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Game-Based Learning...And Law?

the judges' bench of the colorado supreme court

By Lee Skallerup Bessette and Nicole L. Martin
August 19, 2016

Professor Roberta Harding came to CELT with an idea: She wanted to reimagine how students in her criminal law course approached casework while focusing on critical reading, strong analysis, and fact-based reasoning.

To bring her vision to life, Professor Harding and her graduate assistant, Laura Reynolds, collaborated with Lee Skallerup Bessette and CELT’s director, Kathi Kern, to create the role-playing game, The Extraordinary Saga of Brooks, Dudley, Parker and Stephens: A Substantive Criminal Law Game.

Designed as a four-phased, semester-long exercise, The Extraordinary Saga… adapted principles of online game play for the digital humanities to legal analysis. The game’s complex, multi-tiered approach (which included multiple teams and players) was supported by the software, Ivanhoe. Developed in 2013 as a Wordpress theme by the University of Virginia Scholars Lab, Ivanhoe emerged to encourage multimedia, interactive, and interdisciplinary collaboration across the humanities. Professor Harding’s game was unparalleled in the field of criminal law, and demonstrated how gaming and digital pedagogy could constructively influence legal education.

“The American Bar Association,” explained Professor Harding, “has recently put forward a set of required learning outcomes for all law degrees. One of the learning outcomes is competency in ‘legal analysis and reasoning, legal research, problem-solving, and written and oral communication in the legal context.’ Ivanhoe, as a platform, allowed for these skills to be developed, particularly [by] focusing on written communication and legal reasoning.”

The Extraordinary Saga... game centered around the Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, which is considered a staple case of introductory criminal law courses across the country. Its principal conflict involved three rescued castaways who were arrested in 1883 and charged with the death of their shipmate. The defendants in the crime were accused of murder after engaging in cannibalism to avoid their own death by famine. The case is best known for establishing legal precedent limiting the parameters of necessity, thereby making self-preservation unjust grounds for murder.

A daguerrotype photograph of the lifeboat from the infamous Dudley Stephens case

Professor Harding and her collaborators conceptualized each phase of The Extraordinary Saga… to concentrate on the essential skills needed for compelling legal analysis. The game unfolded chronologically and allowed to students to build on their analytical proficiency as they maneuvered through the steps of the case as both prosecution and defense.

Students were divided into teams of four, which they maintained throughout the course of the semester. Phase I covered the period from when the ship was lost at sea to the moment the remaining three sailors were rescued and brought back to England for trial. During this phase, students took on roles of the perpetrators and victim, and were prompted to develop narratives surrounding the circumstances of their assigned character. To help craft their narratives, students were given an array of supporting documentation including Wikipedia sources, sketches, maps, newspaper reports and a play based on the events.

“The students learned very quickly that they needed to practice careful reading, as well as how to draw reasonable inferences,” explained Professor Harding. “And, they were [also] learning how to craft a narrative, which is very important in law and legal practice.” During class, Professor Harding revisited each student response and discussed how they could arrive at stronger narratives and rationales for the next assignment. This was critical for the arc of the course as later phases of the game would continue to draw on the learning initiatives of this stage.

Phase II directed students to discuss the potential criminal liability of each individual actor involved with the crime. Drawing not only from the activities and lessons from the previous phase, students now relied on their own reasoning informed by the law itself. To assist their preparation, Professor Harding drafted hypothetical statutes to encourage the students’ development in applying legal precedent to the specific facts of the case. This process required students to carefully re-read the materials and draft a written rationale for their conclusions on the accused’s liability.

Phase III shifted the game’s focus toward the prosecution. During this phase, students assumed the roles of prosecuting attorneys and were instructed to work in teams. They were prompted to determine the charges for each defendant and to provide a justification for the allegations. Professor Harding created a penal code that was shared with each team as the basis for the charges brought against the defendants.

In future iterations of the game, Phase III will also give students an opportunity to speak directly with a surviving relative of the victim while working to build their case. “[The relative] still lives in the same town in England as the deceased, and their family still has an active interest in this chapter of their history,” Professor Harding shared. “Lawyers, in fact, have to have these kinds of conversations with the victim’s family members, so it will be a great introduction to that practice.”

For the final phase of the game, students devised strategies to advocate for the accused as they shifted their positions to defense attorney. In crafting their defense narrative, students relied on a penal code drafted by Professor Harding for juridical support. This stage of the game concluded the semester’s work as students demonstrated the breadth of their legal skills while presenting arguments in pursuit of an acquittal.

“By using this game, the students [learn] how to read critically in a supported, scaffolded way,” Professor Harding continued. “The prompts help the students to know what to pay attention to. Rather than just assigning readings and then lecturing, this [process] allows students to actively engage with and apply what they are reading, practice those skills they will need as lawyers, and create a more engaging environment in the classroom.”

Professor Harding and Reynolds worked together over the course of a summer to construct the rules and parameters of The Extraordinary Saga... with CELT providing technical support.

Professor Harding went on to admit, “The first time you try something new in the classroom, there will be some unforeseen challenges. Next time, I will be sure to make the learning outcomes more explicit, as well as changing the way the game is introduced and framed for the students.”

Student Amanda Combs called the The Extraordinary Saga... a “lifejacket” for her first semester in law school. Through Professor Harding’s innovative pedagogical approach, Combs and her classmates practiced a method of grounded creativity that promises to inform the trajectory of their law careers.

For Professor Harding, Combs’ feedback provides affirmation for her original hope in creating the game: to install a foundational familiarity with (and appreciation for) the law into her students’ education and future legal practice.

Cover Image: Jeffrey Beall, "The Colorado Supreme Court courtroom." CC-BY-3.0.