Playing Games and Winning Arguments

Hi friends, I hope you are all staying safe and well and taking this opportunity to really check in on yourselves and what you need during this time. If you are finding that you are needing the opportunity to air frustration, live out your father’s dreams for you, or pontificate about important matters in the comfort of your own home, might I suggest the Argument Wars game on iCivics.org?

Someday we can unpack the title to this game because that seems LOADED.

On the site, the game is described as the following:

Ever tried to win a disagreement? In Argument Wars, test your persuasive abilities by arguing a real Supreme Court case. The other lawyer plays your competition. Whoever uses the strongest arguments wins!
(***worth noting that I had to open this game in Safari, as it wouldn’t open in other browsers. Similarly, I had to give Flash Player permission to play.***)

The goal of the game is to expose players (I’m assuming middle-school age?) to nine significant U.S. Court Cases like Bond v. United States and Brown v. Board of  Education. The first few minutes are spent clicking through opening arguments by either side before being prompted to answer which constitutional issue is at stake. You start getting points at this stage for every correct answer or well-supported argument. You lose points for poorly-supported arguments and objections to well-supported arguments by the opponent. A tutorial walks you different steps of the game: drawing “cards” or, the supporting supreme court case/evidence supporting your case;  the pitch deck where you drag and drop cards to build your argument, connecting your support to your argument, Once the judge has distributed his “ruling points,” whichever side has received more “wins.” I did try to throw the game/match/case once just to see if the game would allow for “ahistorical” outcomes, but it took about 10x longer, the computer (via judge/opponent) seemed to self-correct, and it eventually froze on me soooo while I can make an educated guess (and certainly hope) that this game would go on as long as it takes for “Brown” to win in Brown v. Board, I couldn’t say for certain.

I will walk through the game as I play it so you can get a sense of how it works before going and spending hours (or 0-15 minutes as the website suggests) trying it out for yourself!

First step: choose a character.

This part felt a little like the Game of Life of CDROM (iykyk). The only customizable option here is the name, so I went with the GOAT.

You then decide which side of the case you wish to argue:

Following the opening arguments, the interactivity begins. You draw cards and then decide which best support your case. Each card opens up to a dialogue box with more information of the given evidence/court case to help the player choose which best supports the argument:

If the judge likes or approves of your argument, he might request you argue your point further. You then have to arrange a statement that connects the support to the argument (note that options are LIMITED):

The opponent then has the opportunity to support their argument in the same fashion and the player can choose whether to object or pass. The judge then determines whether the supporting evidence and/or objection are legitimate:

Things can get ugly…

And so on and so forth until all of the judge’s ruling points are distributed, at which point he makes a ruling (note the SMUG look on RBG’s face at crushing her downtrodden opponent):

And that’s the game! The player can then restart and play through different court cases.

So what is the utility of this game and how it operates? “Argument Wars” definitely falls into what Brian Sutton-Smith refers to (via Flanagan) as, “a Western notion of progress where play, especially children’s play, is justified as educational and moral, helping to build intelligence and good behavior, and preparing children to take part as good citizens of the adult world. (Flanagan, 25)” The game is essentially a “choose your own adventure” that you *likely* cannot lose. It prompts the player to build a logical and well-founded argument—super useful for the future lawyers/scholars/scientists/activists/kids arguing with their parents/citizens—and distributes a substantial amount of what might be considered “civic information” throughout. The limited number of possible outcomes somewhat limits the creative and interpretive possibilities on the part of the player, but the intention of this game is to convey a very specific set of historical data, and thus probably is not very interested in interpretive possibilities (which is as much a critique of the ways in which nationalism is indoctrinated through art and culture as of this game, specifically). The website/game developers get a “win” in disseminating the core curriculum in manner that is more engaging than a PowerPoint, and the player not only gets the ego boost of winning, but hopefully pick up a lot of information about various significant court cases that have shaped the course of United States history.

iCivics has a large number of other games that would be worth checking out as well—many deal with the evergreen political topics such as immigration, fake news, and campaign building. I would definitely be interested in seeing if there are other games (on iCivics.org or otherwise) that allow more space for interpretation and feedback from their audiences. I perceive (or, at least hope) that the current generation of middle-schoolers are encouraged to pursue more independent critical thinking in relation to U.S. history than my generation was, and I would like to see how game developers are responding to that shift.

Now back to arguing with characters on Netflix — stay safe!

2 Replies to “Playing Games and Winning Arguments”

  1. Great breakdown of the game! I definitely like this idea of teaching Supreme Court Cases in a more interactive way. I know that many (myself included) can find learning about the workings of a court case can be tedious, so I can definitely see this being a good way to introduce students to the topic. I do like that the game is designed to be more of a “puzzle” of choosing supportable arguments than a game that could have simply been “pick what the lawyers arguing the case actually said.” I think that takes it a bit beyond just what happened during this case to understanding how these cases work, and how government works. I also like that there’s a section to read up more no the case that you are arguing so you can have a little bit more historical background. I could see games like these being a valuable tool to use in addition to a lesson plan.
    The on thing I do worry about with these games is if they will continue to be accessible going forward. As you said in your comments the games require Flash and with support for that ending this year, I wonder if there are plans for updating the games.

  2. I interviewed the game designer, Dan Norton, about this game a while back. (https://www.playthepast.org/?p=575 ). I think he had some really great points about how game mechanics tend to represent almost nothing about the world. That a key part of the work of a game designer is to remove nearly everything from a model to make it something that is engaging to play with and explore. I think that brings a really important lens to bring to the work of critiquing any game’s representation of the past.

    To that end, I think it’s really interesting that the core mechanics of this game are about argumentation and evidence in the logic of a case in front of the court. In that vein, the historical context of these cases isn’t really at the forefront of those learning objectives. That said, I think we could all image very different kinds of games designed to tell stories about the situation of the country that connect with the historical moments of all these cases.

    As this, and the other flash games underscore, there are big challenges relating to the sustainability of video games.

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