On the closing day of the Games for Change festival in New York, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered a keynote speech in which she explained a new game project she has been collaborating on called Our Courts
Gamasutra has previously brought you initial highlights
of the talk - this full write-up includes plenty more detail on the intriguing match-up. Introducing Justice O’Connor was Bob Kerrey, president of New School University (which includes Parsons, where the festival was held) and former Senator of Nebraska.
The honorable judge was welcomed with standing applause by the audience of game-makers and educators who focus on using technology for social change.
“If someone told me before I had retired from the Supreme Court a few years ago that I would be speaking at a conference on digital gaming, I would have been very skeptical,” she said.
O'Connor admitted that although she does not personally play video games, she sees how the medium is a powerful tool for reaching the people -- particularly for her in the field of civics involvement and education.
Her keynote speech mainly centered on how the American public has become increasingly distant -- and sometimes ignorant -- of how government works, and why video games and computers would be effective tools for changing that fact.
Justice O’Connor has been working on an upcoming interactive web site about civic issues with Prof. James Paul Gee of Arizona State University, who also gave a keynote address at the Games for Change conference, and faculty from Georgetown Law School.
“Of the three branches of government, the one that’s least understood is judiciary,” said former Senator Bob Kerrey. “What Justice O’Connor is doing in this area is critically important… it doesn’t survive unless people are willing to get engaged.”
The goal of Our Courts, which is not yet fully available, is to reach middle school aged young people and inspire and educate them about government and civic involvement. Moreover, the overarching goal is to foster national dialogue about the American judiciary system.
“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the government we have,” said O'Connor. “Knowledge about government is not handed down through the gene pool!”
Our Courts will have two components: a curriculum portion that educators can use, and another part young people can use in their free time to argue and discuss real judicial problems.
It was suggested that the second part will also contain games developed in part by Prof. James Paul Gee. The need for such a project has become even stronger in recent years, she added, since the No Child Left Behind Act “squeezed out civics education” from public schools.
According to an Annenberg study cited by the Justice, only little more than one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government. O'Connor also said she feels impassioned to create a project like Our Courts because of corruption in the court system.
“We’ve been hearing a great deal about [media attacks on the Justices], and these attacks have come with various attempts to affect judicial hearings,” she said. “At the state level, powerful interest groups are pouring more and more money into states that hold partisan elections of state judges,” something that no other nation in the world allows
“People hope to influence the outcome of those elections and the way winning judges will rule in the future.”It’s a sad state that we expect to find among politicians, said the Justice, but not from judges, who are “accountable to the laws and Constitution.”
“The overwhelming consensus coming out of this conference is that public education is the only way to preserve… a robust constitutional democracy,” she noted.
Our Courts will not only “give knowledge, but also stimulate real thinking and debate in the users, and we hope a commitment in the users,” she said. “Young people are inherently interested in fairness and justice. We just need to present the youth with problems in the language and mechanisms” that they use.
The interactive site hopes to engage young people by letting them argue “real issues, real legal issues, against the computer and against each other.” Pedagogically speaking, the activity on the site should also help students hone their critical thinking and problem solving skills.
During the question and answer portion of the keynote speech, a Games for Change representative read aloud a question sent in by Reuters, asking the Justice: Does violence and addiction in video games concern you? She responded, “It does! But I don’t think that’s the kind of game we’re going to produce. Quite the contrary!”
The fundamental aspects of the Our Courts web site are due to launch in the fall, though a good deal of information showing how the courts are set up, is already live. The following September, O’Connor explained, educators will be able to access materials for teaching. Some time after that, the site should be hosting some game aspects.
Content-wise, Our Courts plans to first tackle first amendment issues. Many students are already aware of how first amendment rights apply to them due to current debates on banned clothing in schools, such as head scarves and in the 1970s anti-war arm bands. Our Courts would provide them with a place to grapple with the issues.
Down the line, O’Connor said, she would like to see the site take on second amendment issues as well. And further down the line, she hopes to see a second and third game-related project that approaches the legislative and executive branches.
When asked, “Why games for this mission?” Justice O’Connor replied, “I think that the interactive media on computers better serves it. My grandchildren are fantastic [with computer literacy]… they can do it in minutes and they will sit in front of their computer screen for a long time and be totally engaged in it. Now that tells me something. That tells me that that is a good vehicle to use.”
O'Connor said the “ah ha!” moment of learning comes when the emotional part of the brain is stimulated, and games are extremely capable of spurring emotion. She concluded, “When we learn by doing, we learn better than by reading it or hearing a teacher tell it in a classroom.”