In The Justice Syndicate, an interactive 12-person game created by theatre company fanSHEN, we’re on a jury deciding the fate of a top paediatric neurosurgeon who’s been accused of sexual assault by the mother of one of his patients. It’s almost like 12 Angry Men when we walk in: twelve desks arranged in a rectangle, and at each seat an iPad, notebook and glass of water. Evidence for the case – statements, forensic reports, video testimonies from both sides, and expert opinions – is revealed to us piece by piece on the iPads as we go along. Guilty or innocent? We get to decide.
The evidence is designed to be equivocal. There is a clear power imbalance here: Huxtable, a renowned neurosurgeon, is clearly socioeconomically better off than Hodges, a struggling single mother of two. Though we might wish for more conclusive evidence, it just doesn’t exist – much as in real life, where hard evidence in rape and sexual assault cases is often lacking. This makes it incredibly difficult to decide. It’s a his-word-against-hers situation, but who is being truthful and who is lying?
The tech syncing, thanks to computational artist Joe McAlister, is great, with a slick interface and voting results displayed to everyone instantaneously. Our iPads are synced and different witness statements are read out by different jurors – we all get a chance to speak, emboldening everyone for the discussions later on. Although I must say I was glad it wasn’t my iPad that lit up when it was time to read out the transcript of Huxtable’s BDSM sexting…!
Midway through, we are even offered the option to bar one juror from the final vote. My group, which was fairly civil, chose not to, but the threat of elimination served to deter any single individual from being overly disruptive. The game creators Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe have clearly put a lot of thought into encouraging productive discussion amongst participants, and it works. Despite having never met each other before, we’re soon getting into excited arguments about whether or not Huxtable should be convicted.
There are 3 opportunities for us to vote on which way we are leaning, and one last discussion of all the evidence before the final decision of the jury is handed down. Once the verdict is out, Barnard and Briscoe finally appear to facilitate the post-game debrief. After all the tension of the last hour or so, it’s time to clear the air and for everyone to hash out any unfinished arguments. It’s another excellent discussion – I get into a small debate with my neighbour about how insufficient evidence to convict isn’t the same as not believing the victim. Barnard and Briscoe also take the time to point out how social dynamics, such as groupthink and group polarisation, can (and did) affect group decision-making as well. It’s quite illuminating to think about our own decision-making process in retrospect and see how these forces actually had an influence in real life.
Before leaving, we’re given a ‘newspaper’ with commentary from the game creators, using statistics from their first 15 sessions, to take home and peruse at leisure. It’s a fascinating read, showing the radically different conclusions that different groups came to. Despite the intentionally equivocal evidence, individuals were able to form very strongly held opinions on the guilt or innocence of Huxtable. I noticed this myself in our group session; several people were deeply convinced that Huxtable was guilty. When challenged as to why, they simply said they felt it “in their hearts”. Was this borne of a desire to protect the underdog? A kind of reverse-victim blaming? An effect of the #MeToo era that we now live in? I found it strange and disturbing how fallible the jury system was, and how much sway emotion held over people’s supposedly rational decisions.
Innovative and exciting, The Justice Syndicate is not only a fascinating demonstration of group dynamics, but also a timely examination of attitudes towards sexual assault in the present social climate.