Not just fun and games: Lawyers and the public learn via gamification

Vol. 39 No. 2

By

An attorney taking a CLE course on criminal law ethics could watch a video or listen to a recording of a seminar, and presumably learn a lot while passively doing so. Or, the lawyer could answer questions and watch an onscreen briefcase fill up with money for each correct answer. And then “earn” more money with bonus questions at the end.

Which way of teaching is more likely to result in learning and retaining content? Advocates of a concept called gamification say that it offers an alternate approach that is proving successful in other legal contexts and, in some cases, in bar associations as well.

Wikipedia defines gamification as “game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems.” From the time we’re children, most of us learn to play and enjoy games. We like receiving points or other measures of success, and enjoy competing against our peers. And we like winning, too.

Companies use gamification to train new employees or interest their customers in new products. While the legal profession, and the bar association world, have been slow to adopt the techniques, there are places where you can see them at work, and a lot of people who hope their use spreads.

Using games in CLE

Perhaps the most vivid example in the bar world is at the Tennessee Bar Association. The TBA’s CLE department uses the game format for several online CLE programs. The TBA has spent five years researching different approaches to gamification, and also which software best meets their needs for creating interactive games, says Mindy Thomas Fulks, the bar’s director of continuing legal education.

“We were looking for ways to make education engaging and interactive,” Fulks says. She credits Executive Director Allan Ramsaur with wanting to keep the bar “trendsetting.”

While most online CLE consists of live or recorded video or audio, Tennessee does allow providers to distribute text-based programming, as long as it runs no longer than one hour and contains interactive elements, Fulks says.

The TBA had numerous challenges in finding software that would allow it to present CLE programming properly. Fulks says the bar looked at 43 different software solutions before settling on Articulate. Many of the other offerings could not handle the amount of substance in a typical CLE class, she says. Many also did not properly support mobile devices, so lawyers could not easily view programming on their phones or tablets.

Fulks receives content for programs from authors, and then converts it to game format using the software. She estimates it takes about eight hours to convert and review each game.

A new batch of six games was released in August. Currently, games represent a small percentage of the bar's 300 to 400 online offerings. Fulks says the bar is monitoring how often the games are used, and plans to keep them as part of its CLE package.

"Our challenge is finding new ways to make learning engaging. Fun is a big part of that,” she explains, advising bar colleagues who are thinking about experimenting with games to do so. "Don't be afraid to look at approaches and advancements in other industries. Offer as many different formats as you can."

Many developments in public legal ed

The Connecticut Bar Foundation has taken a step to support the use of games in public legal education. The foundation helps fund a website called ctlawhelp.org, which provides "free legal help for people with very low income," says Peter Arakas, CBF president. "We know that there are a lot of unrepresented poor people in Connecticut that the legal services network does not have the resources to provide assistance to.

“What we decided to do several years ago was to use web technology to provide legal services to those who otherwise couldn't get legal services."

The website will eventually host a game being developed by Northeastern University School of Law's NuLawLab, Arakas notes. The game will be a simulator that teaches people who want to represent themselves how to prepare for a court appearance, including what to wear and how to address the judge. For the CBF, supporting such a game is "a new approach to training people how to deal with the legal system," Arakas says. While the game approach might not appeal to older visitors to the site, he adds, "people in their 30s would probably respond to it."

That's the hope of NuLawLab. The group currently has three game-related projects in the works, says Executive Director Dan Jackson; the pro se effort with ctlawhelp.org is the one furthest along. He says the lab has two goals for that project. "One is to use gaming technology to provide self-represented parties with some foundational experience before doing it for real,” he says. “That tends to minimize anxiety in some measureable way.

"The second is to use a very collaborative design process. We're going to design the game with self-represented parties at the table. We'll have people who've gone through the experience, and people who are going through the experience now."

The process won't stop when the game is released, sometime in 2015. The lab will monitor the use of the game to see how people use it, and then take that information to refine the game further.

Many of the law-related game projects under development or already released are targeted at teaching the public about an aspect of the law. Some focus specifically on children. For example, icivics.org, founded and led by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, uses games to teach children about U.S. law and government, as well as the importance of civics education.

Another site attracting attention is Changeville, which uses animation and game mechanics to help children whose parents are going through a divorce. Its aim is to help such children develop "coping skills for the feelings and emotions of a family breakup," says Dave Nolette, communications and web manager for the Justice Education Society of British Columbia, which developed the game.

Changeville shows a small city with different themed streets, where each business focuses on a different aspect of life and how it might change because of a divorce. It explores such issues as "what is depression, or the parenting games that are played" by divorcing couples who may be trying to hurt the other party and leaving the children trapped in the middle, Nolette says.

The society recently developed a version of Changeville for the California court system. The game play is similar, Nolette says, but the help section is based on California law. The society hopes to partner with other legal entities for customized versions of Changeville, as well as future legal games.

Lack of funds slows progress in legal services

But that future is uncertain in the current economic climate. Stephanie Kimbro, founder of the Virtual Law Practice and co-director of the Center for Law Practice Technology at Stanford Law School, is developing two law-related games. She says that while she sees law firms that are using games to help train new associates, finding funding for games geared toward helping the public learn about the legal process is much harder.

"It's expensive to build a game,” Kimbro explains. “The catch is, you can't monetize it very easily " because of rules against fee splitting which would come into place when a game developer wanted to license a game to a company or organization. Kimbro says designing a game that looks good and plays well takes both time and money, and a poorly designed game is not likely to become popular with its intended audience.

Funding for games in the legal services community is also hard to come by, says Bob Ambrogi, a lawyer and writer who blogs at LawSites. Ambrogi, who is also president of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, says he'd like to see more funding used "to drive innovation in delivery of legal services" such as games.

The problem is, "When there's only a limited pot of money to go around, and there's such urgent demand for direct legal services," he explains, "it's hard to divert any of that money toward exploratory projects that may have only an indirect impact on serving the legal need.

"We've had to dramatically cut back the funding for the programs we support. The question we're debating is the extent to which we should divert any of these funds from direct services and toward developmental projects that may pay off in the long run."

 

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