they had to say.

1. Summarize your experience with the game. Did you meet your goal? Why or why not?

2. As you were playing the game which agenda were you most focused on completing - the class agenda, your team agenda or your personal agenda? Why do you think you focused on that agenda most?

3. The Constitution was designed to limit the power of the government. Explain how our game shows that separation of powers makes it hard for the government to create new laws.


For me, everything seemed to go pretty well. I need a much clearer and simpler "HOW TO PLAY" instruction sheet for all players going forward and I might tweak some of the values and win requirements to make it more possible to create the menu - though my group came close and might make it on a second play through. I think I might remove the "look these words up" when it isn't your turn component of the game. I was very concerned that teams just wouldn't do anything during other team's turns. That didn't happen. They were actively listening to the groups debate and then frantically calculating whether they would support the proposed menu or not. I did have a few kids "opt out" of their discussions but I think giving them the terms to look up actually exacerbated their lack of participation as it gave them a reason to opt out. 

Still, even the opt out were paying attention - they just weren't vocal about it. It was also one of those activities where some of my students who normally aren't super involved absolutely were. They relished using terms like veto (and even asked about impeachment!) even though the game doesn't really require it. They were just way into their roles, even those who normally aren't so involved in class. That's exactly the reason for using games in the classroom.

After my 5 days of games I feel very confident that my students understand the 3 Branches of Government. They appreciate the difficulties faced by each branch and how hard it is to make laws. Our essential question for this unit is "How does the Constitution limit the power of government?" and I'm confident that when they face their test next week they'll be very ready to answer it.

Games are cool. Use them!

If you're interested in trying this one here's a link to everything you'll need: Political Agenda. As always, it is free. Just print and play!
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