Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Current Issues, Current Resolutions: Pedagogy, Gender and Portrayals of Civic Life in Decisions, Decisions Current Issues

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 the games.

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 Technology (ICT).

Game Design

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" ( 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" ( 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, 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 …community 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.

Research Questions

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 questions.

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 bill.

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 women.


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 by time.

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 are:

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 gas prices.
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 characters.

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 ( 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 game.

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 provided websites.

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 personal experience.

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 current issue.

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 user studies.

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.


Bachen, C., Raphael, C., Lynn, K-M., Philippi, J., & McKee, K. (forthcoming). Civic engagement, pedagogy, and information technology on website for youth.

Children Now (2001). Fair play: Violence, gender and race in video games. Oakland: Children Now.

Delli Carpini, M. (2000). Youth, civic engagement, and the new information environment. Political Communication Journal, 17, 341-349.

Graner Ray, S. (2004). Gender inclusive game design: Expanding the market. Hingham, MA: Charles River Media Inc., 180-184.

Hoepfl, M. (1997) Choosing qualitative research: A primer for technology education researchers. Journal of Technology Education, 9, 1,

Jenkins, H., & Squire, K. (2003). Harnessing the power of games in education. INSIGHT, 3(5), 7-33.

Mitchell, A., & Savill-Smith, C. (2003). The use of computer and video games for learning. London: ESRD, 17-55.

Raphael, C. (2002). Citizen Jane: Rethinking Design Principles for Closing the Gender Gap in Computing. Proceedings of the ED-MEDIA 2002 Conference, June 2002, Denver, CO, 1609-1614.

Sheldon, J. (2004). Gender stereotypes in educational software for young children. Sex Roles, 51 (7/8), 433-442.

Snyder, T. (2001). DDCI Teacher's Manual. Watertown, MA: Scholastic, 1-23.

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004, April). Educating the "good" citizen: Political choices and pedagogical goals. American Political Science Association. Retrieved March 1st, 2006, from

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.

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