OurCourts.org states, "A growing body of research shows that games have extraordinary potential for promoting learning and civic engagement," but do the games released by Our Courts live up to this potential? In this article I will review Do I Have A Right? (hereafter referred to as DIHAR) and discuss how the elements within the game promote learning and civic engagement. This is accomplished through a few methods, but what appears most effective is that the game builds civic literacy by harnessing the natural process of learning that takes place when a player first picks up a new game.
If the client leaves in this way or if the lawyer loses the case -- oftentimes due to a client-lawyer mismatch -- the player loses prestige points. If the client is successfully matched with the right lawyer and the lawyer wins the case, the player gains prestige points. These points can be used between work days to hire more lawyers, upgrade the waiting area (increasing both the number of seats and the time clients are willing to wait before storming off), upgrade desks (increase the trial prep speed), or purchase an ad in the paper (increase the amount of clients). At the end of each work day, a newspaper appears on screen with articles detailing your firm's successes and failures.
This gameplay appears to be influenced by the popular web-based casual game Diner Dash. Once the game gets going, the player spends much of his or her time juggling clients from seat to seat, quickly clicking around the law office to match each client with the proper lawyer to efficiently finish as many cases as possible before any waiting clients get angry and leave. The player also spends a sizable part of the game choosing upgrades and deciding which lawyers to hire. In many respects, it feels like a conventional business / management game except that upgrades are only available in between work days.
A reason this method may be so effective is because it maps the content that is supposed to be learned onto the natural learning that takes place over the course of any game. In James Paul Gee's essay "Semiotic Domains: Is Playing Video Games a 'Waste of Time?'" Gee states that when "people learn to play video games, they are learning a new literacy." This is not print literacy. Players become literate in the different meanings of the symbols within a game and the relationship between those symbols. For instance, in DIHAR the player learns that an icon with the number 4 indicates that the associated lawyer can be matched to a client with an unlawful search complaint.
What's interesting in DIHAR is that, by attaching educational content that is meant to be used outside of the game to symbols that must be learned and used within the game, the literacy that the player gains within the game world can then be taken outside of the game and easily used in the real world. This is particularly effective in DIHAR because the in game content has a real world parallel. As in the example stated above, the number 4 and unlawful searches have a real world parallel in the 4th Amendment. The player is able to take this literacy learned in the semiotic domain of this game and apply that literacy to the semiotic domain of civics.
Gee also describes how learning a semiotic domain in a more active way, as through a video game, involves three things: "experiencing the world in a new way, forming new affiliations, and preparation for further learning." What's interesting about this idea is how easily these attributes could be applied to civics education. As a citizen becomes more literate in civics, they experience the world in new ways (understanding Rights reveals the legal limits and allowances), form new affiliations (political affiliations), and prepare for further learning (civics is an ongoing process of learning). One does not come to understand civics by simply reading the Constitution, but rather by contextually learning how the Constitution is actively used. Perhaps this is another reason that the design method works so effectively: the semiotic domain in which the player is supposed to be educated is one that lends itself to active participation.
Because the player's role and actions within the game are in many ways removed from the actual process of litigating constitutional law and are instead mostly managerial tasks, the player may not believe that there is anything particularly special about constitutional law. A player may come away from the game with a fun experience and with some knowledge gained, but the player may not realize the unique role that civics plays within our lives. If practicing constitutional law is so similar to waiting tables in a diner, then why is it so important that we learn about civics? Further, it is possible to derive a much more cynical message here: is practicing the law more about corralling customers, upgrading office furniture, and acquiring new partners than it is about actually protecting the rights of the American citizenry?
But these complaints seem diminished when compared to the strength of the overall design of the game and the successful use of educational content. The game's creators placed the educational information in a fun package based on an already-successful game design, and by weaving this educational content into the symbols of the game itself, the player gains civics literacy through the natural process of literacy that takes place over the course of game. Because of this successful implementation of this idea, DIHAR stands out as an example of how games can effectively promote literacy, especially in domains where the literacy is not just gained by learning words on a page but is also gained--in fact must be gained--by learning how those words are actively used in a situated context.