Making a Supreme Decision

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Supreme Decision is the second game produced by OurCourts.org with the intention of better informing middle school students of the inner workings of the judicial system, as well as their civic rights and responsibilities. Like its sibling gameDo I Have a Right?this game has been endorsed by (former) Supreme Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and is touted for using the driving force behind 'new media' as a means of educating its target audience. 

The game attempts to portray the decision-making process within the Supreme Court in all its complexities, while simultaneously teaching children about the First Amendment, particularly as it relates to students in a school environment. The OurCourts.org website also provides a teacher's guide that accompanies the game, which explicitly emphasizes the difficulty of settling court cases like that depicted in the game. The question to ask here is not whether a game is the most effective medium for this message, but whether or not this message is conveyed effectively through this particular game.

The player is introduced to (fictional) Supreme Justice Irene Waters, who is your guide throughout the tutorial section at the onset of the game. The narrative sets up a scene in the Supreme Court in which Ben, generic middle school student, is suspended from his middle school for wearing a t-shirt promoting a band. The player learns that Ben has been suspended after he refused to change clothes; he was asked to do so by the principal as the shirt in question had ignited some arguments at school. His generic balding lawyer argues that this infringes upon his First Amendment rights, while the school's lawyer (naturally) argues against this. 

It's here that SD sets the ground for the main issues and perspectives that are explored in greater detail throughout the rest of the gamenamely, student rights and the freedom of speech. The Supreme Justices will need to make a final ruling on Ben Brewer v. Hamilton Middle School and, as it turns out, they are split right down the middle. It's up to Supreme Justice Waters to cast the deciding vote and naturally she passes the buck to you—the anonymous, yet undoubtedly capable law clerk. Thus begins your venture into the exciting world of moral decisions and judicial responsibilities.

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The aesthetics of the game are fairly well suited to match its target audience. The art style is simple but manages to avoid belittling the significance of the game by being overly cartoony. This simplicity works well for SD in that it keeps the focus on the dialogue and (ideally) the educational content therein. Similarly, the structure of the game echoes this intentional focus. As the player delves into the details of the case, you visit four pairs of Supreme Justices and, at each step, make decisions that influence the final outcome of the court ruling. The pattern is fairly formulaic: there is a dialogue between two Justices—one representing each side—that elaborates some of the intricacies of the case. 

For example, the first pair is debating as to whether or not a t-shirt counts as free speech. After both sides are presented, the player needs to identify which Justice supports either side of the case. This leads to a little mini-game that tries to reinforce the issue at hand through repetition. The first round offers an array of cultural objectsbackpacks and bumper stickers, among other thingsand it is up to the player to categorize them as either "speech" or "fashion." This is almost the new media equivalent of a reading comprehension test, which works simultaneously for and against the prescribed goals of the game, as shall be discussed in some detail below. After proving your competence as a law clerk in the highest judicial office in the country, the player needs to check off the box that aligns with the Justice with whom you agree. The player is then presented with one final checkbox to ensure that you understand the ramifications of your decision on the case. With some slight variation, this is more or less the format the player repeats for the remaining pairs of Supreme Justices, which leads to the results of your/Justice Waters' decision. 

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Keeping in mind that SD is meant to educate middle school children, it makes sense that there would be some reading comprehension-y activities in order to ensure that some of the knowledge imparted is (hypothetically) retained. In this way, the mini-games are one of SD's strengths in that it incorporates both the game and the education, or combines the play with the work, in a sense. Whereas some educational games falter by using technology for technology's sake, SD pairs its intended educational content with appropriate game mechanics. Setting up a clear either/or option encourages the player to use the knowledge gained through the dialogue in order to proceed. This parallels an important aspect of what SD is trying to teach: in the same way that the player chooses to check one box over the other, the Justices of the Supreme Court must also make a clear, black-or-white distinction to settle a case. Though there is much ambiguity when deciding upon a Supreme Court decision, there is in the end a final, agreed upon state of right and wrong. 

By the same token, however, this same game mechanic is counterintuitive to the message it is trying to convey. While it is factually accurate that complex decisions made in the Supreme Court are ultimately converted into binary answers, SD is overly divisive in two crucial ways. The first has to do with the dialogue between each pair of Justices. These are successful insofar as they illuminate some details of the Ben's case that help flesh out the question at hand. The first debate between Justice Hsu and Justice Keene, for instance, takes a closer look at fashion and its relation to free speech. 

The stark division between each Justice's viewpoint, by contrast, is where the game falls a little short. As either judge argues for strictly one side of the argument, the dialogue limits the game to just thata dialogue. Neither judge acknowledges any merit in the other's argument, nor is there any possibility of a compromise; there is only one side or the other. While the court's decision ends up this way, the intense debate and analysis that leads up to that final step is rarelyif everas easily defined. 

This is a subtle point to argue, but one that is crucial to SD. The new media reading comprehension device works to the same effect. The political weight of a cultural artifact is not so easily discernible and by restricting the answers to a simple binary—speech/fashion, for example—it discourages any critical readings of the choice offered to the player. 

One concrete example was when the game presented a necklace to be categorized as either speech or fashion. This happened on two occasions: the first time it appeared, the necklace had a pendant of the Star of David, while the second featured a crucifix. Both times, the game suggested that they were instances of speech. While this may be the 'obvious' answer, this is one particular reading that is overly simplistic. It is not uncommon for the fashion industry to co-opt politically charged objects, with kuffiyehs and rosary beads as popular examples. The difference between fashion and speech is not always so easily discernable and it is this kind of ambiguity that complicates Supreme Court rulings. By contrast, the emphasis on identifying which judge supports which side of an argument is a move that eschews any meaningful reflection on the part of the player.

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Beyond misplaced binary options, I also came across another instance with Hsu/Keene that wasn't just overly simplistic, but instead seemed to undermine the very argument that the game was making. During the fashion/speech mini-game, one artifact I was presented with was a "team mascot t-shirt." Knowing that I had to shoehorn the shirt into one of the two categories, I went with the more reasonable answer—fashion. The game actually counted it as an incorrect answer and deemed the shirt to be speech because it showed support for a sports team. While this may be a rational argument in and of itself, it made little sense within the context of the game. Consider an excerpt from some earlier dialogue: "[It's] Freedom of speech, not freedom of t-shirt!" Judge Hsu's entire argument against Ben was that his band t-shirt—all t-shirts, in fact—did not count as speech because "the First Amendment does not protect the choices people make about what to wear." I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this inconsistency: did this just reveal an implicit bias against Judge Hsu's side of the argument (thus fixing the game in Ben's favour)? Or is this a value judgment that seemingly suggests the merit of sport t-shirts over band t-shirts? 

Whatever the case may be, a contradiction of this magnitude at such an early stage in the game seems to subvert the emphasized message throughout SD. Rather than portraying the Supreme Court as a relevant and necessary space for debate and deliberation, the decision-making process instead comes across as arbitrary and uninformed. While it is no easy task to translate 'real' (for lack of a better word) ambiguity into a digital formbe it a video game or otherwise—SD would benefit from a better sense of balance. 

While the game mechanics are solid, they need to be more aligned with the intended purpose of the educational content. As the teacher's guide suggests, the day-to-day operations of the Supreme Court is "not as easy as it sounds," though the game seems to suggest otherwise. There is no doubt that has beenand continues to bea substantial effort to provide middle school students with a reasonably accurate depiction of the court system while simultaneously keeping them engaged and interested. In spite of some logical flaws, SD is an admirable step towards a better synthesis of gaming and education and a laudable example of the didactic potential that new media have to offer.

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