I've just come from Sandra Day O'Connor's keynote address at the Games for Change conference at the New School, an event which aims to help nonprofits and others to harness the power of digital games for social good.
Yup, the nearly octogenarian former Supreme is now in the digital game development business, haven't you heard? She's involved in creating an online game called "Our Courts", which will be a free online game, in which kids argue real legal issues applying real laws. For example, they'd consider the case of Morse v. Frederick, in which a student was suspended for hanging a banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a school sanctioned and supervised event. (The Supreme Court sided with the school.) "We are going to use what we know about young people's enthusiasm for arguing things, and for problem solving, to get them into the game," she said.
This does sound like a lot of fun to me, but I am a something of a Constitutional Law enthusiast...a.k.a incurable geek.
O'Connor gave an at times tart, at times funny and generally impassioned address:
If you had told me when I retired from the Supreme Court, just about two years ago, that I would today be speaking at a digital game conference, I would have been very skeptical. I'd maybe think you had had one drink too many.
Her foray into digital gaming started with her concern about what she called "vitriolic attacks" from members of Congress and interest groups on judges.
We hear a lot about judges that are activists, godless, secular trying to impose their will. I have always thought an activist judge was one that got up in the morning and went to work. But I think these critics have something else in mind.
These attacks have come with various attempts to try to influence judicial decision making. On the federal level, we have seen troubling calls by members of the US Senate to require a judicial nominee to state how they will rule on particular cases during the confirmation process. On the state level, powerful interest groups are pouring more and more money into those states that require partisan election of state judging. There are still states that do that, although no other nation in the world does that. In those states, people hope to impact the outcome of that election, and the way the winning judges will rule in different cases.
We expect to see these things in ordinary politics, but the judicial system is not ordinary politics. Our judges have obligation to make decisions based not on what's powerful or popular but on the constitution or the laws of the United States, or state in which the judge serves. With partisan attacks and political pressure mounting ,it's much more difficult to achieve fair and impartial judgments.
In response to this concern, O'Connor and Justice Stephen Breyer together convened a two day event, and from this an "overwhelming consensus emerged": public education was required, not only to preserve an independent judiciary, but to preserve "a robust constitutional democracy." Very small stakes, no big deal. From this, the decision was made to create an online interactive curriculum for use in the classroom, and a free online game that kids will want to play in their free time.
We have to start with nation's young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. And we have some work to do to get them educated.
She cited a few dispiriting statistics about how little young people know --they're more likely to be able to identify the judges on American Idol than the members of the court. (For some reason it really tickled me to hear Sandra Day O'Connor say the words "American Idol".)
And basically, this spells the end of our way of life.
One unintended effect of No Child Left Behind is that has effectively squeezed out civics education --there is no testing for that any more and no funding for it. At least half of the states do not make teaching of civics and government a requirement for high school graduation. The primary purpose of public school in America has always been to produce citizens that have knowledge, skills and values to sustain our democratic form of government.
Is that regret over her vote in Bush v. Gore?
Oh speaking of presidential politics, she did make one reference to this year's contest.
I'm encouraged when I see young people active in political campaigns and going to polls in record numbers, as they are doing in the election of 2008. That is exciting news, that politicians are slowly learning to communicate with and inspire the next generation. And they're not doing it through meetings rallies and speeches-- young people are getting engaged in civic life through internet, through their computer screens, through emailing, blogging, networking on Facebook.
Through these mechanisms young people can take leaderships roles. These are the tools that belong to their generation.
"Our Courts" will launch in two phases: an interactive curriculum this Fall. Said O'Connor:"It's easier for the teachers they don't have to learn the material, they can plug those students in and go from there." The online game should lanch a year later.
"I think we have a winner on our hands," said O'Connor. And when asked which games she personally enjoyed playing, her response admitted no follow-up: "I don't play video games. Sorry."