Using Social Impact Games (SIGS) to Support Constructivist Learning: Creating a Foundation for Effective Use in the Secondary Social Studies Education

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Abstract

This paper examines how Social Impact Games (SIGs) can provide important instructional support in secondary social studies classrooms. When used within the framework of the constructivist teaching philosophy and teaching methods, as recommended by the NCSS (2010), SIGs have the potential to hone critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving skills that enhance knowledge retention as well as foster dispositional skills, including empathy, that encourage 21st century global awareness for active democratic citizenship. The interactive aspect of SIGs gives the learner the opportunity to 'virtually' participate as a member of new cultures or previously unknown subcultures, thereby immersing learners in culturally situated reflection, inquiry, problem solving, and decision-making. SIGs can serve to introduce or reinforce historical facts and current events; initiate classroom discussions about complex social and political principles, values, and concepts; create timelines; motivate interest and further research; and exemplify other key social studies content-related concepts.

Keywords: Social Impact games (SIGs), democratic citizenship education, values-based learning, online simulation, constructivist teaching philosophy and methods

Social Impact Games (SIGs) represent one genre of the electronic gaming industry particularly applicable to secondary social studies instruction. These games often deal with challenging social issues with the primary purpose of stimulating interest and comprehension through virtual experiences and creating classroom reflection and discourse that encourages concept acquisition and critical thinking (Binker, 1987; Raul, 1990). SIGs integrate social studies learning in a manner that allows learners to interact with content within a process of guided decision making (Squire, 2002). Many also provide an environment where a disposition to take action is fostered. Playing SIGs also allows learners to participate as members of a culture or subculture thereby developing new perspectives (e.g., empathy for others) by immersing themselves within a virtual experience that further promotes awareness, inquiry, and decision-making skills. As such, SIGs can be used to create a foundation for learning or to reinforce learning.

SIGs often deal with delicate social issues with the primary purpose being that of creating discourse and assisting learners to propose solutions and draw conclusions about issues of concern. SIGs are usually short, user friendly interactive role plays or simulations that are accessed online from a sponsoring agency's website. Most SIGS contain elements similar to traditional role plays and simulations, both research supported instructional methodologies that have their roots in constructivist thought (de Jong & van Joolingen, 1998; Gratch, Kelly, & Bradley, 2007). For example, the SIG Darfur is Dying (Ruiz, 2005) presented learners with an opportunity to examine the plight of those caught up in the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Empathy and a disposition to take actions are highlighted as users assume the role of a refugee seeking water and safety.

Creating a Foundation for the Use of SIGs in the Social Studies

Since the founding of American democracy, the supporting principles and defining purposes of public and civic education, integral to the social studies mission, have been inextricably tied to society's need for an informed citizenry. Dewey (1916) summed up the relationship between the purpose of civic education and the need for competent citizens in a way that makes apparent how the use of instructional SIGs contributes to the goals of social studies education:

...a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education. …