Trust Me: Transitioning from Art Installation to Game

There’s a classic legal ethics problem that goes something like this: the client is accused of a crime. He has an alibi, but he doesn’t want you to use it because it’s embarrassing. Should you override the client’s wishes in order to win, or does the client have the right to tank his own case?

Academics aren’t the only ones who care about the answer to that question. Disputes over control can poison the attorney-client relationship, especially when they’re mismanaged. I envisioned Trust Me as a simulation of these issues, an abstract demonstration of how  divisions arise in the partnership and why they can be difficult to address. The challenge of the design now is to make Trust Me into a game that captures the unequal and potentially conflict-ridden nature of the situation, yet is still a game people would want to play.

“Unequal” may seem like a strange goal for a game, but inequalities are a fact of attorney-client interaction. Lawyers have specialized knowledge that their clients lack. They are familiar with the legal environment and its processes, while the client likely finds them strange and even intimidating. Lawyers are repeat players, while the client is probably being opposed–and judged–by strangers. Ethics rules give the lawyer final say over many decisions, including some that the client may care very much about. The lawyer is even on familiar ground, in an office or a courthouse the lawyer has practiced in before, while the client feels like he or she is an outsider. Any game about attorney-client interaction needs to recognize and represent that inequality.

(As a side note: I am not saying that these inequalities are necessarily good or desirable. Scholars have struggled for years to find ways to reduce the paternalism involved in lawyer-client interaction without losing the value of the lawyer’s expertise. The topic remains one of hot debate, with arguments for many different solutions. Some have even argued in favor of the inequality. I have my own views on this subject, but Trust Me is not about whether or how the playing field between attorneys and clients should be leveled. It is evoking the inequalities that have existed in the past and that are still present today.)

In real life the issue of attorney-client inequality stirs up a pot already set to boiling by the fact that lawyers and their clients don’t always want the same things. Traditionally litigators have focused on winning the case. Clients usually want to win too, but they can have additional goals separate and apart from overall victory. They might want to punish someone who has harmed them, and hope the lawyer will really put the screws to that person on the witness stand. They may want answers to burning questions, and feel that the only way they’re going to get them is if the person who knows the truth is under oath. They may simply want to have as little to do with the situation as possible, and favor solutions that keep them far from the courthouse and the opposing party–even if that means a less-desirable outcome. A client may simply want to feel like he or she still has control over an important situation in his or her own life, and want something minor just for the satisfaction of influencing the case. The attorney-client relationship can become a tug-of-war, the attorney pulling toward a winning verdict while the client tries to move the attorney toward other objectives.

Trust Me succeeds, I think, in demonstrating the challenges of a building a constructive relationship despite these two problems. The players are unequally situated: Player 1 has more influence than Player 2, and is more likely to win. Each has different goals–Player 1 to reach the opposite side of the board, Player 2 to have markers collected–that sometimes align but often conflict. It’s possible to work together, but it’s also possible for only one person to get what he or she wants, or for the relationship to break down entirely. (I equate Player 2 boxing Player 1 in out of spite with a client firing his or her attorney.) As an art installation that exists to make a point, Trust Me works.

It falls down, however, when evaluated as a game. Player 2’s lack of control is thematically appropriate but frustrating. Having Player 2 manipulate the barriers captures abstractly the client’s efforts to get an attorney to take certain approaches, but interacting directly with Player 1 would feel more accurate. The game is too easy for Player 1, but in the current design the difficulty can’t be increased without giving Player 2 an unthematic amount of power.

At this point Trust Me is achieving its thematic ends, but no one would want to play it more than once. Turning it into a better game–and, perhaps, a more effective art piece–requires solving some design problems. How can Player 1’s experience be made more compelling, when it probably can’t be made significantly more difficult? How can Player 2 be given interesting decisions and opportunities for satisfying gameplay without making it easier to win? I have some preliminary ideas about the answers, and will get into them next time.

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