The relevant links used in my presentation are at the bottom of this post.
Do I Have a Right? is an educational game about the player and his or her fictitious law firm. It tasks players to win court cases by matching clients with lawyers who are experts in the area of constitutional law relevant to their cases, and denying clients who bring bogus cases not covered by their constitutional rights. Court victories are rewarded with points that can be used to hire better and/or more famous lawyers, office equipment that grants bonuses, and advertisements that increase their law firm’s business. The game’s producer, the nonprofit iCivics founded by Republican Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, claims that the game and its associated learning tools “prepares young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st century citizens.” Unfortunately, the game falls way short of this ambitious goal, turning a potentially powerful educational tool into an exercise in rote memorization combined with the addictive but non-stimulating gameplay of “bucket-filling.”
It’s a little painful for me to criticize the educational website/game “Do I Have a Right?” (DiHaR?) It has so many things going for it that I personally love: it’s ad-free, it’s freely available to anyone with internet and a reasonably modern computer, it’s targeted at public school teachers and even provides them with relevant lesson plans. I especially want to praise DiHaR? as proof of my belief in the power of games as an educational tool. But I can’t. As intriguing as the game is, I have to say it falls short of what could be accomplished with educational games. Let me first assert that I am not arguing from a position of ignorance.
It’s an embarrassing thing I rarely admit to the tenured generation of historians, but games had a pronounced effect on me and my interest in history. As a child I played a lot of Civilization II, a computer game wherein the player, godlike, guided a nation’s actions from prehistory to the atomic era. Winning the game was less important than building a thoughtful narrative that built upon player actions; computers in charge of opposing nations were programmed to react to the player, creating intrigue. Furthermore, the player could use his or her understanding of history to make more informed choices in the game and earn complexin-game rewards, like scientific advancement or a powerful army. It was by no means a realistic simulation of history, but still it encouraged the player to learn about it: If a player, for example, is about to experience an Industrial Revolution, it’s easier for someone familiar with history to anticipate the impact of new technologies). The rewards for good play further encouraged the player to learn more about history to use his or her rewards in an optimal way. Civilization II is an excellent if primitive example of how games can be used to educate people and encourage them to think critically.
Although Civilization II simulated history inaccurately using simple calculations, it was easy for players to roleplay and to treat artificial intelligences as if they were thinking persons–as long as the player didn’t know too much about the game’s mechanics.
Despite the game’s usefulness as a learning tool, it was at its core a commercial entertainment product. The game cost $60 in mid-90s currency, could not be accessed through the internet, and was marketed to adults who could afford computers, not to contemporary, computer-illiterate, pre-smartphone children. It was not an accessible learning experience. But DiHar? is free, and can be played anywhere with nearly any computer. Could accessible games like DiHaR? encourage modern youth to enjoy learning and bring about an education revolution?
No, I don’t think so, for two reasons. One, it’s possible that games are poor educational substitutes for the map-coloring and fill-in-the-blank worksheets that normally dominate social science curricula. Since that would make the entire endeavor of DiHaR? pointless, let’s assume that my theory about the potential of games as learning tools is valid. The second reason, the one I think worth arguing, is that the game does not teach correctly. For sure, the game requires students to read summarized portions of constitutional amendments and apply them to mostly-plausible court cases, and progress cannot be made without some degree of critical thought. The game even awards bonus points to players who identify the major issues and parties involved in a case by clicking on them–it doesn’t require critical thinking, but at least it encourages the player to carefully read about the problem he or she is facing. The game undoubtedly has educational value. It is especially effective in helping the player memorize the major legal meanings of several constitutional amendments: For example, after a playthrough or two, even the newest student of constitutional law will probably remember that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, the Fourteenth makes slavery illegal, and so on for the 10 or amendments the game finds suitable to include.Unfortunately, that’s about all the player will learn. Do they analyze the original Amendment documents that the game summarizes? No. Do they learn about the historical context of the Amendments that they use to win their court cases? No. Imagining (I admit a bit facetiously) that DiHaR? is their only source of knowledge on constitutional amendments, students would have no idea about the issue of race behind the Fourteenth Amendment. Was this Amendment implemented to keep one modern person from enslaving another because they lost a bet? Outside of the fictitious cases in DiHaR? and contrived sitcom plots, no, it hasn’t. Perhaps the closest the game comes to showing the Fourteenth’s real applicability is the case where a woman wants to sue her parents for trying to sell her into slavery, but the situation is so tongue-in-cheek that it does more to make light of human trafficking than to educate. Similarly, the Second Amendment is presented as having unlimited applications. If the DiHaR? programmers were to add a client who asked if he had the right to keep tactical nuclear warheads in his backyard, the answer according to the game’s interpretation of the constitution would be “Yes, you have a right!”
These shortfalls are forgivable on their own. The game’s emphasis is on teaching civics, not history, and my criticism of what is mentioned and what is left out would probably be impossible to rectify without inviting converse criticism from someone else. Perhaps the game’s focus on law is better met without discussing what I call history but what many call politics (although the existence of the attorney “Ted Nugget,” an expert on the Second Amendment, makes me wonder about their apparent ignorant neutrality). What is not forgivable, I think, is DiHaR?‘s combination of bland, ahistorical lessons and its unimaginative gameplay that does not encourage critical thinking.
If I may borrow what I believe to be a new and rising aphorism used to criticize other games that fail to promote critical thinking, DiHaR? is a game about filling up buckets. Specifically, it’s about acquiring prestige points. Yes, the player uses constitutional law (as we have seen, in an extremely limited way) to solve problems, but the game’s “rewards mechanic” deprives DiHaR? of any chance of becoming a game that rewards critical thinking. Every law-related problem in DiHaR? is completely isolated. Whether a case is won or not depends on whether the player matches a client to the correct attorney. The player never explores a case in detail beyond three to five short sentences, never loses when he or she has chosen correctly, and does not participates in the case once the client has been assigned. There is no further intrigue, no examination of evidence or cross-examining of testimony, not even an attempt to examine whether their own client has left out crucial details or misrepresented his or her case in some way. The player walks the client to an attorney, the two disappear in a puff of smoke, and then the attorney comes back. If the player chose wrong, the player earns no reward but suffers no penalty outside of humiliation in the paper the next day (which apparently no one reads, because clients continue to arrive even if the player has a terrible record). If the player chose correctly, the player earns prestige points. This paperless currency is the only reward, the lack of it is the only punishment, the acquisition of more of it is the only long-term goal.
So what do I mean about filling up buckets? Once the player fills his or her bucket with enough prestige points, he or she exchanges them for a reward. The reward could be a new attorney (who can take on cases other attorneys cannot), a new piece of office furniture (that keeps clients from leaving the waiting room before the player has a chance to help them) a new improvement to an attorney desk (such as a webcam, which makes the attorney more famous so that when they win they earn more prestige points). Understanding the law is not a goal, but a tool used to increase the player’s earning potential. This would not be so terrible if players could involve themselves deeply in the cases, or if the cases built upon one another, or if there was some kind of ongoing narrative to throw new and thought-provoking problems at the player. Instead, the player follows just one sequence of repetitive actions the entire game:
- Wait for a client to arrive.
- Click the new client, look for key phrases like “I was forced to go to church” or “the government took my guns.”
- Browse the in-game summaries of Amendments until the player finds the correct amendment number.
- Valet the client to an attorney who has training in that number (even if the player is a constitutional scholar in real life, if he or she does not have an attorney who has training in the right amendment number, the player has no choice but to ask the client to “come back tomorrow.” The player cannot accept the client until he or she has earned enough points to purchase an attorney with the correct amendment number)
- Profit! (if the correct attorney was chosen)
- Spend prestige points on shiny new things in order to earn more prestige points.
Therefore, once the player is capable of reading a few sentences and looking up a short definition, he or she has almost nothing to learn from this game–nothing, except how to maximize their prestige income. On my second playthrough of the game, my character, Greencouncilwoman 666, placed 11th on the worldwide weekly scoreboard. Did I earn that achievement because of my understanding of constitutional law? No, of course not! Instead, once I understood how the game worked, I simply plotted out what I should buy to earn the greatest amount of prestige points before the game ended on Day 7. I decided that first I should upgrade my first lawyer’s equipment immediately since he would handle the most cases throughout the game, then I only hired lawyers whose skills did not overlap with ones I already hired (I think the business world calls that “synergy”), and then I paid for the most expensive advertising possible because I calculated it would return the most revenue. I could theoretically repeat this process any number of times, and as long as I didn’t screw up the matchmaking game, I would always see to it that my buckets of prestige points runneth over. I was not rewarded for applying my critical thinking skills to law (as I’ve said, all I had to do was look up the definition of each amendment number and play matchmaker) but I was rewarded for making economic decisions that gave the greatest return on investment.
I find this disturbing. Do I have a Right? purports to teach students about civic responsibility and education. However, as long as said students are capable of analyzing short sentences and looking up definitions, they will quickly reach the point when the game stops rewarding them for their understanding of the Constitution. Once they cross this event horizon, the students with the highest scores will be those who think critically not about Constitutional amendments, but those who can minimize costs and maximize revenues. Should society’s educators like iCivics be teaching economic decision-making to children? Absolutely! And there are plenty of games by others that do exactly that. But should an organization dedicated to teaching constitutional amendments be doing this? Does this enhance critical thinking about law in any way?
No, it doesn’t. Until the game is capable of these things, it only offers a glimpse of the learning potential that games have.
Pre-Game Lesson Plan
Post-Game Lesson Plan