One of the main contributions that technology can make to law is providing innovative ways of promoting access to justice. In this article, I will analyze one particular kind of technological solution to this problem: gamification of educative software.
First, access to justice will be defined as a broad concept, including the idea of “law as a life skill.” Second, I will demonstrate what types of technology are being built to address the problem and how they are being built. A few examples are going to be featured. This piece will then critically analyze the goals and possible impacts of this type of legal technology. Finally, the main barriers this type of approach faces are going to be presented.
2. Access to Justice: A Broad Concept
Usually, access to justice is a concept too narrowly defined. People tend to associate it exclusively with access to courts, lawyers, and the judicial system as a whole.[i] Despite this being one of the core concerns in Canada,[ii] access to justice gaps are also spotted in different ways. According to the Action Committee on Access to Justice, public awareness of rights, entitlements, obligations, and responsibilities, as well as, public awareness of ways to avoid or prevent legal problems[iii] are, among others, important expressions of this concept.
Following this way of thinking about access to justice, the idea of “law as a life skill” shows up.[iv] According to the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, adult Canadians experience approximately 35,745,000 separate everyday legal problems within three years.[v] An everyday legal problem is understood as:
“[A] problem arising out of the normal activities of people’s daily lives that has a legal aspect and has a potential legal solution. The problem is therefore justiciable and could be resolved within the formal legal system, although it may be more sensibly dealt with in other ways.”[vi]
The notion of law as a life skill advocates that all people, not only lawyers, should be educated and trained to know how to act when facing an everyday legal problem. This concept assumes that people just learn how to face these problems after they occur, causing real issues. When faced with legal problems, people are usually passing through a sensitive, tough, and difficult situation, making it harder to develop these abilities and causing a more painful process. Promoting law as a life skill is the idea of anticipating issues through education by creating physical or digital environments where people could learn about law and become more prepared for when these problems arrive.
3. What is “Gamification” and How it Relates to the Problem
The idea of using simulations and rehearsing in order to prepare for an expected situation is not new, but the idea of using technological tools to make this kind of preparation more attractive and enjoyable is quite recent.
The term “gamification” stands for “the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems to improve user experience and user engagement.”[vii] Those who advocate for this approach in law argue that creating games and embedding gamification elements into technological tools can be used to increase the engagement of users who might otherwise be resistant to sources of information and advice.[viii]
If specialists like Stephanie Kimbro are right, then “gamification” can serve perfectly as a tool to promote law as a social skill. In other words, if the biggest difficulty to educate society about law is making the learning process more appealing and accessible before people actually face problems, then games and “gameficated” technological tools can be a real way of attracting people to educate themselves. Therefore, this kind of technology should have a real positive effect on access to justice in Canada and worldwide.
Believing in this approach, some developers came up with a few ideas. The Texas Law-Related Education Group is doing a job worthy of being cited as a good example. The group developed a nice range of lightweight games where the user can learn about different fields of law, such as copyright, evidence, constitutional law, and more. What make the games created by this group stand out among others is the fact that they are lightweight, very interactive, fun flash-based games with simple and easy commands.
Despite the existence of some examples of well-done gamifications on law education, most are not doing well. This makes it easy to spot the difficulties and barriers that must be faced in order to increase success in the area.
4. The Main Barriers
There are two categories of problems holding back gamification in law education in order to provide access to Justice: first, structural problems, and second, superficial problems. Structural problems are those which may be inherent to legal education and superficial problems should be understood not in a pejorative way, but as a solvable problem that tends to be easily fixed as more investments and research takes place.
Preparing people to face everyday legal problems does not necessarily work. As Professor Catrina Denvir states:
“[It] is important not to overestimate [the internet’s] utility. For public legal education and self-help we find that the internet increases knowledge of rights, but that this knowledge does not equal confidence or competence with regard to action.”[ix]
Another structural problem is that gaming and technology tend to be exclusive. All of the arguments made in this article presume that people have access to hardware, know how to properly use them, and actually are willing to use them. Games and gamification seem to, perhaps, work only for some particular ages and educational levels.
One of the superficial problems is the difficulty to make attractive games for the general public without losing the educational value. This problem is called “content appealing.” In other words, most legal games are just boring and unattractive to everyone, except lawyers. Design thinking could be an interesting way of developing law-related educational games. It seems that, most of the time, games are re-developed by lawyers or law students without consulting and understanding the aimed public.[x]
An additional superficial problem comes from a lack of investments, also called “visual appealing.” Most games are not up to the standards or expectations of the commercial games with which likely users would be familiar.[xi] Graphics quality is an important factor to attract gamers and this lack of plastic knowledge causes some projects to fail.
By understanding access to justice as a broad concept, including the idea of law as a life skill, one can make a direct connection between technology and access to justice. The idea of preparing people to face everyday legal problems can become more successful if properly assisted by technology.
Gamification has an important role to play in this approach and can contribute to access to justice by making legal education more attractive and enjoyable to most people. Although there are problems involving this kind of approach, some of them can be fixed and others cannot.
In conclusion, technology can be very useful to law in order to provide access to justice, and gamification is one way to make this challenge easier. Technology and gamification cannot be overrated.
[i] HUGHES, Patricia. “Law Commissions and Access to Justice: What Justice Should We Be Talking About?”
[ii] See FARROW, Trevor C.W. “What is Access to Justice?”
[iii] Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, Ottawa, Canada. “ACCESS TO CIVIL & FAMILY JUSTICE: A Roadmap for Change”
[iv] Term used by The Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution in the 2017 Hackjustice Hackathon.
[v] FARROW, Trevor C. W., CURRIE, Ab, AYLWIN, Nicole, JACOBS, Les, NORTHRUP, David and MOORE, Lisa. EVERYDAY LEGAL PROBLEMS AND THE COST OF JUSTICE IN CANADA: OVERVIEW REPORT p.8
[vi] FARROW, Trevor C. W., CURRIE, Ab, AYLWIN, Nicole, JACOBS, Les, NORTHRUP, David and MOORE, Lisa. EVERYDAY LEGAL PROBLEMS AND THE COST OF JUSTICE IN CANADA: OVERVIEW REPORT p.6
[viii] SMITH, Roger. Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes
[ix] DENVIR, Catrina, BALMER, Nigel. Digitally (De)Faulted? How do young people use the Internet to acquire knowledge of their rights? < http://www.lawforlife.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Cat-Denvir-YP-article.pdf>
[x] SMITH, Roger. Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes. P.38
[xi] Op. cit.