Why Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is onto something

The New York Times recently revealed an unexpected interest of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In 2009, three years after retiring as a justice of the Supreme Court, she founded a not for profit organisation iCivics. She has now rounded up Obama’s successful pick Sonia Sotomayor to join the board. The organisation’s mission is to develop effective tools for the teaching of civics, which includes a number of ‘gamifications’ that include legal issues, including Do I have a right? which has you running a rights law practice. There are a number of similar examples of ramifications. The Justice Education Society of BC’s Changeville certainly bowled me over when I first encountered it. It was presented at the 2014 US Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiatives Grant conference where one of the leading theorist of gamification, Stephanie Kimbro, made the opening presentation on its possibilities on which she has written widely. A number of legal aid organisations have followed suit, notably CTLawHelp – a legal information website crated by a network of legal aid programmes in the US state of Connecticut – with its RePresent cartoon.  These programmes all show the potential but, if you actually play the games, how good are they in practice?

The site that is most linked to the direct legal self-help of users is CTLawHelp’s RePresent. It follows a cartoon figure through the court process with the user clicking on multi-choice answers which reward right answers with a bell and wrong ones with a buzzer. A thermometer of ‘confidence’ responds in consequence. The questions seem good, fair and informative. Most people would, after all, agree that addressing the judge as ‘hey, dude’ is broadly a bad idea and worthy of the buzzer. The cartoon has the best music of the three, a nice thumping beat. The Q and A approach is pretty obviously educational: the visuals are good but not linked with spoken contributions. The cartoon looks professionally made but the next stage would surely be to integrate the written Q and As as sound and to make the whole thing less dependent on text.

By contrast, Changeville incorporates an audio voice. It has, admittedly, a rather different purpose: it is seeking to educate users who are not parties to a court action but are affected by it – children in cases of divorce or relationship breakup. This gives it the scope to be a bit more imaginative. Personally, I really like its representation of the different aspects of divorce as locations in a town. This, however, is directed at more discursive information than a site focused on delivering content to be immediately used in a court situation. The visuals are good though there is minimal movement. A high spot is  Break Up Street with its little group of dwellings each of which contains a parent who is handling the divorce rather badly and seeking to co-opt a child. It has a lovely component that raises what emotions this might make you feel and a set of strategies for coping. Some might consider it a bit subversive to suggest that you might ignore your parents or go play your video games until they get a bit more reasonable but that might well be very good practical advice. There are some irritating bits: waiting for each section to load seems to take an interminable amount of time. With commercial levels of funding, you feel this site could be spectacular. But, as public legal education aimed at a target audience affected by litigation, this still seems to me an inspiration.

The Do I Have a Right site has really irritating music. I would concede that this is not integral to a judgement on its worth but you might  want to watch this with the sound off. You don’t need it. The idea is good. A series of clients enter a law practice with a series of questions. Some of these are a little whacky. One woman wants to know if her Dad has a right to sell her for 85 sheep. The questions come up in a written bubble and you are offered answers with some handy information on relevant rights. Success advice allows you to build up your practice with extra staff. I got a bit lost in all that – the intention was clearly to link advice on the law and running a business but, for me, I found it was all a bit confusing though I liked the idea. iCivics also has a game called Win the White House which, in a similar way seeks to integrate decision on your policies with the nitty gritty of raising the money. Again, I thought this was a good idea but perhaps best suited for the classroom situation for which it was probably intended than as a game you might actually play for fun. It is, however, glossily produced.

Gamifications of legal issues undoubtedly face high barriers to acceptance: they are likely to feel preachy and susceptible to WBD syndrome (worthy but dull) or vulnerable to NNCQ  (nowhere near commercial quality). None of the three entirely cross these hurdles but they do represent an inspiration for improvement and a benchmark for the best of what is currently being done – do write in if you know of anything that rivals them. You can already see – with, for example, the development by the Justice Education Society of JES how the exchange of information can be advanced through the use of a visual avatar of a real person who appears to be talking to you on video. But, the octogenarian former justice is surely showing us the way.

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