I was a Teenage Congressman

When Muzzy Lane Software was charged with helping create a realistic and engaging educational game about the U.S. Congress, they reached out to Rep. John F. Tierney.

How do you inspire a new generation of political dealmakers while educating youth about the political process? Through video games, of course. Chris Parsons of Muzzy Lane Software explains how they took a tough subject and made it engaging. This guest post comes courtesy of MassDiGi.

There are few freshman college classes more dreaded than Introduction to American Government. Most kids would rather eat cafeteria brussel sprouts, but it’s a basic class many must endure. So when publisher McGraw-Hill Higher Education asked Muzzy Lane Software in Newburyport to make a game for students taking “AmGov,” we knew that to engage those teens, we had to give them some actual power to make decisions that mattered. But what role would best help them learn about how government works?

A lot of us here at Muzzy Lane are history buffs and political junkies; none more than Dave McCool, our chief executive and the lead designer of “Practice Government in Action.” But for this project, we needed true professionals. So Dave and McGraw-Hill brought together groups of teachers and subject matter experts to draw upon their knowledge and expertise.

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There was a lot of early interest in having players take the role of presidential candidate, but eventually it became clear that a role in Congress would allow them to touch more elements of an American Government course—media, interest groups, legislation, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, and political parties. After several rounds of design improvement based on input from our experts, we had an alpha version of the game with most of the core elements.

The next step was inviting our own congressman, John Tierney, to visit our Newburyport office to share exactly what a member spends his or her time doing. Tierney was very generous with his time, explaining that most of the work performed by a member of congress is two-fold: law-making in Washington, D.C., and time spent in the home district listening to constituents. But there is a lot more to it, including dealing with the opposition party, media, lobbyists, staff, and volunteers both in Washington and back home. It was fascinating, and resulted in us adding some key additional elements to our design.

The objective of Practice Government in Action (a.k.a. GinA) is to obtain political capital by passing bills that you’ve introduced, supporting others, and paying attention to your home district so you won’t get voted out of office in the next election. Once introduced, your bill moves through committee to the floor for a vote, and if you’re successful, to the President’s desk to sign into law. Even then, the opposition may challenge the new law on constitutional grounds, sending it to the Supreme Court to be upheld or struck down. Time is an issue. If your bill is defeated or languishes in committee until the congressional session ends, you must start from scratch in the new session – assuming you’ve been re-elected.

If that doesn’t make you appreciate just how hard it is to get anything passed, wait. There’s more. Throughout the game, you must maintain a delicate balancing act between your efforts in Washington and time spent in your home district. Ignoring the folks back home can cost you your congressional seat, but spending all your time and resources there will limit any results on Capitol Hill. You face such obstacles as obtaining party support, opposition ads attacking your position, and lobbyists confronting you with ethical dilemmas, like offering large “contributions” to gain influence. Meanwhile, you are trying to raise funds, pay for rallies and town hall meetings, and use the media to get your message out. The difficulty and the obstacles make for an epic win when that final hurdle is passed, the Supreme Court rules in your favor, and your measure officially becomes law.

Once we started classroom testing, it was immediately apparent that the game did engage students, who focused on trying be successful. In multiplayer games, there was a lot of motivation to be the one atop the leaderboard with the most political capital, although they quickly discovered cooperation and compromise led to more success then going it alone.

Just last month, Practice Government in Action won a first place at the Serious Games Showcase Challenge awards in Orlando, Fla. What’s equally exciting is that after two semesters of testing, the game will be widely available to classrooms starting this spring. Who knows? Maybe one of these teenage congress members will one day stand on the floor of the Capitol!

Muzzy Lane has been a leader in serious games since 2002, creating innovative, award-winning games, and developing technology to overcome many of the challenges unique to educational games.