Diversity and Democracy

Civic Seed: Developing a Video Game for Civic Engagement

When students enter into community-based experiences, their knowledge of best practices is critical to maximize positive impact and avoid negative outcomes for both them and their community partners. But colleges and universities are not always able to offer courses or orientations prior to each civic engagement opportunity. To better prepare students for service, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College are collaborating to develop Civic Seed, an interactive video game that teaches best practices for community-engaged service. Civic Seed aims to address civic learning needs while optimizing the positive aspects of game-based learning.

The Challenge of Student Preparation

Student underpreparedness for civic engagement is a pressing issue. On many campuses, students may begin participating in community service, community-based work-study, internships, and service learning with little or no knowledge of the community’s history, assets, and challenges or of the campus-community relationship. These students may lack awareness of their own motivations for engaging in community-based work, resulting in missed opportunities for connected learning; or they may carry presumptions that negatively affect desired outcomes.

Educators at Tisch College began to explore the issue of student underpreparedness after community partners reported that different cohorts of student volunteers were arriving at their organizations with different levels of preparation. While some students have no preservice preparation at all, those enrolled as Tisch Citizenship and Public Service Scholars take a full-credit graded course, Education for Active Citizenship, to prepare them for a year of service in a community organization. Our community partners noted that Tisch Scholars were more ready for service and performed at higher levels than other student volunteers. They described spending valuable staff time orienting unprepared volunteers to basic community issues and practices, and sometimes found themselves engaging in difficult interventions that could have been prevented.

Indeed, across the country, nonprofit organizations cite the lack of paid staff with the capacity to train and supervise volunteers as a primary challenge (Hager and Brudney 2004). Yet the vast majority of students, both at Tufts and elsewhere, are unable to take a course like Education for Active Citizenship.

Recognizing the need for better preservice preparation, in 2010, Tisch College staff convened a task force of community partners, faculty, and students, who completed a report on best practices in student civic engagement. We then began conceiving of a learning experience that could be completed remotely within a three-hour time frame and that would offer students basic preparation prior to their engagement with the community.

We developed a four-section framework for student preparation, focused on (1) looking inward (understanding one’s own motivations, goals, social identities, ethics, and values in the context of a larger society); (2) expanding outward (exploring the concepts of community partnerships with specifics about local collaborating communities); (3) working together (reflecting on cross-cultural, social, and socioeconomic differences, along with developing practical and professional skills and common goals); and (4) looking forward (building upon experience, evaluating it, sustaining it, and connecting it with academic and career goals).

While developing content that aligned with this framework (including video interviews, readings, and infographics), the Tisch College team approached Eric Gordon of the Engagement Game Lab (EGL) and invited his team to design a digital platform for our work. Although the Tisch College team had initially conceived of this platform as a series of self-paced online learning modules consisting of resources and quizzes, the EGL team suggested a video game, and Civic Seed was born.

The Alchemy of Creative Tension

When the EGL team proposed designing Civic Seed as a video game, the Tisch College team was intrigued but skeptical, envisioning a high level of tension between the playfulness of video games and the seriousness of civic engagement. Yet as Nick Tannahil and his colleagues have argued, “the prospective benefits of game-based learning provide us with reason to examine our fear of diluting the aims of education by introducing elements of entertainment” (Tannahil, Tissington, and Senior 2012). After spirited conversations with our EGL colleagues, we were convinced of the relevance of video gaming technology to civic engagement, its growing use as an effective learning tool, and its appeal to a new generation of students. Therefore, we opted to move forward with the project.

The resulting collaboration between Tisch College and EGL has been marked by the alchemy of creative tension. A series of constructive conflicts have resulted in a better product than either group could have built independently. In developing Civic Seed, Tisch College and EGL have engaged in constantly cycling feedback loops that travel in both directions. Eric Gordon of EGL has described this process as “a productive and spirited back-and-forth that resulted in much learning for both sides,” with the two teams “always connected by a common design stress test in their ideas and criticism: ‘Is learning happening?’”

This “spirited back-and-forth” has arisen in a variety of contexts, including the development of the game’s dual narratives: the fictional narrative that provides the playful environment to inspire learning, and the nonfiction narrative of embedded content and resources. In creating these narratives, we have engaged in debates over, for example, the dialogue spoken by various characters. While the Tisch College team saw some of the dialogue developed by EGL as being at turns too sarcastic or light-hearted, the EGL team felt that these elements helped advance game-playing objectives. Together, we have continued to revise text, seeking compromises that may feel risky for each of us but that align with our separate and joint goals.

Another example of debate involved embedded video clips of interviews with faculty members, community organization leaders, and civically engaged upper-class students. Ranging from three to seven minutes long, these clips contained information that the Tisch College team saw as important to the learning goals. But the EGL team feared the clips would interrupt the game’s flow. Beta testing suggested that the clips were indeed too long, and we have since shortened the videos.

The Future of Civic Seed

Through beta testing with Tufts students in May and October 2013, we have gathered constructive feedback on Civic Seed’s mechanics and its effectiveness as a learning platform. After incorporating this feedback, Tisch College will launch the game in February 2014 with student groups on campus who engage in community service. Tisch College is also developing a non-gaming version of the Civic Seed modules. This will allow for research exploring whether the video game element contributes to enhanced learning as hypothesized.

With multiple colleges and universities, consortia, and nonprofit organizations expressing an interest in Civic Seed, our ultimate goal is to create a version that can be used by any institution for civic engagement preparation. We plan to replace the game’s one Tufts-specific section, which provides information on Tufts’s host communities, with a generic section that describes how students can gain essential knowledge about their own communities. This generic version of Civic Seed will be available to interested institutions in fall 2014.

While the development process has taken longer than expected, it has also been richer and deeper than anticipated. The alchemy of creative tension we have experienced is emblematic of the very essence of civic engagement that Civic Seed addresses.

For more information on Civic Seed, see http://activecitizen.tufts.edu/civicseed/ or contact Mindy Nierenberg at mindy.nierenberg@tufts.edu.


Hager, Mark A., and Jeffrey L. Brudney. 2004. “Balancing Act: The Challenges and Benefits of Volunteers.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Tannahil, Nick, Patrick Tissington, and Carol Senior. 2012. “Video Games and Higher Education: What Can ‘Call of Duty’ Teach Our Students?” Frontiers in Psychology. http://www.frontiersin.org/Educational_Psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00210/full.

Mindy Nierenberg is senior programs manager and director of the leadership studies minor at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University.

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