Argument Wars Redux: Interview with Dan Norton of Filament Games

I am excited to have a chance to talk with Dan Norton, Lead Designer at Filament games. Filament has developed a bunch of great educational games. I was thinking about writing up a review of one of their games which has a particularly historical dimension, but I figured, hey why not try to start a conversation with the devs? We have done fair amount of analysis of games on this site and I thought it would be fun to try and get a bit of dialog with developers started here. In the interest of full disclosure I should note that Dan is a friend. Read: Think less hard hitting interview and more humanist to developer chat.

Briefly, Argument Wars is a game Filament developed with funding from the MacAurthr foundation for Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s iCivics project. Its a free online game, so you can (and should) play it here.

The broad goal of iCivics is to get middle school students engaged and knowledgeable about civics. In this game specifically, students re-litigate a series of Supreme Court cases ( Brown v. Board of Education, New Jersey v. T.L.O., Texas v. Johnson, Miranda v. Arizona, Snyder v. Phelps). Players start by choosing which side they want to argue. Throughout the game, players make decisions about evidence they wish to use to advance their case and justify their reasoning as they go.

When I first played the game, I thought it was a very clever way to learn about both the specific cases and the process of argumentation both in courts and more broadly. Over the holidays, Dan and I went back and forth on a few questions about the game. Please consider continuing this conversation with us in the comments.

Trevor: If you were going to demo this game for historians, what kinds of things do you think they would be excited about? Knowing that they are not at all your target audience, do you think there are any elements in the games design they might be particularly interested in?

Dan: Well, the game’s core mechanic is one of evaluating evidence and applying it to a claim. This interaction is a very simple one at its heart, but is given several other dimensions that I think help strengthen the game as a *system* of argumentation rather than just a matching exercise. The first is the contextual feedback given from the judge, who individually appraises each connection between a given piece of evidence and a given claim.

The second is that the player has to consider the strength and potential of multiple claim/evidence clusters at the same time, creating a more complicated “cloud” of reasoning where I think some cool argumentative strategy emerges. Do you want to hammer home the point you’re making very well, or attempt to salvage an argument you’re getting pounded on?

The choices are not straightforward, but that’s what makes it get closer to firing some “authentic” mental pistons for making a real argument in the real world.

Trevor: In the game, players replay court cases. It probably would not be a very engaging game if you could only recapitulate the original outcomes of the cases, but for some folks in the history community, the notion that you get to change the outcome of the cases would seem problematic. The idea being that it is really important to know how the cases played out. Was this a concern in your development process? Were there any alternate ideas you guys considered? If so, what did you see as the trade-offs and how did you decide on this approach?

Dan: I’m not a historian myself, so this is almost certainly an awkward way of putting it, but it seems to me there’s a tension in history between “document things that happened” and “analyze why history unfolded the way it did”. Analysis involves models, and models involve the potential for multiple outcomes. History would be less meaningful  if we couldn’t pull general, systemic principles out of it that we can apply to the present, where different future outcomes are possible.

So, if we’d like students to understand in some sense an underlying system that structures events, one of the most effective ways we can impart that system is to ask them to participate inside it as an actor with agency.

Trevor: The game seems to put the player in a kind of timeless courtroom. You re-litigate cases from the past, but you do so outside of their historical context. The goal of the game is to get kids to understand how the courts work, so that historical dimension isn’t really part of that. Did there seem to be any tension between important ways of thinking about the cases grounded in contextual issues from the historical record and the idea of a timeless court? If so how did you think through these issues?

Dan: Oooh that’s a great question. I don’t think we had any philosophic or design tension in terms of context, it was merely a choice about the size and scope of the game. The game’s core objective was to give players a chance to assemble argumentation that fit into America’s legal history. I’m certainly not opposed to more context, but it’s something that simply falls outside the scope of the game.

When you’re designing a system it’s important to remember that your system, in the broad scheme of things, will represent almost nothing at all. That sounds discouraging, but honestly it’s the segregation and isolation of information that gives us any sense of what’s happening around us at all. If you want to turn a facet of the world into something comprehensible, you have to throw away the vast majority of the potential information and make choices about what to keep.

For example, perhaps the context you’re interested in adding is the personal biographies of the lawyers and staff on the case; that would certainly be interesting. Or maybe it’s the newspapers coverage; that would certainly lend an extra dimension. Maybe the judge’s appetite or attention span that day would be a worthwhile factor. What were their ties made of? Should we add a driving simulation to show players how people got around in that time period?

Some of this information could help, some of it probably wouldn’t, but ALL of it would cause the game to lose some of its focus on the current core objective: legal argumentation.

Trevor: At the core of the game is the evidence and prior opinions students use to forward their arguments. Did you guys do much historical work on the project to develop those views, or was this more about putting together ahistorical opposing views? If so, how did you go about it?

Dan: We worked very very closely with the fabulous folks at iCivics and Arizona State University for both structure and content. It was EXTREMELY satisfying to paper prototype this game, and watch two real-life lawyers attempt to obliterate each other with teeny little play cards. The arguments put forth in each case are both legally plausible and based on each case’s actual arguments; it’s not a shocker that those generally dovetail together perfectly.

Trevor: Did you guys spend much time looking at other court games, things like Phoenix Wright? If so, what kinds of things did you borrow and what kinds of things did you change?

Dan: Phoenix Wright is a very interesting game. It takes the standard adventure-game mechanic of “use your inventory to solve a puzzle” and crafts it into a very clever two-step interaction of careful reading (looking for a potential lie in a witness’s story) and application of objects of evidence that exploit the logical loophole you’ve found. When the writing is tuned well, it’s brilliant.

Since Phoenix Wright is a criminal law game, you’re more focused on DE-construction of a fixed narrative. Argument Wars is a game based on higher court proceedings, so is more focused purely on construction. In general, I feel that games that ask you to build rather than disassemble are a better fit for educational objectives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tearing something open and seeing how it works, but destructive or deconstructive mechanics might be a little less universal for all kinds of players.

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