Thursday, September 10, 2009

Oyez Vey

The collaboration between literacy theorist James Paul Gee and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has led to some interesting reflections about the project that have been captured in interviews with both Gee and O'Connor. O'Connor, who gave the keynote address at this year's Games for Change conference also sat down with a reporter for an item in Wired magazine called "Sandra Day O'Connor: Game Designer."

The game "lets students engage in real issues and real problems," O’Connor said. It will allow them to "step into the shoes of a judge, a legislator, an executive — teach them how to think through and analyze problems, take action and voice opinions to their elected representatives."

An early exercise in the game will likely deal with educating students about their First Amendment rights, using examples like Tinker v. Des Moines and the "Bong Hits For Jesus" case.

O’Connor said that she is "encouraged" to see young people becoming involved in political campaigns through the net. "E-mailing, blogging, networking on Facebook — they can take leadership, make their voices heard through tools that belong to their generation. We need to give them ownership to allow them to interact with the material," she said.

I spent some time with the two Flash games currently posted on the website for Our Courts. Supreme Decision was more like an online tutorial with long video clips than an actual game, and Do I Have a Right? used a Diner Dash style format to convey the fast pace of a law office specializing in Constitutional issues without the kind of original game mechanic that would lead to longer time periods engaged in play.

That said, these two games were actually much more interesting in their content than many serious games, in that they attempted to show how relatively complex debates about balancing rights and responsibilities could be staged in ways other than simple liberal vs. conservative arguments. As a well-known swing vote on the court, it was interesting to see O'Connor dramatize the possibility of being the deciding voice.

However, I might argue that these games could have been just as satisfying played as traditional role-playing games for the following four reasons.

1) Computers are computational machines

Many years ago I played an early variant of the game Oregon Trail in fifth grade in the pre-digital era with a team of other girls, but we all died before we made it to the West Coast. Because the final challenge involved a difficult chance operation, most of the would-be settlers in our class reached an untimely demise rather than the promised land of transcontinental migration. When my own children played the game, they had much more satisfaction with the play experience, and not only because they had a parent who had recently read Jim Houston's historical novel Snow Mountain Passage and had figured out that simply doing the opposite of what the Donner Party did could result in a successful voyage. They enjoyed the game because it wasn't necessary to rely too much on chance operations to get variable outcomes, because the computer could calculate the results of all the choices made in making provisions and planning for the journey. Horses, oxen, or mules? Combining the consequences of this choice with another one like oats or potatoes used to be difficult for K-12 teachers to calculate. But an online game can easily work with a number of factors with aggregatable mathematical values.

Unfortunately, Our Courts does little to use the computational power of the computer to handle many operations simultaneously, which may be forgivable given the interpretive rather than quantitative character of the rules that govern the law.

2) Computers are multimedia machines

Ignoring this category in Our Courts seems to be a much more obvious oversight. The Flash software that makes these games function can easily display lush video and a rich set of multimedia resources about the justice system. Instead we get stylized and slow-loading animation that does little to convey how courtrooms function as symbolic spaces or how subtle paralinguistic clues can be important for conveying the sympathies of judicial stakeholders.

3) Computers are communication machines

Earlier role-playing games allow more ways for communication between players to function and more forms of emergent discourse. Because of anxieties about how kids in K-12 environments use computers as communication machines, in light of moral panics about sexual predators or cyberbullying, it is unlikely that any school-sponsored game would facilitate communication with parties outside the classroom. Unfortunately, that makes communication in the games seem like highly-scripted one-way communication. Certain the use of one-to-many media formats like the newspaper does little to encourage particpatory culture. (And "prestige" may be a form of cultural capital that few students can relate to.)

4) Computers are synchronization machines

Finally, we come to how computer games can create excitement by generating outputs in response to inputs much faster than human reaction time. Unfortunately, not only does this game often interrupt the action with long loading bars, but pokey music and sizable wait times between actions make player decisions feel inconsequential with the sluggish pacing of the games.

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