Retired high court justice tackles new field — video games

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Retirement has not stopped former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor from weighing complex legal issues. This time, however, the courtroom has been replaced by a computer screen.

O’Connor is developing a free, interactive Web-based program for middle school students about the U.S. court system. At the Games for Change conference in New York City earlier this month, O’Connor announced her participation in developing the program, which will be called “Our Courts” and will allow students to participate in realistic government simulations and investigate and argue actual cases.

One of the first simulations will cover a First Amendment issue that could come up in public schools: controversial words on a T-shirt.

“The T-shirt case was chosen to start with because we felt it would engage kids, especially in terms of issues of ‘fairness’ and in terms of things relevant to their own lives,” said Arizona State University Professor James Paul Gee, who is developing the game with O’Connor. “The case also raises and introduces issues that can be dealt with later by a variety of historically interesting cases.”

According to Gee, the game will have three levels. The first level will place players in a historical situation that will eventually lead to a court case. “They will see things unfold, talk to characters, and engage ultimately in arguments for a position they choose to advocate via an ‘argument generator,’” Gee said.

In the second level of the game, students will research past cases to formulate arguments for the third level, in which they will debate cases in a simulated courtroom.

“Young people will, in teams, prepare research for arguing real cases,” Gee said. “The third part will be an open court where young people can win the right to argue real cases and ultimately themselves to be judges.”

The game will have components for students to use both at school and at home. It will launch with limited content in the fall of 2008 and should be complete by fall of 2009.

Along with Arizona State, the Georgetown University Law Center is assisting O’Connor in developing the Web site. The goal of the program is to improve civics education in schools.

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have,” O’Connor said at the Games for Change conference, according to The New York Times. “And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

Gee says the program will teach children the importance of free and independent courts in a democracy.

“In today’s schools, often we teach only what is tested. Civics and history are often not taught because they are not tested under the No Child Left Behind rules,” Gee said. “However, our key interest is not just in teaching civics, but in getting kids to see civics as (being) about civic engagement and participation as citizens.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Melanie Bengtson is a senior studying political and economic development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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