At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, students use tablets to game the political system

Photo via the Edward M. Kennedy Institute
Photo via the Edward M. Kennedy Institute

Do you have what it takes to be a US senator — even just for a day? In the month since the Edward M. Kennedy Institute opened to the public, several thousand Massachusetts middle and high school students have had the chance to find out.

The Institute’s Senate Immersion Module, or SIM, combines live action role-play with tablet-based technology to mirror the Senate’s daily routines, seeking to inspire the next generation to engage in civic life and participatory democracy.

Set inside a full-scale reproduction of the Senate chamber, each of the SIM players is assigned a senator profile, and then put on committees, sub-committees, and issue conferences. Once software algorithms weigh and balance the assignments, the two-and-a-half hour session begins. From there the game is on and players deliberate, negotiate, debate, and vote just like real senators.

As part of the vision for the Institute’s visitor experience, Ed Schlossberg and his team at ESI Design worked with partners Gigantic Mechanic, Control GroupRichard Lewis Media Group, the Institute’s staff and content advisers to develop the SIM as a one-of-kind immersive experience, relying on a cross-disciplinary, collaborative approach.

This past Tuesday at the annual Games for Change Festival in New York — a gathering of corporate and government leaders, philanthropic organizations, educators, media, academics, and game developers interested in exploring the increasing real-world social impact of games — attendees got the opportunity to learn more about that approach.

“Our goal is to give the players, particularly students, an ability to get a sense of the role of senators and the US Senate in our democratic process,” Nell Breyer, the director of programming and education at the Institute, said. While playing the game, students learn about representation, deliberation, negotiation, and how to take a stand on an issue, all of which helps “participants begin to make sense of the legislative process underpinning our system of government,” she said.

Nell Breyer and Greg Trefry of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. Photo via Tim Loew.

Nell Breyer of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute and Greg Trefry of Gigantic Mechanic. Photo via Tim Loew.

Though each player has a tablet in front of them, the vast majority of the experience does not involve screens, but rather students working together, talking through issues, interviewing experts, debating amendments, and making speeches.

“The tablet acts as more of facilitator than anything. We want the social interaction between students to be paramount, not the interaction with technology,” said Greg Trefry, Gigantic Mechanic’s co-founder and game designer. “We ran tests with lots of students to help find the right balance.”

In addition to designing the physical setting, the technology, and the personal interaction, the SIM’s developers have also aligned the content with Common Core Literacy Standards and Massachusetts Social Science and History Standards.

“We have been really pleased with the students’ spectrum of interests and the quality of conversation that they have with each other,” said Breyer.

The SIM, which is free to Massachusetts school groups, currently features two scenarios, one contemporary and one historic. Students can debate an omnibus immigration reform package or the Compromise of 1850. Museum staff say they are researching adding additional debate scenarios such as Reconstruction and passing of the 14th Amendment or the negotiation of the Patriot Act. These new scenarios are expected to be available in the fall.

“It’s amazing to watch the students faces when the doors to the chamber open,” said Breyer.

During his speech at the Institute’s dedication ceremony, President Obama held out hope that the SIM would “help light the fire of imagination, [and] plant the seed of noble ambition in the minds of future generations.”

By all indications that it is already the case.

Timothy Loew is the executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI) based at Becker College in Worcester.

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