Is Knowledge Enough?

I have a confession to make. My first voting experience was to vote in the 2016 Democratic primary. That’s not to say I was not interested in politics before this point — I was, and very much so. I was obsessive in my fanship of Barack Obama in both of his elections. It took me, however, until the age of 30 to take the leap from an increasingly civically knowledgeable youth to a voter. As a non sequitur, I have played at least hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of Civilization over the years. After discovering it in my teenage years, there were times of my life that I’d average 10 or more hours per day on the game. From Civilization III all the way to Civilization VI, I’ve owned them all and, with the exception of the mistake that was Civ V, I’ve spent a great deal of time on each.

In Kahne’s research, Civilization was used as a shining example of how youth may be encouraged to participate civically. I find the claim both partially accurate and incomplete. I learned a great deal from the historically-accurate civilization builder. From war tactics to governmental styles, the game imparted knowledge to me on how each works as well as their benefits and costs. This level of knowledge on the subject seems to be uncommon, even more so in youth. In this way, Kahne is correct. Without the knowledge of larger systems and how they integrate into the lives of societies and nations, voting becomes a task rather than an opportunity. Note, though, that I played the game for over a decade before showing up to the polls. Knowledge simply isn’t enough. Games can be a powerful vessel that build rich universes and shape worldviews, and this can be extended into generating civic engagement, but generating specific behaviors from them is an immensely complex task and I would argue that Civilization and games like it come close but fall just short.

There is an argument to be made, however, that my growing passion for policy, my activistic worldview and behaviors, and my obsessive poll-following all could have stemmed from Civilization. Perhaps I am a laggard, only slowly ingesting the message that was, either inadvertently or intentionally, coded into the game. The deeper message remains, however: Imparting knowledge through game design is a developing, powerful tactic that deserves serious research attention.

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