Social Studies

A Digital Game Offers a Lesson on Compromise, the 18th Century Way

By Caitlyn Meisner — August 30, 2023 5 min read
This image shows an 1876 engraving titled "Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776" made available by the Library of Congress. On that day, the Continental Congress formally endorsed the Declaration of Independence. Celebrations began within days: parades and public readings, bonfires and candles and the firing of 13 musket rounds, one for each of the original states. Nearly a century passed before the country officially named its founding a holiday.
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A civics education group has joined with George Washington’s Mount Vernon homestead to provide a 21st century take on teaching the art of political compromise.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit iCivics has created a digital educational game to teach students and families about the compromises that went into the crafting of the Constitution in 1787. The game officially launches Sept. 18, which is Constitution Day.

The game, Constitutional Compromise, focuses on specific compromises made by each state delegate—except Rhode Island, which did not send anyone to the Convention—when crafting the U.S. Constitution. This game serves as a prequel to Race to Ratify, another iCivics game, which takes players on a journey across the colonies to advocate for ratification of the Constitution.

iCivics was founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2009 to provide engaging civic resources to students across the nation. The website has 17 educational games, along with hundreds of free resources for civics educators.

The partnership with Mount Vernon seeks to expand the reach of the game by adapting it into a museum exhibit format, the first of its kind for both organizations. Hosting the exhibit at George Washington’s residence can help spread the message of compromise, according to Allison Wickens, vice president for education at Mount Vernon. The game will be played on a digital platform inside the exhibit in a shorter format to maintain the flow of museum traffic.

Wickens said Washington’s contributions to the Constitutional Convention are often forgotten—as he was the presiding officer—so this game brings his role to the spotlight.

Placing civic education at the forefront

“The game gives students the opportunity to weigh and learn about … the arguments that were made during the convention itself, and make a decision on their own,” said Julie Silverbrook, a constitutional scholar in residence at iCivics.

Early in the 20th century, civics was a core subject, along with reading and math. In the 1960s and 1970s—during the Vietnam War, a time of disillusionment and distrust in the U.S. government—civics was merged with social studies curriculum. A real de-emphasis occurred in the 1980s, when economic stabilization was prioritized over good citizenship.

Only 47 percent of U.S. adults can name all three branches of government, according to a 2022 Annenberg Policy Institute survey.

The state of civics education across the United States now varies widely. Many states require some civics standards in social studies courses or only require students to pass a civic exam in order to graduate from high school, regardless of whether they’ve studied the subject.

“The founders understood that constitutional and civic knowledge were foundational for the success of our experiment and self-government, [and] that constitutional democracy does not work unless you have an informed populace,” Silverbrook said.

Sam Evans, a researcher with Western Kentucky University who wrote a report on states’ civic education requirements, said the subject should get the same level of attention as reading and math.

“The current social and political environment in our country indicates similar attention needs to be given to civics across the [pre-kindergarten to 12th grade] setting with stronger expectations for the high school level,” Evans wrote.

Silverbrook agreed, pointing to rates of distrust in democracy and institutions that she describes as alarming. Only 27 percent of U.S. adults have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the nation’s institutions, according to a July 2022 Gallup poll that Silverbrook referenced.

Silverbrook and Wickens said the new game provides an opportunity to teach civics across different generations.

“We want to prompt intergenerational conversations with the support of Mount Vernon expertise,” Wickens said. “The parent … or guardian doesn’t have to be the expert on the Constitutional Convention, and they can play with the child. They don’t bear the responsibility of being the content expert if they were having this question at home.”

Emphasize compromise, not winning

Wickens said the aim of the game is to demonstrate to players that winning was not the founders’ goal. It was to develop an effective constitution that everyone could support.

“The shared goal—at the convention and today—is about a country that’s working and that no one person and no one perspective has all the answers to make that country work,” Wickens said. “Kids can learn to apply that in their own lives and expect that from their own elected leaders.”

Silverbrook said the game puts a fun spin on the “process of acquiring civic values,” while deepening the knowledge of its target group of middle and high school students.

“[It’s also a way to] develop the mindset that civility and compromise are really embedded in the DNA of our constitutional system of government,” Silverbrook said. “That’s probably something that feels lost at this moment in our political system.”

She said the game will also help students see where the Constitution leaves space for improvement.

One of the many compromises to come from the convention is the Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed states to count only three of every five slaves in the total population. The game models the conversation among Washington, James Madison from Virginia, who favored counting all slaves, and William Paterson from New Jersey, who opposed slavery and wanted to count none.

How It Works

Here’s a transcript of the conversation from the game that details a compromise on slavery.


A state’s population is an important number. It is one way to represent a state’s value to the nation and more people means more power in the House of Representatives. Slavery complicates things. How should enslaved people be included in the population count? If counted, states with large enslaved populations will seize lawmaking power. And while all states gain wealth from a large unpaid labor force, most northern states have few enslaved people. Let’s now hear from the delegates!


Slavery violates our values as a republic, and it is immoral. How can some delegates claim that slaves are property but include them in the larger population count? Including slaves gives some southern states more power than states with few or no enslaved people. Counting slaves is also unfair to states like mine.


The institution of slavery is critical to the economies of the southern states, including mine. Some delegates are willing to walk away from this Convention if that institution is threatened. If we can’t base the number of representatives on the full population, we should consider partial counts of the enslaved population done in the Articles.


It sounds like these ideas are in conflict. We can use this to craft a compromise. But before you start building a compromise, let’s get back to the delegates.


We must not count any enslaved people when determining representation.


We should count all enslaved people when determining representation. I think we should use the same approach as the Articles of Confederation.


Here’s more to consider. Count a set portion of the enslaved population as a part of the represented population. Instead of counting people for representation, count the wealth of the states. Count the enslaved people as part of the represented population, but only for a certain number of years. Now that there are some ideas to work with, start building out a compromise that works.

“There’s unfinished work—the perfecting of the union is something that we still do every single day as our nation approached its 250th anniversary,” Silverbrook said. “That is why civic education is so important.”

Formatting for online and in-person gameplay

Since the game will be available both online and onsite at Mount Vernon, the creators of the game had to make it adaptable in both formats.

“We know only a million people a year come to Mount Vernon—which is a huge amount of people, and we’re so pleased—but when we think about the hundreds of millions of people in the country and around the world that could be having this experience, it’s a no-brainer that we work to develop it in both spaces,” Wickens said.

Silverbrook said it’s especially important to develop games for the younger generation in a way that they interact with most, which is online.

The onsite version of the game at Mount Vernon will become available in 2026 as part of a renovated biographical exhibition on Washington.

But the online version is available now on the iCivics website. It’s available in English and Spanish.


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