Gaming a System: Using Digital Games to Guide Self-Represented Litigants

17 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2016

See all articles by Dan Jackson

Dan Jackson

Northeastern University - NuLawLab; Northeastern University - School of Law

Martha F. Davis

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: 2016


The pro se litigant is climbing a virtual mountain and plucking necessary documents and forms from the trees before reaching the courtroom at the summit. She encounters “shieldmaidens” offering protection from the dangers ahead, but only if the player is able to arrange for back-up child care for her court hearing date. A map of the hiking trail shows her how far she has climbed, and the uncertain terrain that lies ahead. Those are just a few of the ideas generated as part of our efforts over the last year to create a digital game that will help people without lawyers navigate the Connecticut state court system and advocate for themselves in court. Although our game did not end up being sited on a digital mountain, those ideas were developed further and incorporated into scenarios sited in more realistic environments such as a courtroom, the courthouse hallway, and the clerk’s office.

As increasing numbers of people represent themselves in legal disputes where the health, safety, and welfare of their families is in jeopardy, the justice community has responded with excellent resources for people without lawyers to help them create and file the necessary documents and navigate the system to get their day in court. Once that day comes, however, most pro se litigants lack the skills or experience needed to effectively represent themselves in adjudicatory proceedings. We think digital games hold promise as a uniquely interdisciplinary response to the access-to-justice crisis by providing virtual experiential learning. Accordingly, the NuLawLab at Northeastern University School of Law has embarked on a multiyear collaboration with Drs. Casper Harteveld and Gillian Smith from our university’s game design faculty to design, deploy, and evaluate the approach in Connecticut courts. With funding from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant program, the project is led by Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut in partnership with New Haven Legal Assistance Association. The game itself – RePresent – will be hosted on, and available to play free of charge. The idea alone – without a single line of code written – was compelling enough to be named one of three finalists for a 2014 Innovating Justice award from The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law.

As a result of the project, which has been running since January, 2015, we have learned a great deal about the application of digital games in the legal space. This paper is an effort to impart some of that knowledge to the community of lawyers, technologists, and others exploring the use of digital technology to close the access-to-justice gap. Part One of our paper provides a brief scan of the multitude of efforts to date addressing access to justice, in order to help make the case for consideration of creative, interdisciplinary solutions. Part Two summarizes why we see digital games as a promising experiential learning environment for pro se litigants. Part Three provides some context on the state of digital games as applied in the legal space, which we define to include legal service and information delivery, as well as legal education. Part Four details the unique co-design process we employed to engage pro se litigants, court service center personnel, and legal aid lawyers in the game design process, and the results thereof. We close with some thoughts on the potential we see for future efforts in legal gameplay.

Keywords: Pro Se, Access to Justice

Suggested Citation

Jackson, Dan and Davis, Martha F., Gaming a System: Using Digital Games to Guide Self-Represented Litigants (2016). Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 252-2016, Available at SSRN:

Dan Jackson (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - NuLawLab ( email )

102 Dockser Hall,
65 Forsyth St.
Boston, MA 02115
United States

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

Martha F. Davis

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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