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Pros: Students learn how political decisions can affect budgets, popular support, and communities.
Cons: If students are unfamiliar with county departments, they'll first need to read the in-game guide.
Bottom Line: Gives students a nice window into local government, and how community leaders face tough decisions and complex civic problems.
In the classroom, this browser- and tablet-based game can teach students about civic issues and get them making difficult decisions. It complements curricula around civics, government, and public finances. Players must be quick on their feet and keep an eye on the tax rate, the overall budget, and their popularity rating. By developing their county, players also learn the pros (more people, larger tax base, more public support) and cons (more requests for services, more expenses) of investment. Overall, students will need to think quickly, so at least a moderate amount of previous knowledge about how county departments work would be helpful, and the more localized and specific the better; teachers could even bring in guests from local government or have students explore their county's website. There are some ready-to-go implementation resources in the Game Guide, including pre-game and post-game discussion questions, along with the suggested activities.
For students who regularly run out of money, show them how to play around with the rates of property taxes, sales taxes, and public support. Sometimes one kind of taxes can be raised while the other is lowered -- a way to avoid affecting public support and still end up with more money.
An iCivics game available on the web and for iOS and Android, Counties Work is about the daily decisions of local government, balancing citizen requests with available funding and priorities and making decisions that can impact an official's popularity.
Players begin by choosing the game's difficulty: Normal or Fast. Then they name their county/parish/borough (or use the random name generator) and decide on their character's avatar, title, and role. Players also choose one "extra" department for their community, adding some flavor beyond the standard six departments (Public Works and Transportation, Finance, Records, Justice and Public Safety, Human Services, and Community Health).
After all that, requests from the citizens start coming in, ranging from requests for more recreational fields to additional social services to pothole fixes. They start slowly but soon pick up steam. Players can either accept or reject these requests, or just put them off. If accepted, players escort the citizen to the correct government agency to deal with it. Incorrect matches affect popular support. There's a countdown clock for each request, and if players don't meet the deadline, they get penalized. Requests vary in terms of their impact on budget and public support. Occasional emergencies arise, such as earthquakes, and they must be dealt with (and paid for) right away. Students balance sales and property taxes with budgets and public support. Students can also pay to develop nearby areas to add features such as a courthouse, park, or wastewater treatment plant. These cost money but add population or support to the community.
At the end of each in-game year, a newspaper shows progress and a financial expert takes players through a rundown of collected tax revenue and projected revenue for the following year. Students can adjust sales taxes at any time during the game, but must wait for year's end to adjust the property tax rate. If players still have 50% or more support at the end of the game they win re-election.
Full Disclosure: iCivics and Common Sense Education share a funder; however, that relationship does not impact Common Sense Education's editorial independence and this learning rating.
Students learn how the decision to support and pay for one project impacts their ability to support others, and how government leaders need to think ahead to manage all of the interconnected priorities, tasks, and budgets in a county. While that might sound a bit dry, the game also wisely adds a handful of oddball requests, such as taxing people's animals or painting all buildings yellow, to keep it from getting too serious and to test students' critical thinking abilities. Since a few unanticipated emergencies are also tossed in -- like fires and hazardous waste spills -- players must stay agile and persevere, learning in the process that government is all about adaptability and balance.
The main weakness of Counties Work is its limited scope. The gameplay doesn't really evolve beyond the pacing, so students will be engaged but perhaps only for a limited time. Students may quickly start making bad decisions just to game the system and see what happens when irrational decision-making enters the realm of county government. But, if students play all the way through, perhaps even more than once, they'll come out with a solid understanding of what major county departments handle and where to go to address certain issues.