Playing It Forward: The Impact of "Impact Projects"

September 18, 2014

In the age of accountability, how do we assure our students are prepared with 21st Century Skills and the skills necessary to meet national standards and to pass standardized tests?  What if we give them a real world problem to motivate them to learn?  What will happen if we, not only let them play games in school, but encourage them to “play” to actually master competencies?  iCivics not only makes this possible for them, but it also simplifies your work as a teacher!

Consider this for a moment.  The phrase pay it forward can be traced back to 1916 when Lily Hardy Hammond and Crowel coined the term describing the altruistic meaning of love: “You don’t pay love back. You pay it forward” (p. 209). Fast forward to the year 2000, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Pay It Forward novel advances the concept from the philosophical into the educational realm. This best-selling novel uses a geometrical equation to demonstrate the exponential impact that one good deed could have simply by paying the obligation forward with three more good deeds (Ryan-Hyde and Monk, 2000). Hyde suggests that this powerful social movement could, theoretically, change society for the better. Fast forward again to the current digital era where the far reaching capabilities of social media and social constructivism could further advance the same geometrical equation of paying it forward in settings from education to jobs to marriages to community causes.  The digital revolution has brought with it, the robust power of gaming into homes and schools. Games are now used by all ages for enjoyment and learning.

Now, consider the profound significance being made by visionaries who are embedding the pay it forward mentality into games combined with social networking. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was one such visionary.  Her iCivics  legacy offers learners the opportunity to play games to master civic concepts, lesson competencies, and 21st Century Skills.  They may then donate their game points to what iCivics refers to as “Impact Projects” or charitable causes.  iCivics donors award actual dollars towards the Impact Project with the highest points. While students are intrinsically motivated to play a game, they may also compete against others while playing it forward. Thus, the gaming platform entices students to learn while the Impacts motivate them to pay it forward and play even more! These games have the potential to inspire the players to activate their own self-efficacy in realizing the literal impact they can make in serving their community and/or global world. 

Research supports this hypothesis first with statistics reflecting the exponential, almost contagious, increase in giving. America is spending from “50 million [dollars] in 2003 to almost 400 million in 2009. As of 2012, one in five Americans [had] made a charitable contribution online and about half that many by using text messaging from their mobile phones” (Owens, 2013, p. 117).   Not familiar with the Impact component of iCivics yet?  Check it out: http://www.icivics.org/impact. I’ve earned 13,500 points playing the iCivics games, which I donated to the Poverty Impact Project. Through my class Facebook page I challenge my students to top my score and choose an Impact Project they’re passionate about.

Playing it forward with iCivics digital games may not just be an altruistic goal for educators.  It may, in fact, motivate students to learn, and be just the prelude to exponentially growing good deeds, activism, and engaging students in civic responsibilities, literally… impacting society for the better.  Now, that’s a revolution worth spreading!


Suzanne Ensmann (Twitter) has held roles in the field of education ranging from instructor of secondary and post-secondary classes to Director of Program Effectiveness for Indian River State College’s Adult Education.  Suzanne recognizes the power in which technology plays in educating our rapidly changing world. She encourages educators to share their success with Impact Points and playing it forward on her Facebook page.