Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice: Games Can Get Young People Interested in Politics

"If someone had told me when I retired from the Supreme Court that I would be speaking at a conference about digital gaming, I'd be thinking, 'You've had one drink too many,'" said the Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor, former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I have not had much exposure to this world as you might imagine," the 78 year-old told a packed auditorium as the final keynote speaker at the 2008 Games for Change festival Wednesday afternoon. "I don't play video games, sorry," she revealed later during the question-and-answer session.

While O'Connor will probably never play "Halo," she explained that she came into the digital world after noticing how increasingly difficult it is to receive impartial judgments from serving judges who face mounting political pressure and partisan attacks. She feels that the only way to combat this is with video games about civics education. Yes, that's right: video games.

O'Connor is spearheading a joint venture with Georgetown Law School and Arizona State University called "Our Courts," an online civics education project aimed at 7th, 8th and 9th grade students. The free website will allow young people to step into the shoes of a judge, legislator or executive and debate and analyze governmental problems and issues.

Citing the fact that two-thirds of Americans can name at least one judge on "American Idol" but less than one in ten can name a Chief Justice in the U.S. Supreme Court, O'Connor said, "Knowledge from our government is not handed down in the gene pool... we have some work to do."

She said that since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 has "effectively squeezed out" civics education from public schools, the solution is to reach young people through the Internet and gaming. "Young people are beginning to get engaged in civic life through the Internet... they're emailing, they're blogging, they're networking on Facebook. Through these mechanisms, young people can take leadership roles."

O'Connor hopes that "Our Courts" will encourage even more young people to take action and voice their opinions. The project is split into two parts: one as an interactive curriculum to be used inside classrooms, and the other for young people to use in their freetime -- "a truly interactive and immersive civic experience" currently being worked on by Dr. James Paul Gee.

One of the first issues the project will tackle is First Amendment rights, presenting cases that have directly affected young people, such as Morse vs. Frederick, where an Alaskan student was suspended for displaying a banner that referenced drug use.

"It is the citizens of this nation who have to preserve our system of government," she said. "The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped to preserve the system of government we have, and we have to start with the education of our nation's young people."

The "Our Courts" website is up now, but O'Connor said she hopes that by September it will have the curriculum for classroom use. Gee's interactive contributions are slated for September 2009.