Political Motivation : Why Games Belong in our Classrooms

Recently, we wrote a blog post saying that Political Animals was looking for educators who would be willing to analyze the game and see how they might use the game in their classes.  JFP Maligalig is one such educator, and this is the first of a two part series of blog posts talking about his experiences with games and what inspired him to be an advocate for game-based learning.

It was in February 1986 when all my relatives from Metro Manila suddenly came home to our ancestral house in Los Baños, Laguna. My cousins and I thought it was because of my brother’s birthday on the 23rd. We had little interest in the local news, which showed mobs of people and soldiers facing off on some highway. Our family reunion turned out to be a sign of protest for my relatives: each of them was an officer in the Armed Forces. They had refused to fight civilians or fellow soldiers in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in Philippine history, the People Power Revolution.

As a child, I couldn’t have cared less about politics and the prevailing social conditions of the country at the time. Fast forward to 2017, and I wish I could tell you that kids today are different. Most are as in the dark or apathetic as I was in 1986. What’s more frightening is that their parents, our generation, didn’t feel the need for political and social awareness to be a part of their childrens’ education. That is, to quote a popular leader from the West, “sad.”

All Roads Lead to Rome (Before You're Crushed by Germany)

My interest in government and social issues were sparked in high school by something very unlikely: Sid Meier’s Civilization (for those of you who are unfamiliar with one of the most successful digital game franchises of all time, please find a copy and prepare for many sleepless nights). I played Civilization in a computer shop and I spent almost all of my free time building up my Romans (the Roman civilization had become “mine,” an important point that I’ll elaborate on later); I would build cities, discover gunpowder, go to war with the Germans, and be crushed by their tank units (lesson learned: allot more resources for research, because musketeers don’t intimidate German tanks at all). I got so obsessed with Civilization, I started reading history books to find strategies on how my Romans can conquer the world. That might sound funny to the uninitiated, but Civilization was so well-designed, the game’s concepts and mechanics were good representations of social studies course content.

As a side-effect of my Civ­-aholic (yes, they made up a term for it) tendencies, I surprised my social studies teacher by reciting more in class and showing up in the top ten for the highest final grades in my section. The funny thing is that up until that point, I hated history class! That experience got me thinking: if a game motivated me enough to learn something I despised in school, maybe I could do the same for other students like me.

Game-Based Learning using Democracy 2

Since my undergraduate research days, I’ve been trying out analog and digital games in classroom situations to see if students learn better with games. Most of those games belonged to the strategy genre, and almost all of the games I used dealt with the social sciences. One of these was Cliff Harris’ political and governance simulator Democracy 2 (D2). The game (and the other versions in the series) lets the player be president or prime minister of simulated countries (fictional or based on real ones). By changing policies and managing the national budget, players can either make their digital nation prosperous (getting the player reelected in the process) or impoverished (a game over condition marked by the player’s ouster … or worse).

For my Master’s thesis, I performed an experiment involving 1st Year students from the University of the Philippines Los Baños’ College of Development Communication. For one of their foundation courses, these students were taught development issues using conventional classroom teaching, classroom teaching with D2 game sessions, and classroom teaching with D2 games sessions plus a discussion about the gameplay experiences. While performance in standardized tests were not significantly different, the students who played D2 were found to have a deeper understanding of what development was about.

Why did D2 have such an impact on the students in the study? The game allowed the students to make abstract concepts in development (i.e. poverty) more concrete. D2 players were also more aware of the interrelatedness and interaction of issues in governance, as this is a key mechanic of the game. Players were providing more specific solutions to issues when asked, showing that they gained more “experience” with these issues (in the game) that non-players did not have. To quote one of the student-players, “(In class), we were given just theories. It was not a first-hand experience, but the game synthesized the problems and solutions.” Explaining further, the student said that D2 made them “feel” that the problems discussed in class were theirs, and that they felt obligated to use what they learned in class to make solutions to their problems. When I heard this, I smiled, remembering “my” Romans in Civilization and how I dove into history books to figure out how to conquer a digital world (and discover tanks before the Germans, for heaven’s sake).

D2 was a small step towards making games acceptable for Philippine classrooms. After I finished my degree, the college dean at the time (who was also my research adviser) gave me instructions to try out the game as a regular part of the course activities. Jackpot! With the inclusion of an exercise based on my research into the course syllabus, D2 became (to my knowledge) the first digital game to be institutionalized as a requirement in UPLB. For a time, even other degree programs started using D2 for their classes in human ecology and sociology.

Teaching Critical Thinking with Games

That was back in 2010. I’m not up-to-date with D2 use in UPLB, but I still advocate the use of games like it for appropriate courses. Since then, I’ve used other games, both analog (mostly card games and role-playing games) and digital (a Rock Band clone, anyone?) for teaching. But there’s one more frontier for strategy games dealing with governance: political awareness. As a child, my grasp of politics was practically nonexistent, but that changed because of my education and interest in games like Civilization and Democracy 2. Children, especially those in high school (Gr. 7-12), should be given the knowledge and motivation to become active participants in nation building by the time they enter the workforce. But this is easier said than done; the current political landscape has shifted so much, even politicians are scrambling to keep up with the times.

This is where games like D2 would come in. By giving youths the motivation to learn about politics and governance on their own, they would be able to sift through all the available information and determine a political stand based on their own beliefs and not on propaganda. However, playing games without proper guidance might not be as effective at developing these traits; no matter how compelling a game’s mechanics are, they will never exactly match how real-world systems work. That’s why I believe teachers should be trained in game-based learning methodologies: to enable them to mentor students in gameplay experiences that could influence their growth into responsible and active participants in the development of their communities.

Opportunity Knocks!

A few months back, I was looking at Democracy 3 for another game-based learning study when I got a text from an old research advisee, Tristan Angeles. He’d since cofounded a game development company and he told me that their game, Political Animals, would be releasing in a few weeks. It was good timing, too, as I had learned of a research conference where I could present this game’s use of anthropomorphic animals as representations of political stereotypes.  But I'll write more about that in a future post.

Till then, learn on, game on!

JPF Maligalig is an educational communication and technology practitioner and researcher who specializes in analog and digital game-based learning. He is taking up a PhD in Educational Administration so he can develop procedures and policies in introducing game-based teaching and learning paradigms in schools, colleges, and universities. In between classes, he plays “Pocket Academy” on his smartphone.

A link to his study on Democracy 2 can be found here.

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