Sandra Day O’Connor: Video Games Promoter


Her nickname is FWOTSC,  First Woman On The Supreme Court.  She is 86 and has become  a video game enthusiast in the past few years.  Before that time, she had neither watched nor played one of the interactive digital games.

After Justice O’Connor  retired from The Supreme Court in 2006, she started iCivics, a non-profit civic education group in 2009.  iCivics has released 19 free online games since then, along with lesson plans for teachers in middle schools.  The aim is to involve students in interactive learning about the three branches of the federal government ,  and The Constitution.  About 3.2 million students played iCivics games last year.

Justice O’Connor has said that she started iCivics because she knew that many high schools no longer taught Civics courses that were meant to  encourage students to become engaged citizens. She was concerned that students would not grow up to become active voters or leaders in their communities.  She has said, “A quarter of students cannot demonstrate a proficient knowledge of how our government works.”   Justice O’Connor wanted to make sure they understood the importance of an “independent judiciary” and the “right to due process.”

She began the project by consulting with James Gee, a professor of literary studies at Arizona State University , the author of “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning”.   He explained to her that video games were not about the common impression of  “ shooting people”.  They were about “problem solving” .  The next step was taken by a former student of Professor Gee who  had been one of the founders of Filament Games in Madison, Wisconsin.   He designed  games for iCivics, with Justice O’Connor’s deep interests and priorities central to the concepts in several of the games.  One is “Supreme Decision”  where a student becomes a Supreme Court  Justice who must cast the deciding vote in an important case.

Justice O’Connor  was also behind “Win the White House” , whose latest edition was recently released. The game has been played already  by  250,000 students in March.  Reflecting the current presidential campaign, students take on the roles of imaginary presidential candidates.  They then learn how to compete in a civil manner against opponents on issues like immigration and gun control.  Teachers who have used “Win the White House”  reported that students experience and understand that candidates often make trade offs in their positions during the campaign.

In one of the most popular iCivics games  “Do I Have a Right?” , there is a law firm that takes constitutional law cases where students play lawyers who argue the cases.  It covers topics that could be current such as a policeman stopping a young person on the street and searching  without giving a reason.  Was that legal or illegal?  Did the young person know his or her rights in that situation?

Justice O’Connor has reached out to former colleagues to join her in iCivics efforts.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the group’s governing board last November.  She said in an interview that she thought “It was brilliant of Justice O’Connor to realize that computer games could be a very successful way to interest kids in civic education.”  She said that  her first interest in the law came from watching “Perry Mason” shows on television.  She described her own visits to the schools now where she encourages students to learn how the government works through iCivics materials in their classes.  She also shared that she has played the games. “They’re fun. I’ve challenged my clerks to play them to see how they do.”

Justice O’Connor  will certainly be in the history books as the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.  She was also the very important swing vote in “Bush v.Gore”, the Supreme Court case that settled the contested 2,000 presidential election. It was the only time the Supreme Court decided who would be the winner and next President of the United States. However, these days she likes to say that her efforts to encourage students to understand and participate in their government represent her most important legacy.



























2 thoughts on “Sandra Day O’Connor: Video Games Promoter

  1. How playful of Justice O’Conner! Only a grandmother could have come up with the idea of using computer games to help children understand our legal and political system. I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Wow! I will have to become more computer savvy in order to claim literacy in these games. I can see this is essential. Thanks for this info.

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