Do digital games foster real-life civic engagement?
Joseph Kahne, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, is doing a study on this question, building on his earlier research about "the future of digital media and learning...[and] its potential to meaningfully support (and in some cases undermine) the development of a more informed, engaged, and reflective democracy." Joseph was not at the Stimulating Transparency & Accountability conference I attended in Montana, but his research questions and scholarly interests were in the air. If digital games can foster real-life civic engagement, it could have a game-changing effect (!) on our democracy. Anything that raises the bar of youth civic engagement --or any civic engagement for that matter--deserves a close look.
So Joseph Kahne's research is relevant, especially for those of us who want civics learning to lead to action. I was on a panel for "Digital Media, Civics Education and Youth," and while we did not go deep into the question of outcomes and assessment, it was on everyone's mind. Charles Calleros from OurCourts.org was on the panel, as well as James Bachhuber, a writer, designer, educator and gaming consultant with Global Kids. We all want to consider the way digital games and new media can drive understanding and engagement among youth, not as a replacement for good teaching and facilitating, but as a powerful supplement.
The National Institute of Money in State Politics hosted the conference, and Project Vote Smart, Center for Responsive Politics, and the Sunlight Foundation (among others) were there to discuss campaign reform, transparency, and accountability. Many of the presenters mentioned the "transparency cycle" and the different points of contact neccesary to create a truly open and accountable government. Technology is an important part of this transparency, which means it's an important part of democracy. FollowTheMoney.org, VoteSmart.org, OpenSecrets.org, all of these sites help us understand civics we don't tend to learn in social studies class, even though campaign donations and lobbying are arguably the most influential aspect of our election process. How can we get these conversations into the minds and hearts of students?
President Obama has issued a Memorandum on Transparency, an unprecedented move during a time of unprecedented technological tools. This could be the Golden Era of Transparency, not only because of the technology, the tools and the commitment of people at this conference, but because we develop ways to engage all ages of learners in the conversation. If it takes games like Sandra Day O'Connor's OurCourts.org, or innovative but wonderfully simple movements like the DigitalDemocracyContest.org, maybe we will see a bump in civic engagement or voter participation in years to come.
It was an eye-opening and deeply rewarding conference; I became an American citizen last December, a month after the 2008 elections. Not once during my citizenship studies did I read about campaign finance and the influence of money on elections and issues. There is a disconnect between the way U.S. history and social studies prepare us for deep engagement in civics. What usually motivates us to learn are the compelling, controversial, personal and sometimes intimidating issues that affect us individually. Technology can, and has, made those issues become "aha!" moments, making complex issues accessible and real. To bring those learning moments to the youngest members of our democracy is an important part of the "transparency cycle," the part that touches motivation and action.
Thanks to the staff at Flathead Lake Lodge for a great time, and arranging that spectacular weather! Our hikers also appreciated the trip up Lake MacDonald Valley Trail without bumping into the local grizzly bear. And thanks, too, to the National Institute for Money in State Politics for hosting an exciting conference.