Current Issues, Current Resolutions: Pedagogy, Gender and
Portrayals of Civic Life in Decisions, Decisions Current
By Rachel Araneta and Sierra Lovelace
Using computers in the classroom has become more common as
teachers and students recognize the ability of games to function
as educational tools. Learning about the benefits of computer
games has led to increased interest in the study of computer
games as a potential tool for reconnecting youth with civic
life. Studies have shown a decline in youth civic engagement
in both knowledge and participation (Delli Carpini, 2000). The
knowledge gained after studying educational computer games can
be used to develop future games that can aim to teach about
and increase civic engagement. However, one of the possible
barriers to increasing civic education of youth is in the way
games are designed and the portrayal of gender stereotypes in
While a number of studies have focused on commercial computer
games, educational games are often overlooked. However, the
need to study educational computer games such as Decisions,
Decisions: Current Issues (DDCI) is necessary to discover
whether traditional educational software is designed to yield
the same benefits in the classroom as do some commercial titles.
We studied the content of the game in relation to gender roles,
civic engagement, and knowledge about Information Communication
Decisions, Decisions: Current Issues is an educational computer
game that was designed in the late 1990s by Tom Snyder Productions.
The game is part of a larger series called Decisions, Decisions
that includes fifteen, full length game titles such as: Ancient
Empires, Building a Nation, Revolutionary Wars, and Immigration.
Like all titles of the Decisions, Decisions series, Decisions,
Decisions: Current Issues is designed to be used in a classroom
setting as a tool for teaching social studies. It targets 5th-10th
graders, ages 10 to 15. The game comes equipped with a teacher's
manual, ready-made quizzes, and handouts that define key vocabulary
for each topic being presented.
DDCI includes six short titles: Cloning, Death Penalty,
Gun Control, Energy and the Environment, Genetically Engineered
Food, and Juvenile Crime. In each title of the DDCI
series, "students role-play a decision maker faced with
a critical situation drawn from today's headlines. As senator
or governor, students use a proven, five-step model for critical
thinking and decision making to gather and review information,
discuss options, and take action" (DDCI Teacher's
Manual, 2001, p. 4).
The game's manual suggests that teachers break students up
into small groups and give them the task of making a decision
about the current issue at hand. The small groups of students
first watch a video on the computer screen that introduces them
to the advisors that will be giving them information about the
current issue (see Figure 1). Then, students are given the opportunity
to discuss and prioritize the three goals of the game that are
presented in a memo that the teacher passes out (see Figure
2). Students then watch a second video that teaches them about
the key points of the issue being discussed. Next, students
receive four different "advisor memos" that offer
conflicting advice about what to do about the issues (see Figures
3-7). Towards the end of the game, students discuss and debate
the possible decisions they could make about the current issue
and then vote on which decision they believe is the best one
to make (see Figure 8). After the entire class has voted, a
third video is watched and the advisors' reactions to the classes'
decision are presented. After game play is completed, the teacher
has the option to give students a quiz (see Figure 9).
The goals of the Decisions, Decisions: Current Issues
is for the students to come to a final decision about each issue
by using the 5-step decision making process: 1. Analyze the
situation, 2. Determine your goals, 3. Consider the options,
4. Make a decision, 5. Consider the consequences. This process
should also be facilitated by a structured in-class debate or
discussion that further educates the students about the issue.
DDCI aims to teach students both knowledge and skills
about civic life. The game uses real-world current issues to
teach students about "the political, social, and economic
institutions that characterize significant aspects of Western
civilizations" (www.tomsnyder.com). The game also aims
to teach students about "the governmental system of the
U.S.; the U.S. Constitution; the basic civic values of American
constitutional democracy; and the roles, rights, and responsibilities
of citizenship, including avenues of participation" (DDCI
Teacher's manual, 2001, p. 6).
In terms of skills, DDCI strives to teach students how
to use "a problem-solving process to identify problems,
gather information, list and consider opinions, consider advantages
and disadvantages, choose a solution, and evaluate the consequences
of the solution" (www.tomsnyder.com). In addition, the
game attempts to teach students causal reasoning skills, how
to separate opinion from fact, and how to communicate effectively
with others by generating solutions through discussion.
DDCI has received numerous awards, including the "Teacher's
Choice Award," which is one of the most recognized and
prestigious awards in the educational market.
In addition to promoting interaction among students in the
classroom, Decisions, Decisions: Current Issues also
encourages students to go beyond the classroom and into the
real world, via literature and the World Wide Web, to learn
more about current issues. The game includes pre-screened links
to websites and articles where students can learn more about
the topic they are studying (see Figure 10).
Gender and Design of Games
Educational software is frequently held in higher esteem than
other genres of computer software because of its specific intent
to teach children. More often than not, educational software
is viewed as wholesome, "family friendly" and scholarly,
which has deterred any scrutiny about the potential negative
effects that some elements of educational software may have
on children (Sheldon, 2004). However, there is evidence that
even educational software may be contributing to the ever-growing
"technology gap" that exists between the genders,
with software design being the biggest culprit.
Because girls buy only 12% of games (Raphael, 2002), the majority
of the games on the market today are designed specifically to
accommodate male play preferences. This, however, creates a
vicious cycle, which time and time again excludes females from
participating in the computer game market and in turn only further
widens the "technology gap." These male-oriented design
features act as barriers that not only severely limit girls'
ability to participate in gaming, but also makes it difficult
for them to learn from educational software that is also deeply
rooted in masculinity. Three of the more prevalent barriers
in game design are the way gender roles are portrayed in games,
the stereotyping of female characters in games and the gendering
of design feature in computer games.
Previous studies (Graner Ray, 2004; Raphael, 2002) have shown
that there are slight but consistent differences in the ways
that boys and girls respond to basic design principles of computer
games (see Table 1). The stimuli that software designers use
to capture the audience's attention, can interpreted differently
by male and female players. For example, males tend to be physically
stimulated by visual input, whereas females tend to have less
physical response to visual stimuli. Therefore, games that involve
large amounts of visual stimuli may only attract the attention
of male players (Graner Ray, 2004). However, it has been found
that females are more likely to respond to emotional or tactile
elements of the game. In addition, females are more attracted
to games that allow them to accomplish something socially significant
and/or beneficial for the greater good, because it allows them
to feel more emotionally connected to the game, which gives
them a greater reason to play it (Graner Ray, 2004).
Opposing genders are also affected by the way the game punishes
or rewards them. For instance, males are more tolerant of being
punished for errors they make in the game. The classic example
of this is the "die and start over" game design, which
gives players a "limited number of lives and the player
has only so many chances to succeed" (Graner Ray, 2004,
p. 182). Females, on the other hand, prefer to be forgiven for
mistakes they may make while playing the game. For example,
females prefer to play games where making errors creates temporary
delays in reaching the final goal, but does not result in permanent
loss. Unfortunately, because the gaming industry is dominated
by male designers and consumers the majority of the games are
geared toward the male willingness to "die and start over."
The portrayals of gender roles in computer games also acts
as a barrier, preventing girls from taking full advantage of
the learning opportunities of educational software. A study
conducted by Children Now (2001) "identifies some of the
unhealthy social messages that video games may be sending to
young players" (p.2). The findings presented in this study
especially highlight the ways that females are affected by video
and computer games. The study examined a total of ten games
(both for computers and for different video consoles) in the
U.S. and used a micro and macro analysis. The study found that
the number of male characters significantly outweighs the number
of female characters in games. It has been proven that girls
who are able to identify with a female character in a game will
feel more comfortable using the software and will also be more
engaged in the game (Sheldon, 2004). In addition, the Children
Now study found that the characters that players had direct
control over tended to be male, further limiting the ability
for girls to assume the role of female avatars in games. In
addition, the primary role of male characters in games was to
be the competitor, whereas "the primary role for female
was that of prop" (Children Now, 2001, p. 12). In other
words, female characters were found to play less significant
roles in games.
Sheldon (2004) also found stereotypical gender roles in 48
of the most highly rated educational software titles for children
three to six years old. More often than not, Sheldon found that
characters in the game were placed in stereotypical roles. For
example, "Female characters were more often passive, nurturant,
and engaged in feminine stereotyped activities (e.g., setting
the table). Whereas male characters were more often active,
non-nurturant, and engaged in masculine activities (e.g., sawing
wood)" (Sheldon 2004, p. 434). Males were also portrayed
as being more aggressive and physically active. This discrepancy
likely results in the inability of girls to identify with software
protagonists, which can discourage girls from wanting to play.
The way the avatar or other characters are portrayed in the
game also affects the way that males and females perceive the
game and in turn how they are affected by it. For example, when
the female characters in the game are hypersexualized, many
female gamers will not even consider playing. This is because
these characters tend to be placed in stereotypical and very
limited roles, which pushes female players away from both games
and technology in general (Graner Ray, 2004). Because the majority
of games, both commercial and educational, cater to male design
preferences, girls are again discouraged from playing and learning
from games, and using technology. Although it may be difficult
to create games that are completely gender-neutral, in order
to narrow the technology gap and entice more girls to play computer
games, designers need to create games that appeal to both sexes
by incorporating features that we know to be preferred by girls,
boys and by both genders. Therefore it is essential to continue
to study the design preferences of males and females and the
portrayal of gender roles within games.
Civic Knowledge and Skills
Indications of youth disengagement in American civic life have
been noted since the 1950s (Bachen et.al, forthcoming). Young
adults are less knowledgeable about the process of politics,
less likely to read newspapers, less likely to participate in
community organizations and less likely to feel a sense of identity
or pride towards American citizenship compared to previous generations.
The disconnection of youth from public life is possibly due
to the lack of meaningful opportunities for youth to become
engaged in civic life (Delli Carpini, 2000).
The deficiency of civic knowledge and decline in involvement
among youth is a matter of concern. Studying the effects of
educational computer games could lead to several potential strategies
for increasing youth participation in civic life. Delli Carpini
(2000), found that "America's youth want to be connected
to public life in some meaningful way and lament the sense of
disconnectedness they feel." For example, a 1996 poll revealed
that 70% of young adults were worried and concerned about the
future of the country (p. 345). This concern can be translated
into action by teaching children the knowledge and skills that
are necessary to become an active and civically engaged member
of their community.
One way to foster activism is through computer games. Although
computer games are seen primarily as a form of entertainment,
educational games can have a number of benefits for student
players. The lessons gained from playing educational computer
games extend much further than the progress made on the actual
computer screen. The learning strategies fostered in role-playing
computer games such as Decisions, Decisions: Current Issues,
can apply in real world situations (Jenkins & Squire, 2003).
The knowledge and skills gained from educational games can give
children the foundation they need for successful problem solving
and critical thinking now and in their future. Not only do players
learn from the computer game and their instructor, but classmates
can also be a source of knowledge. Peer learning can occur as
students compare game playing strategies and work cooperatively
with classmates (Jenkins & Squire, 2003).
Another benefit to using computer games in the classroom is
the ability to focus on a specific subject area (Mitchell &
Savill-Smith, 2003). This is mutually beneficial for the student
and the teacher. Because computer games can be tailored to inform
students about certain issues or skills, the area of focus can
also be fine tuned to the interest of the player. The teacher
has the ability to choose educational software depending on
which skills he/she feels a student or group of students should
aim to improve or develop. Educational computer games have the
potential to reach students who have difficulty engaging with
material through traditional teaching methods. (Jenkins &
Squire, 2003). In this way, computer games can complement the
teacher's lecture or the teacher could build class discussions
based on issues addressed in the game.
In order for any person to become engaged in civic life motivation,
opportunity, and ability are needed. Computer games are known
to increase some players' motivation to learn about civic life,
which in turn could motivate them to become active in their
communities (Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2003). However more
specific knowledge about what civic life entails and the skills
needed to successfully participate in civic events needs to
be taught in conjunction with the game.
Teachers need to be able to teach students the knowledge and
skills they will need to engage in civic life in the future.
Some techniques such as, "Fostering youth's ability to
express opinions, take part in discussions, participate in public
life, practice civic problem-solving or decision-making, and
engage in group learning, project-based learning and simulations
of real world civic events" (Bachen et al, forthcoming,
pp. 9-10). DDCI and other educational software have the
potential to aid teachers in their endeavor to teach the necessary
knowledge and skills about civic engagement to their students.
Therefore it is necessary to study how DDCI attempts
to teach knowledge and skills about civic life.
ICTs Roles in Civic Education
Children need knowledge about Information and Communication
Technology, or ICTs, for a number of reasons. Effectively using
computers to engage youth requires developing the ability to
efficiently use the ICTs. This is because ICTs can be an effective
tool for learning about civic life and how to become an active
participant in the community. In addition, the ability to discuss
and use ICTs will determine whether youth are able to successfully
participate in public life in the future as technology continues
to advance (Bachen et. al, forthcoming).
Children "need to develop critical thinking and ethical
reasoning skills both with computers and about them" (Raphael
2002, p.1612). The computer can be utilized as a way to increase
involvement in public life. Internet sites can provide ways
to sustain and improve the quality of civic engagement. The
Internet can help translate civic interest of youth into action
(Delli Carpini, 2000). Internet sites or computer games can
provide contact information for organizations, encourage attendance
at public meetings, etc.
The move from old media to new technologies means that the
public will need to update their knowledge and skills with ICTs
in order to keep up with civic life and stay informed. By using
educational games in the classroom, younger generations can
begin to become more familiar and comfortable with using ICTs
to search for knowledge, learn about public life and gain the
skills needed to stay informed. Teachers can play an active
role in this process by teaching about ICT policies, "ICT
policy issues offer promising routes to engage youth in
volunteering and organized political action because of young
people's interest in media topics and because communication
technology policy touches their lives directly through their
own use of media" (Bachen, et al, forthcoming, p. 8). Therefore
it is necessary to examine what DDCI teaches players
about ICTs as a means to become civically involved. It is also
important to look at the way DDCI incorporates ICTs as
a topic in relation to civic life.
Because very little is known about educational software, there
are several gaps in the research that our study will fill. First
and foremost, our study will provide more detail about gender
roles and gender stereotypes and how opposing sexes are portrayed
in educational software. Also, our research will begin to fill
the gap surrounding the role of educational software as a teaching
tool about civic knowledge and skills, as well as ICTs in relation
to civic engagement.
This study poses four broad research questions. First, drawing
on previous research about gender preferences in computer games,
we ask, what game design features in DDCI are male oriented,
female oriented and gender neutral. Then we ask how DDCI
portrays gender roles. More specifically we examine gender
role stereotypes based on occupation, clothing and appearance,
body type, and level of authority or status. We also compare
and contrast the gender roles of both avatars and other characters
in the game. These questions are necessary to investigate because
it is already known that game design features greatly affect
the way that boys and girls play computer games and how they
are affected by the game. Further research is needed to determine
gender-neutral features that can be incorporated into games
about civic life to encourage girls to play these games.
Next we look at the types of civic knowledge and/or skills
that DDCI tries to teach those who play it and whether
similar titles of DDCI attempt to teach the same skills
about civic life. Moreover we compare and contrast these findings
with the skills and knowledge that the DDCI Teacher's
Manual promises to teach with the game.
Lastly, we ask how does DDCI teach players about ICT
and if DDCI uses ICTs to teach about civic life in the
game. We also want to know if DDCI encourages players
to use technology to conduct further research on topics presented
in the game. Civic knowledge is a key component of being an
informed citizen. Teaching young children about civic life will
only further encourage them to participate in civic life as
adults. Because technology plays such an essential role in today's
society, it is only appropriate that we begin to use ICTs to
teach youth about why they should be involved with civic life.
For this study we have decided to follow the qualitative method
of research based on many reasons derived from Hoepfl (1997).
First and foremost, qualitative methods are best to use when
the topic or area of study is new and there is little known
about the subject. This is primarily due to the fact that qualitative
methods focus on open-ended questions that enable researchers
to discover new information beyond their intended findings.
Most importantly, qualitative methods allow researchers to delve
deeply into the meaning of texts, which in turn affords them
the opportunity to produce thorough and well-supported findings.
Qualitative research is also appropriate method to use when
studying a single, complex text such as a computer game and
how it creates meaning because, "qualitative research reports
are descriptive, incorporating expressive language and the presence
of voice in the text" (Hoepfl, 1997, p.3). This means that
all data is recorded in a way that is more easily understood
by those who may read the study. Using qualitative methods also
conveys complexity and detail that bring the study to life.
These characteristics of qualitative research have enabled us
to gather and record detailed data about our game, which in
turn has helps us greatly in answering our specific research
Decisions, Decisions: Current Issues includes six different
titles, each of which is considered a separate game. As a research
team of two, we played one DDCI game in its entirety
and then studied the characters in all of the games to gather
data about gender roles in the game. A total of 25 hours were
spent playing the games on a PC. Because a relatively small
number of choices were presented in DDCI, we were able
to exhaust all paths offered in the game. Each title introduces
a current event topic and the player must take a stance on the
issue. The game offers two choices: to veto a bill or pass a
Without group discussions, each computer game itself is very
basic. We were automatically assigned an avatar, a government
official. We held this position for the entire game. The game
is intended for a classroom setting and is designed for four
students to play in a group. As a research team of two people
we were able to play all parts of the computer game, but were
not able to experience the game played in a classroom setting.
The game is designed to incorporate a significant amount of
"play" that does not take place on the computer screen,
including reading advisor memos, explaining views to others
in the group and class discussions. The teacher's manual and
official game website recommend a 45 minute period to both play
the game and engage in-group discussion. We read the game introduction,
listened to advisors, prioritized goals, and made final votes.
Each individual DDCI computer game, without classroom
discussion, can be completed in about 10 minutes. The topics
of the game are complex; however the steps to complete the game
are straightforward. We visited all website links included in
the game. The discussion groups and teacher links were no longer
in service during the time we played DDCI.
In addition to the data we collected by playing and studying
our game, we also looked to other sources of data to answer
our research questions. More specifically, we used the official
website of the game and the literature that came with the game
as additional sources of data so that we were able to answer
our research questions accurately and thoroughly.
To answer our research question about gender preferences and
game design, we examined all of the game features listed in
Table 1, especially structure, interface, relationships between
characters, gender roles and opportunities for collaborative
play. We looked closely at these elements to determine if the
game's design features were more masculine, feminine or gender
neutral. To do this, we looked at the way the game was structured
and compared these findings with those of previous research
that had determined which gender preferred one game structure
to another. Knowing that female players tend to identify with
female characters in the game, and male players with male characters,
we examined the mix of the genders of the characters and the
relationships they had with one another, to see if either male
or female players would prefer to play the game. When considering
this research question, we also looked at the teacher's manual
that came with the game to examine how the game was supposed
to be played in the classroom and whether collaborative or social
play between students was encouraged.
To answer our research question about the way that DDCI
portrays the opposing genders and if gender stereotypes
exist in the game, we focused on the characters in the game.
More specifically we scrutinized the appearance, dress, occupation
title and demeanor of all of the characters in the game. We
then juxtaposed these findings with previous research about
gender stereotypes and games, as well as other titles in the
game series to determine if gender stereotypes existed in the
game. We also analyzed the way the characters interacted with
one another to determine if one gender tended to have more authority
than the other.
To answer our research question about the kinds of civic skills
and knowledge our game attempts to teach those who play it,
we compared our analysis of the game with the official website
and the Teacher's Manual. For example, the Teacher's Manual
offered a list of skills and knowledge that the game was designed
to teach, as well as suggestions for different activities that
the teacher can facilitate in the classroom, during or after
game play, to enhance the knowledge and skills taught by the
game. Moreover, the Teacher's Manual also gave suggested links
to websites that would help students to learn more about the
issue at hand.
To answer our research question about the game's ability to
teach about ICTs, we primarily looked at the content of the
game. We focused on both the information presented in the game
by the characters, as well as the use of ICTs in the setting
of the game. ICTs were defined as encompassing all media of
communication hardware and software except face-to-face communication.
This includes television, cameras, cell phones, operating systems,
messages boards, web browsers and so on.
Civic participation is a person's awareness of and relationship
to public affairs. Civic engagement can be accomplished in many
ways including, writing government officials, participating
in political clubs, actively seeking information about public
life, voting, activism and volunteering in the community. We
studied the civic knowledge and skills that are needed for successful
civic education and how ICTs in DDCI served as a link
to civic life and involvement both online and offline. We looked
at the knowledge and skills, in relation to ICTs and civic life
that the game claimed to teach. We examined how the computer
game attempted to relay knowledge through explanations and descriptions
of current issues. Skills are acquired when a student can effectively
use their knowledge to perform a task or make a decision. We
studied how skills were taught in the computer game through
the role-playing, detailed instructions, and decision-making
activities in the game. We looked at which specific knowledge
and skills were presented in DDCI.
For this study, gender roles and stereotypes were defined as
commonly held thoughts, views, or characteristics about a gender,
which are often over-generalized. Typical female roles and stereotypes
we looked for in DDCI were passiveness, nurturing actions,
or occupation in positions with little authority. For male roles
we looked for aggression, physical activity and authority over
Gender and Game Design: Drawing on previous research about
gender play preferences and game design, our first research
question asked: of the design features of DDCI, which
were male oriented, female oriented or gender-neutral? Despite
popular belief that all video and computer games are designed
to cater to male play preferences, our findings suggest that
this game is in fact female oriented. Table 2 displays the best-supported
game design features that appeal to females and males and those
features that are liked by both sexes and are incorporated in
to the DDCI game.
First and foremost the game's interface is very simple. The
computer screen displays the same tool bar during each level
of the game, displaying the categories of: About us, Teacher's
guide, Topic, Community, and Help. Although the actual game
is found under the "topic" tab on the tool bar, the
other tabs allow players to easily find the information they
may need to play the game successfully. While playing DDCI,
only the tool bar and a small Quick Time video screen appear
on the computer screen, keeping the interface constant and simple
throughout the entire game. This is a proven design characteristic
preferred by females because they prefer to work with the computer
while playing the game. If the interface is simple and easily
understood, female players will feel more comfortable using
the computer and playing the game.
The structure of DDCI also appeals to female, rather
than male play preferences for several reasons. Whereas males
are more comfortable being punished for errors they may make
in the game, which is sometimes referred to as the "die
and start over" structure, females prefer to be forgiven
for mistakes they may make while playing the game. Our research
revealed that DDCI does not operate under the "die
and start over" structure because there is really no way
to make a mistake that would cause one to lose the game. Although
your decision to veto or pass a bill may anger some of the advisors,
the player is never "punished" for his or her decision.
This is because there is no right or wrong answer to the current
issue at hand and thus the player can never lose the game. Moreover,
because players do not play DDCI to "win,"
there is no direct competition. Because it is known that most
females prefer games that do not center on direct competition,
the non-competitive nature of DDCI probably appeals more
to female players, than male players who tend to prefer competitive
games. Also, the structure of the game does not require its
players to make a decision in a certain amount of time, so DDCI
most likely appeals to girls, who tend to dislike being pressured
The narrative and characters in DDCI are simple. In
addition to there being only one story line, there is practically
no relationship depicted between the player and the characters
or even between the characters themselves. This simplicity of
the characters and their relationships is a design feature preferred
by most males. However the way that the characters present their
opinions on the current issue being talked about most likely
appeals to female players. Many of the characters share personal
and emotionally charged stories that explain why they feel the
way that they do about the issue at hand. This design element
probably appeals more to females than males because the majority
of female gamers are stimulated by emotional elements in games.
In addition, a key game design feature that appears in DDCI
is the mock resolution of an issue that will be socially beneficial
to "society." For example, players have to decide
whether to allow the death penalty to be legalized in their
state. Although they have to pass or veto the bill, both sides
of the issue are presented as being potentially beneficial for
society, just for different reasons. Also, players are encouraged
to come to a resolution through diplomatic discussion where
everyone's opinion can be heard and an agreement is decided
by discussion and compromise. These two aspects of the game
structure and design fall under the category of elements that
appeal to more females than males.
The Teacher's Manual, which comes with DDCI, calls for
students in a classroom to be put into groups of four when playing
the game. This design element of DDCI promotes collaborative
and social interaction to complete the goals of the game, a
feature that is preferred by both sexes. The Teacher's Manual
also claims that DDCI will teach its players decision
making strategies and skills as they move through the 5-step
decision making process facilitated by the game. As depicted
in Table 2, these design feature appeal to both male and female
players, making DDCI appealing to both sexes. Although
DDCI incorporates game design features that appeal to
both male and female players, overall the game is oriented towards
female play preferences.
Gender Portrayals: Our second research question focused
on the way gender was portrayed in DDCI. To answer this
question we examined all six titles of DDCI to determine
how the games portray gender stereotypes in relation to appearance
(clothing/body type), occupation and level of authority or status
in the game. Our findings suggest that gender stereotypes are
few and far between in DDCI (see Table 3). There are
21 characters in the six titles of the game, with twelve of
these characters being male and nine of them being female. Each
individual title has a different number of males and females.
For example, in the Energy and the Environment and Genetically
Engineered Food title there are four advisors, two male
and two female. The remaining titles (Death Penalty, Gun
Control, Cloning, and Juvenile Crime) have five advisors
and always have three male and two female characters. Based
on this data, it can be said that males have a slightly more
dominant role in the game, as they tend to outnumber the female
characters in the majority of the game titles.
Although we can only see each character from the waist up (they
sit at a table in each title), their appearance is quite professional
and appropriate. All 21 of the characters, men and women, are
dressed in a professional manner either in business suits or
collared shirts, with the majority of the men wearing ties.
They female characters appear to have healthy and normal body
types and are not at all hypersexualized. Similarly, the male
characters appear to have normal body types and are not hypermasculinized.
This finding may be attributed to the fact that the characters
on the computer screen are real people who are acting in short,
real-time movie clips. Therefore, because they are real people,
it is more difficult to make them appear unrealistic, as do
some animated characters in other games.
Because the game's narrative revolves around current issues
being faced by either national or local governments, all of
the characters' occupations directly correlate with the government
or with issue itself. For example in the Energy and the Environment
title, the player has to decide whether or not to allow oil
companies to drill in a wildlife refuge in Alaska. There are
four advisors who have been chosen to give the player advice
on how to make his or her final decision by presenting different
sides of the issue. For example, the Advisors in this title
1. Amy Muller is an Environmental Scientist who believes that
the wildlife refuge is too precious to drill in and drilling
will hurt the animals that live there.
2. Terry Hackett is an Economist who believes that we need
to lower the demand for oil because drilling will not lower
3. Julia Leone is the player's Campaign Manager (the player
is a senator who is in the middle of a re-election campaign)
who thinks that supporting the drilling initiative means more
votes. She also acts as the leader of the discussion.
4. Jay Chadam is an Oil Industry Representative and believes
that people need affordable energy and that drilling in Alaska
is the only way to achieve that goal.
Each character is depicted as an expert in his or her field
and has equal time to present their knowledge and/or opinion
on the subject. However besides Julia Leone in Energy and
the Environment, all five other titles have men acting as
the leader or facilitator of the discussion. This position is
high in authority because as the facilitator they get to decide
when the meeting starts and stops. They also regulate the time
allotted to each advisor to share their opinions with the group.
The fact that a male character assumes this position in five
of the six game titles alludes to the stereotype that men, more
so than women, are leaders who tend to hold high status positions
in the workplace. However this same stereotype is also challenged
in the game as there are several women who have authoritative
titles or hold high status occupations. For example, in the
Juvenile Crime title, Dr. Mary Egan is a child psychologist
and in the Genetically Engineered Food title, Kara Simon
has her Ph.D. in science and Theresa Witkowski is a Biotechnology
Executive. These three women exemplify well-educated and high-powered
individuals whose titles rank them higher than most of the other
individuals in the game, including the majority of the male
After gathering and analyzing the data, we stepped back and
took a moment to think about the bigger picture and the overarching
ideologies that rise from our findings for this research question.
At the most basic level, DDCI is mimicking the workings
of a traditional democratic government. However in DDCI there
are only four or five representatives who debate an issue instead
of an entire House or Senate. Because these representatives
are fairly equal in both numbers (men vs. women), roles played
and level of authority, it can be said that DDCI is sending
its players the ideological message that gender equality exists
in both local and national government systems.
However, this notion is not true. Currently the US House of
Representatives has 435 members, with only 70 of those members
being female. That means that women make up only 16% of the
House of Representatives, which in turn may make it very difficult
to voice their opinion and have it thoughtfully considered.
Likewise, only 14 of the 100 members of the US Senate are women
(http://clerk.house.gov/index.html). Moreover, only two of the
seven leadership positions in both the House and the Senate
are held by women, making the US government a male dominated
domain. However, DDCI challenges real-world representation
of women by portraying them as actively involved in civc life.
Although DDCI's representation of genders may be idealistic,
it can help combat traditional stereotypes about women in government.
Civic Education: Our third research question asked what
civic knowledge and/or skills DDCI tried to teach players
and whether similar titles of DDCI attempted to teach
the same skills about civic life. In order to accurately answer
these questions we looked at claims listed in the Teacher's
Manual and evaluated these claims across all six game titles.
Although the current issue topics changed from game to game,
we found the same basic skills were taught in each title due
to the consistent five-step decision making process in each
The claims listed in the DDCI Teacher's Manual apply
to each title. These claims explain what the game intends to
teach in relation to civic knowledge and skills. After evaluating
the claims we found all assertions were met to some extent either
through playing the game itself, classroom work and discussions,
or visiting website links provided in the game. The computer
game itself was considered our primary source for evaluating
the claims. Classroom discussions and website links were considered
secondary. While we were able to evaluate skills and knowledge
from information provided in the computer game, it was not possible
to determine to what extent each claim was met through secondary
means of classroom discussions or student exploration of the
We evaluated several claims stated in the DDCI Teacher's
Manual. According to the manual the computer game is designed
to teach players about:
1. The governmental system of the U.S.
2. Basic civic values of American constitutional democracy
3. Avenues of participation
The first claim we tested was whether DDCI taught about
"the governmental system of the U.S." The game includes
a simulation of a U.S. representative democracy where the avatar
plays the role of an elected government official making decisions
on behalf of citizens. The way players learn about governmental
system is through the steps required in order to reach a decision
to pass or veto a bill. Similar to the real life governmental
system, in DDCI players must gather knowledge about the
issue from a variety of people, prioritize goals, discuss the
issue, and make a final vote. These learning strategies fostered
in DDCI can apply in real world situations. The computer
game itself is the primary resource providing the basis to learn
about the governmental system in the video conference and the
on screen steps. The classroom discussions and websites can
serve to further expand students' knowledge and skills about
the governmental system.
Directly related to the governmental system is the second
claim which is that DDCI teaches about "basic civic
values of American Constitutional democracy." Out of all
the civic values and portrayals of civic life we found in the
game, voting and activism were the most apparent. Directly through
the game, students are taught the importance of voting as a
skill by communicating their final opinion about the current
issues through a vote. The votes of each group playing the game
are tallied and the majority vote wins and has the final say
on the current issue about whether the bill is passed or vetoed.
To further highlight the importance of voting, some advisors
in the game stress the importance of being reelected to office
as the game takes place during the campaign trail of the avatar.
Voting is not only a basic value of constitutional democracy,
but also relates to the other claims we tested, including being
a part of the governmental system and an avenue of participation.
Through DDCI we found evidence of activism, which also
meets the Teacher Manual's claim of educating players about
"basic civic values." The term activism refers to
activities both offline and online that assist youth in organizing
and expressing their political views about institutions. Some
of the institutions that appeared in the game titles included
the government, media, and corporations. Because the game is
played in a group of four students, requires class discussions,
and encourages students to explore Internet websites, activism
is stressed as a civic value and more specifically as an avenue
of participation. In addition, discussion with peers is another
form of civic engagement as students share their views about
the issues presented in the game.
Another claim included in the teacher's manual included teaching
about "avenues of participation." This claim is met
minimally in the game itself. The components of the game which
extend beyond the screen - classroom discussions and outside
website links - are what provide students with the opportunity
to become involved in civic life. By expressing views on current
issues to classmates or gathering information about becoming
civically involved via websites students are developing the
skills to utilize avenues of participation. For example, some
web links provided at the end of game titles lead to places
to contact government officials or the opportunity to participate
in civic activities. The avenue of participation in the game
itself is minimal, but the potential of avenues of participation,
which stem from the game are extensive.
Although DDCI met the chosen claims we tested, the game
could reasonably be expected to provide more information for
players in several areas. The game does provide a basic, rudimentary
vocabulary list labeled "terms." These definitions
are specific to each game and can better assist understanding
of the content of the advisors' presentation. However we noted
missing knowledge and skills such as a basic introduction to
government positions and process such as how a bill becomes
a law. In addition the game does not tell you which US state
you are representing, the progress of your campaign trail, which
political party you associate with, or the type of coverage
the issue is getting in the media. Including this information
in the game could more effectively teach civic knowledge and
skills to players.
We tested three claims from the Teacher's Manual that are associated
with civic knowledge and skills. In reality, a number of claims
that extend much further than the DDCI Teacher's Manual
are considered necessary to be an informed citizen or an active
participant in civic life. A widely held ideology is that the
"good" U.S. democratic citizen is informed and active.
While educational game designers and teachers agree on the importance
of developing students' ability to learn about good citizenship,
it is difficult to reach a consensus about what constitutes
this ideal citizenship.
In a study by Westheimer and Kahne (2004), three kinds of citizens
are described. The "Justice-Oriented Citizen" is one
who prepares to make decisions affecting society after analyzing
and addressing social issues. In this model students need to
"understand the interplay of social, economic, and political
forces" in order to develop skills needed to benefit society
(p 3). The second type is the "personally responsible citizen."
Developing the personally responsible citizen involves emphasis
on honesty and compassion, as well as self discipline. This
could include obeying laws, paying taxes, recycling and contributing
to others in times of need or crisis.
While the "personally responsible citizen" may be
involved in community activities, the "participatory citizen"
takes a more active role in organizing the activities often
holding leadership positions within institutions. DDCI
most closely fosters the "participatory citizen" by
teaching students the importance of being a leader in the community
by role-playing an elected official. Another description of
a "participatory citizen" is someone with knowledge
about government processes and one who will strategize ways
to collectively accomplish tasks. DDCI provides players
with basic knowledge of government processes through gathering
a spectrum of information about the current issues from advisors.
Collaborative play in groups and class discussion helps players
develop the ability to collectively accomplish duties.
It is important to look at which political implications and
ideologies are embedded in educational computer games such as
DDCI. The game alluded to the notion that all citizens
have the right to participate in civic life by communicating
their opinions to elected representatives and participating
in community activities. People's authority to participate stems
not just from their professional credentials but from their
The base of education for youth has larger implications such
as determining their civic activities and involvement as adults.
The need for fostering good citizenship is apparent, but deciding
which vision of citizenship to promote in the classroom is a
difficult issue. The political goals and constraints of DDCI
game designers, as well as the priorities and values of the
teachers who choose to administer the game, have implications
for the way good citizenship is conveyed to students.
ICTs: ICTs touch the lives of many US citizens today
and will play an increasingly important role in the future.
The power of ICTs to teach youth about civic life is a probable
and expected outcome. Therefore, we believe it is important
to evaluate if DDCI taught players about ICTs and if
so, how ICTs were used to teach about civic life. We looked
to see if ICTs were discussed in game titles and whether DDCI
encouraged players to use technology to conduct further
research. We found ICTs were predominately a means and occasionally
a topic of civic life for players of DDCI.
To determine how DDCI taught players about ICTs we turned
to the Teachers Manual. Although most claims in the manual were
related specifically to civic knowledge and skills, there was
one point that focused on ICTs. This claim stated that the game
will teach students how to "use information gained from
a variety of multi-media sources." After studying DDCI,
we found that this claim was true because players had to use
a "variety of multi-media sources" such as the Internet,
the QuickTime video player, and the Adobe Acrobat Reader to
play the game. Because players had to use several different
types of ICTs throughout game play, we can conclude that students
were in fact using ICTs to learn the civic knowledge and skills
that were featured in the game.
Another way ICTs are used to teach about civic life is directly
through the computer itself. Students learn about ICTs through
use of the computer and all the programs and installations encompassed
in the computer. For example, the player is receiving information
from advisors in the game through a simulated video conference
call, made possible through the QuickTime program.
The game does not convey any knowledge about how to define
or design ICTs, but it does offer information on how to further
research the issues using the Internet. A major component of
how the game uses ICTs to teach about civic life is through
the Internet links provided in the game. Players also have the
option to email their opinions or comments to representatives
from Tom Snyder Productions. Players are supported in using
the Internet to conduct further research based on the issue
presented in the game. Some websites provide additional information
about the two sides of the issue, while others present general
information about the issues. These websites are updated on
a regular basis, keeping the information current and timely.
ICTs are used mainly as a means to teach players' about civic
life; however, we found the topic of ICTs discussed in relation
to civic life within the game title "Juvenile Crime."
One advisor, Dr. Mary Egan who is a Child Psychiatrist, explains
some of the potential effects of ICTs on children. She says,
"As more children are exposed to violence in video games,
movies, TV and other media, they're likely to imitate the behavior
they see without realizing the consequences of their actions."
Presenting ICTs as a topic for discussion, as done through this
dialogue, will educate youth about the importance of critically
analyzing their own relationship with ICTs and how ICTs may
positively or negatively affect their behavior.
We found that civic knowledge and skills presented in the teacher's
manual were taught through at least one of three mediums: the
DDCI game itself, class discussions, or Internet links
provided in the game. All the claims we tested were met to some
extent. ICTs were both a means to learn about civic life and
a topic of civic issues within the game. Using the computer
itself served as a way for students to increase familiarity
with ICTs and the topic of ICTs was presented in one of the
six DDCI titles "Juvenile Crime."
While there was evidence of game design features that were
female oriented, male oriented and gender neutral, the majority
of design features were elements most often preferred by female
players. This suggests that the game is open to female players
and therefore does not act as a barrier to their ability to
achieve civic education through this game. We also found that
traditional gender stereotypes were not present in DDCI.
Moreover, DDCI tended to challenge common gender stereotypes
rather than reinforce them.
As with all scholarly studies, we encountered several minor
but unavoidable limitations while conducting our research. Because
our research was qualitatively based, our findings may have
been influenced by the interpretations and opinions that we
may hold as researchers. For example, the fact that we are both
females in our early twenties may have caused us to interpret
the game differently than a young male child would. Because
it is known that males and females respond differently to the
content of computer games, our research might be slighted biased
to the opinions and understandings of female players. Lastly,
because this educational game has not been studied before, we
have little to compare and contrast our findings with and are
therefore unable to triangulate our data, which limits the generalizability
of our findings.
Our findings both confirm and contradict previous researchers'
claims about gender and game design. First and foremost previous
research has indicated that video and computer games are designed
to cater to male play preferences (Graner Ray, 2004). However
our textual analysis has found that DDCI caters mostly
to females by incorporating design features that appeal to female
players. Previous research also claims that female characters
in educational software tend to be "passive, nurturant
and engaged in feminine stereotyped activities" (Sheldon
2004, p. 434).
However our analysis revealed that the female characters in
DDCI were strong, intelligent women who held high status
occupations and engaged in governmental activities, which are
usually stereotyped as masculine. On the other hand, our findings
also confirmed several claims previously made by researchers
about gender and game design. For example, Children Now (2001)
found that the number of male characters tends to be higher
than the number of female characters in computer and video games.
We found this to be true of our game, as four out of six of
the titles we played had more male characters than female characters.
We also found that DDCI has the potential to aid teachers
in teaching and encouraging players to become civically informed
and engaged through suggested activities such as reading and
discussing advisor memos, listening to others view points, prioritizing
goals, and making a final decision in the vote.
Although we did not conduct a user study, we believe that the
game has great potential to teach students about civic roles
and differing opinions about current issues (Bachen et. al,
forthcoming). DDCI presents multiple view points about
current issues in video conference and memos. This may give
players the opportunity necessary to develop their own opinions
on current issues and civic life.
Prior literature, such as Bachen et al., describes ICTs role
in civic education. DDCI may have the potential to be
utilized as a way to increase involvement in civic life for
youth. Internet sites can provide ways to sustain and improve
the quality of civic engagement. For example, websites linking
players to writing their representative, links to official websites,
message boards, or links to political activities in the community.
Our findings suggest that ICTs may offer routes to engage youth
in civic life.
In order to improve the quality and depth of research in this
area, we must first suggest several changes that should be made
to the game itself. Most importantly, we found that the game
was unable to give players the information they need about how
the U.S. government works (how bills are drafted, how a bill
become a law, how senators and governors are re-elected to office,
etc). Therefore we find it necessary to re-design the game to
better deliver information about the workings of the government
so players can fully grasp the concept of the laws and issues
being discussed in the game. We also feel that the game needs
to do more to incorporate the outside world into the game. For
example, the game should provide students with the opportunity
to participate in online polls and discussion boards about the
Because the majority of our game revolves around classroom
discussion and collaborative play among students, we believe
that future research on our game should concentrate on players
and how they are affected by the content of the game by conducting
First we suggest that future research focuses on how female
players are affected by the representation of female characters
as leaders in the game. We think it would be interesting to
test if game like Decisions, Decisions: Current Issues
helps girls to envision themselves in governmental roles that
are traditionally held by males. To do this, researchers should
conduct an experimental user study where a control group of
female youth would play DDCI and an experimental group
of female youth would play a game that does not depict women
in positive leadership roles. We hypothesize that the control
group would be more likely to envision themselves in leadership
positions than females in the experimental. Therefore, we believe
that females who play games that depict women in strong leadership
positions like DDCI, will be empowered to take on leadership
positions both as children and as adults.
Because female characters tend to be depicted in stereotypical,
hypersexualized roles in video and computer games, females are
often discouraged from wanting to play games. Our analysis of
the educational game DDCI, found that the female characters
were depicted as intelligent women with authoritative positions,
contradicting previous findings and stereotypes present in both
games and in the real world. Thus we hypothesize that if educational
software continues to depict women in a strong and positive
way, more females will want to participate in technology by
playing more games-bridging the technology gap between genders.
Future researchers should conduct experimental user studies
to test whether games such as DDCI actually do increase
females' want to participate in gaming technology.
Lastly, we think it would be beneficial to conduct future research
on the game's ability to teach players about civic life. Again
researchers should perform an experimental user study to test
whether players are actually retaining information presented
in the game about current issues and the democratic governmental
system. If a questionnaire was given to players both before
and after game play, it would be possible to determine if players
were learning and remembering what the game intends to teach.
However we must remember that the majority of this game takes
place in the classroom and depends on how the teacher both presents
and explains the information presented in the game. Therefore,
it would be necessary for future researchers to observe the
classroom discussions that take place during game play to fully
understand the effectiveness of Decisions, Decisions: Current
Issues as a tool for educating youth about civic life.
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Rachel Araneta and Sierra Lovelace are Santa Clara University
undergraduates. They delivered this paper at the third annual
Student Ethics Research Conference, May 10, 2006.