Citizenship Quest: Gamifying Online Undergraduate American National Government Course

February 8, 2023  |  by Patrick Stewart, Department of Political Science, University of Arkansas

We humans love to play. Play helps us learn new things, adapt to novel challenges, and quite frankly, brings joy to our lives. Games are a huge part of play, so when we as educators can build and use games that help us teach, education becomes so much easier. With recent research showing that computer games can both identify career-salient skills that players possess and excel in, and can develop a range of capabilities, including “soft skills” that are needed in the workforce and society at large, those of us teaching online take notice. For my part, I am fortunate to have been able to play with my Global Campus colleagues and develop a new and novel online teaching game: Citizenship Quest.

In spring 2017 I was approached by Global Campus to rebuild my American National Government class (PLSC 2003), a general education requirement at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Thanks to my friends, colleagues, and students, I have seen that immigrants to the United States are often the most knowledgeable and passionate of citizens, but at the same time must undergo the travails of a laborious, time-consuming, and complex naturalization process. I suggested developing a game that took students through the citizenship process by their role-playing as immigrants.

Fortunately, my proposal was not only agreed to, it was met with enthusiastic support from Global Campus administrators (Miran Kang, Donald Judges, and Shelly Walters). In addition to supporting my proposal, they provided me with access to a talented “ABC-E” team of instructional designers (Alex Kareev, Blake Ellison, Charini Urteaga, and Elaine Terrell), two of whom had experienced the naturalization process.

Over the next three months we brainstormed, developed, and delivered the online role-playing game that came to be known as “Citizenship Quest.” We did so by working backward from four major learning objectives (see info box below) while applying behavioral science concepts to the course design fully embedded within the University of Arkansas Learning Management System, Blackboard. Beta testing Citizenship Quest over the summer semester of 2017 revealed multiple glitches that, thanks largely to feedback from one particularly helpful nontraditional student (who has since gone on to be an executive for government relations at a multinational tech company), were dealt with quickly by myself and the team of Global Campus academic technologists.

From there, the gamified American National Government class was scaled up for the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 semesters, with Citizenship Quest largely liked by students surveyed at the end of the class – especially due to its providing low-stakes assignments as part of the game. At the same time, during the first semester of broad release, I received between 7-8 emails per working day for clarification, and the students had some complaints regarding specific parts of the game’s design, especially regarding some of the random elements built into this version of Citizenship Quest. These were ultimately dealt with in later versions of the game.

But the question remained: did Citizenship Quest accomplish its fourth and ultimate goal of developing empathy for legal migrants? Two studies I coauthored with Journalism Assistant Professor Brandon Bouchillon suggest that not only did student trust in the immigrant groups role-played increase over the course of a semester due to Citizenship Quest, the game furthermore led to greater trust in immigrant groups when compared with traditionally taught online American National Government courses. This finding that Citizenship Quest led to greater trust in immigrants from China, India, and Mexico in two studies carried out over four semesters is noteworthy on its own; perhaps most important was that during the most recent iteration of the course, when the traditional online and gamified American National Government courses were compared, professors other than myself delivered the class.

In short, Citizenship Quest now has been administered by multiple online faculty (Jose Ayala, John Davis, Kennedy Hill, Rachael Moyer, Angelina Nastasi, and Chloe Riggs) with minimal issues. In other words, after modifying and simplifying the game to incorporate more writing by the students and less administration of the game by the instructors, Citizenship Quest has successfully been diffused internally within the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. This has given me the confidence to share not only findings regarding Citizenship Quest through academic publications, but also the game itself.

When the COVID pandemic hit, I felt compelled to share a simplified version of our role-playing game as an open educational resource (OER) to my colleagues across the U.S. who were moving to teaching online. I was able to do so through our premier professional association, the APSA (American Political Science Association). Because Citizenship Quest not only can be used to teach crucial lessons necessary for good citizenship and is enjoyable, I anticipate continued use and development of this game as technology and our knowledge about what works best progresses and insights regarding gamification intensifies interest from faculty, educational technologies, and students.


Pedagogical Goals for PLSC 2003 — American National Government

  • Develop study skills in a low-stakes environment by focusing on multiple types and amounts of feedback and reward received both contemporaneously with completing tasks and during set timelines.
  • Develop an embedded game that seamlessly incorporates traditional and gamified pedagogical components in the same LMS.
  • Develop an appreciation for the administrative aspects of major organizational structures, with a focus on the paperwork and payment required to become a U.S. citizen.
  • Develop an awareness of and empathy for those social groups legally emigrating to the United States.

Patrick Stewart, Professor

Patrick A Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is a certified Facial Action Coding System (FACS) coder whose research concentrates on nonverbal behavior, emotional response to leaders, and the influence of technology on policy and politics. He has published extensively with four books (including Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign), 49 articles, 20 chapters, one educational game (Citizenship Quest), and has written commentary regarding nonverbal communication and leadership carried in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Conversation, amongst other outlets. His work has been reported on in multiple popular media outlets. He received his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University, his M.A. and B.A. from the University of Central Florida, and his A.A. from St. Petersburg Junior College.

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