Close up shot of Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game, a great tool for teaching gerrymandering.

How to Teach Gerrymandering with Mapmaker the Game

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Gerrymandering is a complex and abstract topic, but it is extremely relevant if you’re learning about government and politics today. Thankfully, there are some great resources out there to help you teach gerrymandering, like Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game.

Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game is great strategy game, and it’s based on the concepts involved in gerrymandering. It can be a fun game to play for its own sake, but it can also be a useful tool for teaching gerrymandering in your government and civics class.

You can read more about the game in my review of Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game. You can also check out the product listing on Amazon.

But I’m going to assume that you know a little bit about the game and focus on the big question – how can you use Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game with your students to teach gerrymandering.

This is a great example of how you can use game-based learning to simulate a process and make an abstract topic more real for your students.

An old political cartoon about gerrymandering, showing distorted political districts in Massachusetts.

Introduction: What Is Gerrymandering?

First, you’re going to have to do some introductory explanation of the topic. Depending on your classroom procedures, you could have the students do a short homework reading about the topic. The day of the lesson, you could also summarize the key points related to gerrymandering in one or two slides in a Powerpoint.

The most important thing you’ll want to define is: what is gerrymandering?

For me, a simple definition is: drawing the boundaries of a political map to favor one political party over another.

This may also require you to briefly explain what election districts are and when maps are drawn. It depends a lot on the context of when you’re teaching this topic and what your students already know.

And if you’re teaching gerrymandering, you may also want to explain up front the meaning and origin of the term. Tell them about Eldridge Gerry and show them the political cartoon of the original salamander district.

The game board for Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game set up, before any districts are drawn. You can use this tool to teach gerrymandering.

Look at a Map and Make Predictions

Next, ask the class to take a look at a map and make some predictions.

The picture above is an example of a game board from Mapmaker set up for play with two players (or for solo play). There are no borders placed yet, but the tokens have been shuffled and flipped over to show where voters live.

A few questions to think about and ask your students at this point:

  • Do you think there are more red people, blue people, or about the same of each?
  • Do you think it’s possible to draw a map that favors one of the parties six to one?

It’s important to note, if you’ve never played the game before, that there are an equal number of blue and red tokens on the game board. In other words, this fictional state is perfectly divided, 50-50, between blue and red.

A complete game board from Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game, with six red districts and one blue district. This example is useful for teaching students how gerrymandering is possible.

Look at a Complete, Gerrymandered Map

Next, you’ll want to look at an example of a completed map that has been gerrymandered.

The photo above is based on the same game board from the previous picture. But now, district lines have been drawn to create seven districts. Of these seven districts, a whopping six of them favor the red party.

Remember, the state has an equal population of red and blue people. Drawing a map this tilted is a great example of gerrymandering taken to the extreme!

This is a good time to stop and have your students reflect on the following questions:

  • Do you see any patterns on the board?
  • How do you think this ended up so uneven?
  • Do you think the same board can be redrawn to favor the blue party?
  • Do you think it’s possible to draw a map in which one party has zero districts?

And then, show them the picture below – the same game board with borders drawn to create six blue districts and one red district.

A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. As many times as I’ve taught gerrymandering, it’s always been hard to get students to understand how a map could be drawn so unfairly. But these two pictures speak for themselves!

A Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering game board with six blue districts and one red one.

Let Your Students Play Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game

Next comes the fun part about teaching gerrymandering – you you let your students play.

This could vary a lot, depending on how much time you have and how many games you’ll have access to. But, here’s a suggestion of what this last part of the lesson might look like.

Break the students into groups of four. First, have them shuffle the tokens and create a blank game board. Then, have them cooperatively work together to create a map (following the solo play rules) that favors one party over the other by a factor of at least six to one. Next, have them use the same game board to create districts that favor the other party.

After they’ve completed these simple versions of gerrymandering, have them play a regular game of Mapmaker and see who wins.

Alternatively, you could assign them to complete the advanced version of solo play and try to make a perfectly balanced map.

Or, you could have them shuffle the tokens and place the borders while the tokens are still face down. It would be interesting to see what the results are of a randomly assigned map, developed without knowledge of people’s political party.

Reflect on What They Learned About Gerrymandering

The last step is to reflect on what your students learned in this activity about gerrymandering.

The same questions from the introductory activity could serve as a basis for this reflection. You could have your students write their responses, you could have a class discussion, or you could do both.

As you reflect on the process, you should make sure to explain the ideas of “cracking” and “packing” voters. This should have been apparent to them while they created their maps, but they may not be able to articulate what these techniques are called.

A final reflection question could be: if you were tasked with deciding whether or not a map was fair, what would you look for?

You could also talk at this point about proposed reforms, like non-partisan redistricting commissions or banning the use of partisan political data while creating maps.

How Will You Teach Gerrymandering with Mapmaker?

So there’s a basic blueprint of how you can use Mapmaker: the Gerrymandering Game to teach gerrymandering in your social studies class.

If you don’t have a copy of the game, you can pick one up on Amazon here.

Have you tried this with your students? How did it go? Or are you thinking about it? I’d love to hear how it went. Drop a comment below, or leave a comment on our Facebook page.

If you’re looking for other resources that can help you teach gerrymandering, check out this post about the ReDistricting Game. It’s a little more complex than Mapmaker, but it’s also more realistic.

You might also be interested in this popular post: How to Teach Government in a Fun Way: Six Ways to Bring Civics Alive.

And remember, game based learning isn’t just about fun. It’s also a great way to simulate democratic processes – a research-based method of improving civics education.

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