by Tig Wartluft
I’m a gamer; my wife, not so much. I say this because I’ve spent years trying to find board games that she and I both enjoy playing equally. A couple of weeks ago I finally found one. I like it because it is well balanced and its mechanics are well designed and easily understandable. My wife likes it because of its theme.
So what does this have to do with instruction? Well, I’ve recently been thinking about game theory, gamification, the potential use of related ideas like digital badges and how these techniques and approaches could be leveraged into making the instruction of legal research more entertaining and enjoyable for students. The theory goes that if they are enjoying themselves, they are more invested in internalizing the skills of legal research instead of simply memorizing the facts. Most students finally realize the importance of what they learned in our 1L research class once they’ve had their first summer internship experience. I want to explore if the use of game theory and other techniques can make students more invested in what they are learning before they’ve gone away for the summer.
The board-game example brought to light an obvious issue: everyone approaches a problem differently. I get interested in a game because of its mechanics and balance. I don’t really care if, as a player, I’m a viking, or a wildlife photographer, or a power company. A game’s theme or story doesn’t matter as much to me as the quality of the design and the balance of play. My wife cares about the theme. Sure, if the mechanics aren’t very good she’ll find she doesn’t like playing it so much, but she’s not examining the design as much as she’s just got a feeling that the game wasn’t so fun. And she’s willing to overlook a lot in the way of game design and mechanics if the game has a good story or an interesting theme.
I tend to approach my legal research teaching in the same fashion: I teach and am interested in the underlying structure of the process. I look at the structure of the legal problem beneath the details. But perhaps I need to pay more attention to the obvious details, i.e. the theme. I’m always amazed at how wrong (in my mind) a student can read a problem, finding interpretations and red herrings that require some serious mental gymnastics on my part to see how they arrived at their answer. I try to account for these surprises when creating my grading rubrics by making sure there’s enough wiggle room in my proposed scoring to accommodate alternate interpretations and approaches. This week I was able to look at and discuss another instructor’s rubrics (in a totally different subject area), and I was struck again at the differing approach that instructor took. Their rubric was looking for concrete content, instead of underlying structure. Their approach worked well for them; it kept them grading consistently. The discussion we had was interesting to me because of the vastly differing approaches we took to the same instructional product. For the second time in one week I was struck by how egocentric my perspective becomes when I’m not actively checking my assumptions.
Regarding gamification, I’ve recently been working on how to make a game out of the regional and federal case reporter system. I was hoping that if I made a game out of the historical grouping of states within the reporter system and the organization of the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals, my students learn something while also having fun. Additionally, I think the whole system of reporters will make more sense if my students have to interact with a physical representation of the organization, instead of only encountering the reporters as citation requirements without a more geographically centered understanding.
This approach was inspired by what I learned while gaming as a kid: like how kids who grew up playing Risk know where Kamchatka is, and those who played Axis and Allies know the strategic importance of Gibraltar. While I think I’ve got a version of my reporter game that might be ready to test, I’m going to change my planned approach to playtesting and not be a player in the early playtests. This way I can see how others will take what I’ve designed and interpret it. After these recent experiences, I expect that to happen in ways vastly different than anything I could even imagine.