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Seventh-grade teacher Howard Goldberg of Seneca Ridge Middle School in Loudon County, Va., shows a student how to play “Counties Work” in his classroom. Photo: NACo

By Kelley Lindsey

The County of Buckinghamshire has re-elected me to be it's leader — twice. You've never heard of this county? That's probably because it only exists on the Internet, as part of a game called “Counties Work.” In this game, you manage a county, which includes setting taxes from year to year, accepting or rejecting requests from your citizens, directing people to the correct departments, building roads, and handling disasters.

If you keep citizen satisfaction above 50% over the course of four years (really, only about 20 minutes), you get re-elected.

Not only do players learn about the departments of county government; the points earned in the game can be given to a real-life charity. Every three months, the charity with the highest amount of points gets a $1,000 check. The most recent winner — with 14 million points in July — is Kids Protecting Kids, which raises awareness for child abuse, and provides help for child-abuse victims by empowering and informing students.

Building civic knowledge

The game — which won The American Society of Association Executives' 2012 Gold Circle Award for Innovative Communications — is part of a program known as iCivics, a 2009 brainchild by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to boost Americans' civic knowledge and participation. “Counties Work” was created by Filament Games studios and jointly sponsored by the National Association of Counties (NACo) and pharmaceutical chain CVS Caremark.

“There were games for government, but nothing specifically for county government,” says Bill Cramer, marketing director of NACo. “Our executive director, Larry Naake, wanted to reach out to students to educate them. He came in contact with iCivics.”

The game is used primarily by teachers of grades 6 through 12, in conjunction with free teaching materials provided by iCivics. In the 11 months since the game launched, more than 200,000 students have played it and more than 3,000 teachers have downloaded the materials to use in their classrooms.

Materials include teaching units on a variety of topics such as the branches of government, citizenship and participation, and politics and public policy. Within each topic there are lesson plans on subtopics, as well as games. So when a teacher begins the state and local government unit, the students play “Counties Work” and learn about the different departments of county government, including public works. All iCivics materials comply with state standards.

Not just for children

The video game is just as informative for adults as it is for children. Anyone can play the game and download the materials.

Public works departments can use the game and encourage citizens to do the same. Many counties feature a link to the game on their websites, as well as provide information for local teachers. To link the game to your site, contact Bill Cramer at bcramer@naco.org.

Steve Shular, public affairs officer for Shelby County, Tenn., which currently uses the game, thinks it could help inspire the next generation of public workers and civil servants. “If we are open to sharing knowledge and being accessible, then kids will want to work for the government.”