Gamification vs Games for Legal Services

As I’ve started talking about the game I’m developing, I hear people throw out the phrase “gamification of legal services” to describe my project. That’s not what I’m doing, and the terminology does make a difference. There is gamification, serious games and simulations and then there are games. The difference really has to do with the design goal.

This is a running debate that gets pretty heated in the game industry. The best known example is the “Gamification is Bullshit” position statement given by scholar Dr. Ian Bogost at the Wharton Gamification Symposium. He has since been featured in several pieces explaining his position that have been published in Wired, The Atlantic, and Kotaku. If you want a good book on gamification, one written by a couple of lawyers even, check out For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize your Business, by Dan Hunter and Kevin Werbach. And if you are into that, just re-read Drive by Daniel Pink and you’ll notice how ridiculously connected those books are to each other. (There are also some wonderfully brilliant presentations by designer Sebastian Deterding which help explain what is going wrong currently with gamification efforts in the business world.)

Again, that’s not what I’m doing with my game. Although concepts of internal and external motivation discussed in Drive hang around when we think about the game design and what will motivate better and recurring game play, but those concepts were around in game design long before Pink’s book. In fact, he references the same American psychologist and creator of the concept of “flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmialyi, that Jane McGonigal (of the “games” camp) writes about in her book, Reality is Broken.  Here is Csikszentmialyi’s TED Talk on flow. Really worth your time. There is overlap here.

When games cross over into the area of “games for social good” they get classified as “serious games” and that throws them into this semantics debate. If you are trying to do good with your game, such as educate people about their rights, then is it a game if there is an agenda built into it? It seems to come down to the design goal and the game mechanics.

If you are taking existing process, such as the business of delivering legal services, law firm operations, the judicial process, rules of civil procedure, the process for a criminal or tort case, and adding game elements to those processes to help people learn about them or to encourage them to be handled in a different way, then that is gamification.

Most of the existing “games” around the law or legal services fall into this camp. They tend to be card games, simulations, text-based walkthroughs or quizzes. Most of them have the goal of teaching civics, legal procedures and basic law practice skills to citizens and law students. Here are a few of the better known ones:

Margaret Hagan’s LawDojo Apps and Citizen U content quizzes




Do I have a right?

DO TANK projects at New York Law School

State of Play Academy at New York Law School

Gaming the (Immigration) System by Lien B. Tran

Texas State Bar Legal Civics Games

Is the primary design goal that the player have fun or is it there another purpose? Can you combine the two effectively? Do you even want to?

When I met with my game designer we decided that the best approach for the target players are building the game for was going to be making a FUN game, a game that the player would want to play regardless of any external rewards related to legal services that it offered. So that is what we are up to – developing a fun game that people will want to play. That’s the priority and I’m giving my designer free reign to be as creative as she can be with the constraints of the subject matter of which I’ve worked hard to give her as many examples and scenarios as possible to run with.

Humor is going to be used to present a challenge that must be solved. Through the game play to get to the next level, the player is learning something in an off-hand way, about their rights and the law related to a specific practice area. But they are playing it because it’s a game they can share with their friends and family and it’s fun to play. More specifics to come, but I thought since I’m reading so much about the whole gamification vs. games debate, I would share my opinion on the subject. I will write a follow up post later about why the difference matters in terms of bringing legal education to the public and connecting them with online legal services.


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