A video game app that promotes civic engagement, empowerment, and action among upper elementary school children.
Civics education is not only largely absent from formal K-12 curriculum, but it is also difficult to teach due to the controversial nature of politically-charged topics. As a result, students not only lack exposure to issues in their communities and the world, but they also don’t see themselves as change agents in their communities.
Udemonia is a video game app that recognizes the need of civics engagement and empowerment for elementary school children. Based on market and user research, kids not only spend a lot of time playing video games and consuming digital media, but the media that they consume also deeply influences how they perceive the world. By providing an immersive digital environment for children to explore both local and global issues, Udemonia paves the way for a more compassionate global community.
Udemonia has four main learning objectives for players:
- Increase awareness of civic issues both locally and globally
- Foster social-emotional learning
- Increase civic empowerment and inspire civic action
- Promote pro-social skill development such as teamwork
3rd-5th graders. Udemonia is designed to be used both within the classroom and outside of school in informal settings.
Udemonia was designed in the span of two weeks in January 2017 for the course Informal Learning for Children at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We continued to work on Udemonia through March 2017.
From Left: Teresa Mooney, Sam Bissonnette, Shasha Du, Monique Hall, and Rachael Moser
My Role: Product concept and visual design
Udemonia was chosen to be presented to Massachusetts House of Representatives member Jay Kaufman in consideration for a bill to enhance civics education in the state.
Defining the Problem
A major motivating factor behind the creation of Udemonia for each member of our team was the 2016 presidential election, which revealed a severe lack of dialogue and understanding between people of different backgrounds. According to this attn: article, a survey of 2,000 K-12 teachers following the election revealed "an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom." Teachers also reported “a recent spike in bullying and harassment, believed to be the product of presidential politics."
Despite rising tensions, formal K-12 curriculum does the bare minimum, if that, in educating young people about civics and political participation. Because there is no national requirement for civics education testing, many states have neglected to implement civics curriculum. For instance, in Massachusetts, there is no requirement for civics courses; students merely have the option to enroll in civics-related electives in 12th grade. As a result, children have little awareness of issues that exist beyond their family and peer communities, which leaves them ill-equipped to thrive in a diverse and interconnected world.
When civics education does exist, it often occurs in 8th grade or high school. Therefore, we decided to focus on younger kids, specifically children in grades three through five.
Now that we had a problem we were all passionate about solving, we needed to decide on a method and medium through which to solve it. One of our first ideas was to engage students in a more inclusive version of history through a virtual reality experience. We also considered creating a web platform where students from different backgrounds could interact with each other.
Throughout the ideation process, we kept coming back to a single yet powerful idea: in order for informal learning to be successful, it had to be fun. With this in mind, we finally arrived at an idea we were excited about: gaming for good. We would create a video game that would be fun, while teaching kids about national and global citizenship, and the importance of helping others.
We knew we were up against tough competition in the gaming space, with games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros dominating the market. However, we also believed that our game would have something unique to offer. If we could make our game both educational and fun, we would be able to tap into a market of teachers, parents, and kids eager for something different.
We began to brainstorm local and global issues our game would introduce players to, and grouped them into simple categories that would appeal to kids:
We created a mood board on Google Slides. The fantastical visuals and characters in games such as Monument Valley, Lands End, and Poco Eco inspired the visuals for what would become Udemonia.
As a next step, we visited Cunnith Elementary School to conduct a focus group with 3rd graders about their gaming and media consumption habits, and to test some ideas and visuals for our game. We developed a detailed evaluation plan, incorporating interview questions, feedback on some visuals, and a drawing activity.
The focus group proved to be invaluable for moving the design of Udemonia forward. We discovered that children in our target demographic spent many hours a day playing video games on consoles or apps, as well as watching videos on YouTube. Some of their favorite games and media included Supersmash Brothers, Minecraft, Star Wars, and Prodigy. Most of these games employ a superhero theme of some sort, in which the hero uses violence to defeat an enemy. We confirmed our hypothesis that media plays a large part in shaping the way kids view the world. For instance, when we asked students what some of the biggest problems in the world were, the Star Wars fan in the group said that war, the world exploding, and alien invasions were the most pressing issues. When asked for a possible solution to address war, the same boy responded with “make a bomb and blow up the people who are trying to kill us.” Media consumption not only influences kids’ perceptions of the kinds of conflicts that occur on a broad scale, but it informs what they think we can do to address those issues.
Prodigy was the most unique game played within the group, as it is an educational math game that incorporates fantastical characters and scenarios to engage players, and was mainly played during class. One girl remarked that Prodigy was so fun that she continues to play it at home, and one boy said that he would also play it at home if it were available through an app or gaming console.
We also assessed the kids' awareness of local, national, and international issues. As you can see from their drawings below, they saw gun violence and environmental protection to be noteworthy issues affecting the world. In general, they lacked awareness about issues beyond their immediate communities, as well as knowledge about what they could do to help.
The focus group led us to decide on several features of our game:
- Based on the focus group’s use of technology and their media consumption practices, we decided that our game would be most accessible through a mobile or tablet app.
- We would make our game fun by incorporating an element of fantasy, while aligning fantastical scenarios with the real world through media housed on a YouTube channel.
- We would consider borrowing elements of viral games such as the building component of Minecraft and the obstacle course component of Super Mario Bros.
- There would be a multiplayer option for our game, which would not only engage players but help them develop pro-social teamwork skills.
Overall, we found that there was indeed a market for fun, educational games that kids will play even outside of school. Current games on the market not only lack educational content, but they provide kids with an oversimplified worldview in which there is a clear hero and a clear villain. In real life, problems are often much more complex and require more nuanced and multifaceted solutions. Along the same lines, solving real-world problems requires teamwork and collaboration rather than competition. We came up with a motto for the game:
Based on the kids we interviewed at Cunnith Elementary School, we developed the following personas to design for (click to enlarge):
The name Udemonia comes from the ultimate philosopher of civic engagement, Aristotle. According to him, the best way to achieve a happy, fulfilling life -- or Eudaimonia -- is by doing good things for your community. The spelling U-demonia emphasizes the power of you, the player, to make positive change in the world around you.
Each number corresponds to a screen above, in chronological order:
- Drawing on the popularity and accessibility of mobile gaming, Udemonia is designed to be played in short bursts. The tagline "Changing the World One Mission at a Time" underscores Udemonia's social justice underpinnings.
- Upon clicking “Get Started”, new users will create an avatar to express their creativity and agency. The avatar can be a human, animal, robot, or imaginary creature.
- After creating an avatar and login, the new user will be taken to a screen with three simple mission categories - Nature, Peace, and People. On this screen, the People Mission is chosen.
- Within each mission, there will be a collection of games that correspond to local, national, and global issues. The 4th screen shows an example of a People Mission, in which players are given the mission to build a school for girls. The game play would be similar to that of Minecraft, encouraging freeform creation.
- At the end of the mission, players would be shown a video about the real-life issue the game references. For instance, the game on the previous screen references the global education gap between girls and boys, so players might be shown a video featuring Malala Yousafzai. If users click on the video, they will be taken to the Udemonia YouTube page, where they can find a whole library of videos to explore about the topic. The YouTube videos would also contain clues about how to complete some of the more difficult missions, providing an additional incentive for players to visit the YouTube channel.
- On the 6th screen, the Nature Mission is chosen. Games in this category might explore topics such as water pollution and endangered species.
- An example of a Nature Mission is shown here, in which players complete an obstacle course to collect water bottles for a community without access to clean water. At the end of this game, players would be shown a video about the clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Pitch to industry Leaders
At the end of our course, we pitched Udemonia to leaders in children's media and entertainment: Jennifer Perry of Sesame Workshop, documentary filmmaker Linda Harrar (previously at Nova), and Charlotte Cole of Blue Butterfly Initiative.
We received extremely positive feedback on our product concept and the visuals for Udemonia, and were also challenged to push our ideas further. Charlotte suggested that we encourage children to understand that there are repercussions for every decision they make. As a result, we decided to add the following element to Udemonia: each Mission would be interconnected to reflect the way situations affect each other in the real world. For instance, a seemingly positive solution in the People category, for example, may have a negative effect on the Nature category. Users will then have to balance these consequences by completing a new mission as a result of their actions. Jennifer said that teachers would find Udemonia to be extremely valuable, and suggested that we work with teachers to align Udemonia with curriculum.
Linda invited us to consider the realistic challenges of getting kids to think Udemonia is cool and fun. If we had more time, our team would focus on prototyping the game play for Udemonia and testing it on kids for engagement. We would then base each iteration of the game on feedback from user testing.
Presentation to Jay Kaufman
Our team was invited to present Udemonia to House of Representatives member Jay Kaufman in consideration for a bill to improve civics education in Massachusetts. We learned about the current challenges to increasing civics education in schools. Barriers such as limited access to technology or high-speed Internet, and the rigidity of curricular and testing requirements make it difficult for many teachers to introduce experiential learning into classrooms. A key takeaway was that in order to education to improve, top-down policy changes need to be coupled with innovative solutions like educational video games.