OCTOBER 05, 2016
A Conversation Between Carrie Ray-Hill, Director of Content at iCivics and Gloria Li, UF | Bob Graham Center Intern
iCivics is a leading civics education and advocacy organization founded by Sandra Day O’Connor that provides free educational resources such as simulation games and curricula to schools around the country. These days, digital tools and technology are becoming increasingly integrated into classrooms. As a result, educators are constantly trying to find new and innovative ways to communicate relevant knowledge to their students.
I had the pleasure of meeting (over the phone) Carrie Ray-Hill, the Director of Content at iCivics. Carrie is responsible for much of the content in many of iCivics’ games. Having played quite a few of the iCivics games myself, and having realized their extraordinarily addictive capacity despite covering subjects in government that students usually find mundane, I was curious to ask Carrie about her personal interest in these projects, the design and development process, and the ultimate vision for iCivics.
GL: What is your favorite video game, for entertainment and/or education?
CRH: I have to admit, I am not actually much of a gamer. I really enjoyed The Walking Dead game, it consumes you. It’s a good example of narrative in a game. Another one that I like for my phone—80 Days. It’s based on the Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in 80 Days— you’re the butler and you map out and manage the trip. You get to experience the novel and learn geography and culture to boot! [laughs] I also like Call of Duty.
GL: How did you decide to get involved with iCivics?
CRH: I was teaching in a charter school in DC, and it closed—so I was looking around. I enjoy using my own materials, and I rarely used the textbook. If I teach it I might as well make it, so I was already in that frame of mind for the move to curriculum development. A couple of connections and friends mentioned to me something about what Justice O’Connor was doing, and I started working with iCivics in November of 2010.
GL: Who is your target demographic, and how do you create content that appeals to them?
CRH: The product eventually ends up in front of students, and we’re looking at upper elementary through high school. Originally, we were just focused on middle school, but we found that we were being used a lot by upper elementary schools, high schools and some colleges, actually.
Creating content is really about engagement, so it has to pull you in somehow. The games work to give the players agency, letting them explore something. It’s also important to have a sense of humor about it; most of the time, civics doesn’t have a sense of humor about itself. For the lesson plans, it’s about how is civics relevant to you as a student? The content needs to be engaging and relevant to our audiences.
GL: How many people are generally working on a video game at one time, and what are their basic roles/responsibilities?
CRH: I’m now working under the same roof as our developer (Filament Games). I look at and create the content, the goals of the overall game, and what we’re trying to achieve as the producer. Then there is the game designer who thinks about all the mechanics of the game and makes sure it’s both enjoyable and challenging. UX (user experience) artists make sure the layout makes sense and you know where to go in the game. There’s also the game artists, who draw the characters, background, and other assets. We also have a programmer, who turns the ideas, art, and UX into code so the game actually works. It takes a village to make a great learning game!
GL: In your experience, how close are the finished products to the original vision?
CRH: I think they’re almost always better, because the teamwork that goes into the games is so critical to their success. And every single time we’ve made something, it’s ended up funnier, more engaging, and slicker-looking than we had planned.
GL: Have you had to reject game ideas because they are too dissimilar from iCivics’ mission? If so, what are some of those?
CRH: Our mission is to improve civic education, so our game strategy is all about creating games that work in the classroom. We base everything on what teachers need, and that all comes down to the learning standards. If games are not going to help a teacher cover what she has to teach in the year, we’re not going to make a game about it.
GL: How do you measure the success of a video game?
CRH: Well, there’s the personal way, and there’s the organizational way. For me, watching kids and teachers play is the best. I want to see interesting conversations happening, if a game facilitates really cool discussions, I see that as a personal win. We also look at metrics to determine how many times a game has been downloaded, played, how long people stay on the game page- the numbers. There are also helpful comments in emails or tweets from teachers— that kind of stuff means more to me than downloads.
GL: What is a good way to persuade students to play more video games that are educational or informational instead of simply for entertainment?
CRH: Keep making really good learning games. There are a lot of apps that claim to be video games but are little more than multiple choice questions. Making sure kids have access to high quality learning games is also important.
GL: What is the largest barrier you face as a creator of edutainment?
CRH: The money it takes to make them. We write grants for games, and a lot of that is about finding the right funder, matching the funder with the right grant. The games also require ongoing maintenance and updates- which are also expensive. We have no lack of ideas, talent, or skill; it’s more a matter of finding ways to keep making the games, while making sure they are still free for the students.
I just wanted to take a moment to thank Carrie for speaking to me about her experience as the Director of Content for iCivics. It was undoubtedly interesting to hear about the ins and outs of the game-making process, and all of the things (teaching time, user engagement, funding) that one has to keep in mind throughout. One of my biggest takeaways from the interview was how video game content creation was really a team effort; there are artists, programmers, developers, and all sorts of other people that contribute to the polished, playable versions of the game that you can see on the iCivics website.
Ultimately, it gives me hope to see that edutainment is on the rise due to the passion and dedication of people like Carrie. And if you haven’t been on the iCivics website to try these games yet, now is as good a time as any, right? Go click on “Win the White House” or “Do I Have a Right?” and find yourself consumed by hours of unexpectedly compelling arguments in modern-day civics, law-making, and policy.
Gloria Li is a second year Honors student studying Environmental Science and Philosophy at the University of Florida. Aside from running her sustainable architecture club on campus, she is part of the UF Speech and Debate Team, publicity director for Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law fraternity, and an editor for the PRISM Honors literary magazine. She is an intern at iCivics through the Bob Graham Center as a student fellow, and enjoys learning about the intersection between politics, advocacy, and environmental conservation.