Educational games developed at UW–Madison School of Education featured at national showcase

By Laurel White

Two educational games developed in the UW–Madison School of Education were featured at a national showcase of innovative education technology in Washington, DC, in September. 

The simulation-based games PurpleState and iPlan were both featured as “game changing” technology for students and teachers at the 2023 ED Games Expo, an annual event hosted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The games were shown off at public and private exhibitions and showcases for students, educators, and public officials. 

iPlan allows students to receive feedback on their proposed land use plans from stakeholders. Image courtesy iPlan

Both games allow students to step into unique professional roles, with an aim of increasing understanding of and engagement with complex issues. PurpleState lets students work as interns in a political consulting firm, engaging with real world data and making nuanced decisions about advertising and campaigns, while iPlan allows them to step into the shoes of a planner who must consider the effects of land-use on things like job creation and the environment. 

Both games are also part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER)’s new Center for Research on Complex Thinking (CRCT), which brings together scholars to conduct foundational research on learning and assessment, educational technology development, and the design of innovative learning analytics tools.

Andrew Ruis, associate director of CRCT and a research scientist at WCER, said the ED Games Expo was a wonderful opportunity to see students interact with iPlan in real time. 


“It’s really powerful when you can put an iPad in someone’s hands and within a few seconds, you can see the impact,” Ruis, who led the development of iPlan, says. “You spend years working to make something really amazing, and that’s the moment when you can see all that hard work pay off.”

iPlan, which was released in 2021, uses state and federal government data to allow students to simulate different land-use scenarios, gaining insight into how different zoning choices affect things like jobs, housing, wildlife populations, pollution, and agricultural production.

Development of iPlan was funded by a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation received by David Williamson Shaffer. Shaffer is the Sears Bascom Professor of Learning Analytics and the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Learning Sciences in the Department of Educational Psychology and director of CRCT.

Ruis says the expo was also a great opportunity to make more educators aware of iPlan and all it can offer. 

“I love talking to teachers, seeing how something we’ve built could make their job easier and make the education their students receive better,” he says. “And the fact that it’s free, that iPlan is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, means that any teacher can use it, even if they don’t have funding for educational technologies.”

Anyone can access and use iPlan for free at

The iPlan team is currently working to secure funding to expand the game to incorporate climate change adaptation into the system. Ruis says the next version of the simulation will allow students to see how land use can address some of the effects of climate change based on how climate change is likely to impact their communities.

In addition to being showcased at the expos, PurpleState was chosen to be included in an “Innovations in Civic Education” showcase session held at the Library of Congress.

PurpleState was chosen for a showcase featuring innovations in civic education across the country. Image courtesy Library of Congress

PurpleState tasks students with crafting an effective political ad campaign. The simulation includes an online application that allows students to view demographic information, polling data, and media coverage in their target audience’s area. As such, they’re equipped with much of the information political professionals use to create such messaging.

Overall, the game aims to engage students with the inner workings of political messaging, give them tools to effectively engage critically with 21st-century media, and illuminate some of the reasons behind political polarization. 

Jeremy Stoddard, a WCER researcher and professor in the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, helmed the research that led to and continues around PurpleState. He says the ED Games Expo events and showcase session allowed for important education and outreach to government funders and decision-makers about innovation in civic education. 

“There is very little research and development funding for civics education and social studies from federal agencies, so it was important to highlight the work from the project and the potential impact projects like PurpleState can have,” Stoddard says. 

PurpleState web image
PurpleState allows students to see demographic information as they craft political messaging. Image courtesy PurpleState

PurpleState began with a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation in 2015 and was substantially bolstered in 2019 by a $1.3 million award from the Institute of Education Sciences.

Stoddard says his team just submitted a proposal for another round of funding that would expand PurpleState’s data set to include all 50 states, as well as a wider range of policy and social issues. 

He says the game was recently made available for any teacher to register and use the simulation platform, curriculum, or individual activities or simulation tools in their classes. Teachers can register at His team also plans to offer webinars and professional development for teachers ahead of the 2024 election.

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