Truth, Justice, and Video Games

My oldest kiddo has been playing a game called “Ace Attorney” on their Nintendo Switch for a while. In the game (as I understand it), you play a defense attorney in a criminal case. You win if your client is found not guilty. The game’s design is based upon the United States court system (we looked it up). Since I was an attorney in my former life, my kid asks me lots of questions along the way about court procedure and principles of criminal law.

As we talk, I have realized I could never play this game.

For one thing, the idea of the game is to determine innocence, not guilt. It reverses the presumption of innocence by putting the burden of proof — demonstrating the elements of the case — on the defendant. Let me say that again: in this game, one of the key components is for the defense to prove their client DIDN’T commit the crime. If you didn’t already know this from a million cop shows, that’s not how the burden of proof works in a criminal trial. The State always maintains the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt. The defense could, honestly, sit there without saying a word or asking a question.

Moreover, to properly defend your client in the game, you must not only demonstrate your client’s innocence, but you must provide the court with an alternative perpetrator who did do it. The defense attorney must investigate this alternative person and offer them up to the court, and then conduct an entire trial against an individual who is not involved in the proceeding. But that alternative perpetrator cannot defend themselves because they have not been charged.

The most recent question from my kid was, “Can the prosecutor call the defendant as a witness?” Oh, holy hell, no. You cannot be forced to be a witness against yourself. That’s an integral part of the Fifth Amendment. You can’t be put in a position where your own attorney would be cross-examining you – that’s just messed up.

In short, the entire system of constitutional protections for defendants that we’ve built up over 250 years – due process, reasonable doubt, the State’s burden of proof, the right of a defendant to confront witnesses, the right to participate fully in one’s own defense, the right not to testify against one’s self – that’s all gone.

I could never play this game, I told my kid.

They said, “That’s fair. You’re like that.”

Damn straight, I’m like that.

Sure, it’s fiction. Sure, it’s a game. But for me to enjoy the fiction, the underlying framework must be accurate, or as close to accurate as possible. It must be realistic. It must be plausible.

The same applies to historical fiction, both the stuff I write and the stuff I read. I need to know that it has been researched deeply and portrayed as accurately as possible. Sometimes we take liberties with history, such as when I made Beatrice the daughter of Baron Welles who died at Losecoat Field in 1469. If Beatrice was a baby when her father died, which was important to the story, she would be only 16 in 1485, rather than 20-something. But Baron Welles’ story added so much to Beatrice’s family life, and it reiterated just how complex political and social reality was during that time, and it was only a tiny background fact… so I did it. I haven’t yet heard from a disgruntled reader, so I don’t think anyone is really upset about it.

But as you can tell, I thought a lot about it. It matters, because people believe you when you present the world to them, and they learn a lot from it.

So if people play the “Ace Attorney” game or watch “The Good Wife” or “How to Get Away With Murder” (and I’ll confess I haven’t watched it, but what I hear makes me cringe), they come away with a sense that “ah, yes, this is how the legal system works, I know something about the law now.” And that translates into a false sense of expertise.

At best, they go through life with a misconception of how things REALLY ARE.

At worst, they may go on social media and spout misinformation, confident they have the right answer. They don’t intend any harm, of course, but they may cause it.

And then, at the absolute worst, they may find themselves in a situation with police involvement and aside from “I get a phone call” and “I want an attorney,” they don’t actually know anything about the system that is poised to crush them under arrest quotas and prosecutorial win/loss records that matter as much as any sports team’s.

The number of people who think they “know” what something is like from fictional portrayals is very high. Many of Philippa Gregory’s readers think that her theories about what happened in the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor era are true, when in fact much of it is speculation and trained historians generally reject her ideas. Gregory even invented her own name for the Wars of the Roses, and her readers think that’s the “correct” name, dismissing historians who study the period.

And please, do not get me started on Showtime’s “The Tudors” which I thoroughly enjoyed while cringing at the liberties they took. Or the latest Mary Queen of Scots movie…

None of this is horrifying (except to people like me, I guess) but it does warp people’s perception of reality: of what is “true” and what is not. And we are currently seeing how dangerous the world can become when fiction is viewed as fact and facts are labeled “fake” because they don’t accord with someone’s believed reality.

So, until we figure out a way to deliver news and scholarship in a form that most people are willing to pay attention to, I think that our fictional representations of the world need to be realistic and as accurate as possible.

What do you think?

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