The developers making Supreme Courtship always had a tricky needle to thread. To educate players about American government they would let them date Supreme Court Justices. It was meant to be upbeat and a little silly. It’s become a thornier project over the last several weeks thanks to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, and the investigation of his alleged sexual assault.
In Supreme Courtship, which is early in development and does not yet have a release date, the Justices have all been aged down into fit and hip 20-somethings. Ruth Bader Ginsburg sports a ponytail and a sweatshirt that reads “Dissent.” Sonia Sotomayor has a leather jacket. Clarence Thomas, who wears a green vest with no shirt underneath, shares his secret: “I listen.”
Originally, the two-person team behind Supreme Courtship hoped to follow in the footsteps of fellow successful dating sim Dream Daddy, but with an educational goal: trying to get people to be politically active. They’d lure people in with the funny concept, and then earnestly try to educate players about the Justices and the Supreme Court. This is evident in the art they’ve released for the Justices, which presents them as, well, fuckable. If this makes you raise an eyebrow, that’s kind of the point. It’s like Mary Poppins: a spoonful of horniness makes the politics go down. The game’s unusual portrayal of the Justices, as well as the real-life news cycle, has led to a complicated development cycle for the game, even before they’ve had a chance to launch their Kickstarter campaign, slated for January.
Sexualizing the justices of the Supreme Court is an unusual activity and in the case of one justice, Clarence Thomas, it’s already been controversial.
Before the 2016 election, game developer Jesse Shepherd worked at Apple for the Games Center team, climbing his way through software development in Seattle. He told Kotaku over the phone that he’d always voted and been politically active in a bare minimum sense. Then Donald Trump became president.
“I started thinking more seriously about—how can I do something that will make an impact?” he said. His efforts started with community service and doing door-to-door campaigning. “But I also thought more seriously about some stupid game ideas.” One of those ideas was Supreme Courtship.
“The goal with Supreme Courtship is just to raise awareness among young voters about what the Supreme Court is, how important they are, and who the justices are.”
Shepherd describes himself as politically liberal, but says he comes from a family he describes as conservative and which has used their vote to try to push the court to the right. “Members of my family would say things like, ‘We don’t like Trump, but he’s at least going to appoint Supreme Court justices that are Republican,’ and I would never expect to hear any of my younger liberal friends say the same.” Maybe a game could make younger people care more about the court, he figured.
One of the biggest problems inherent in making a game about dating the current justices of the Supreme Court is that it casts a justice who was accused of sexual harassment as a love interest.
Shepherd was born just three years before law professor Anita Hill testified to Congress that Clarence Thomas, then nominated to be a Supreme Court justice, had sexually harassed her by making numerous lewd references to her about bestiality, putting pubic hair on a can of Coke and bragging to her about his sexual prowess. Thomas was confirmed anyway, denying the claims.
At the time, Hill’s credibility was called into question. Senator Howell Heflin asked her if she was a “scorned woman,” during her testimony. When it came time for Thomas to respond, he called the allegations a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Hill has maintained that she testified truthfully. In 2010, Thomas’s wife, Virginia Thomas, left a voicemail for her, asking her to apologize.
“I was born in 1988; too young by far in 1991 to have understood the importance of the #SupremeCourt or to have made a difference during the #ClarenceThomas confirmation,” Shepherd said in a tweet earlier this month. “I’m not too young now.”
He was tweeting in light of a sexual assault allegation made against Brett Kavanaugh, the judge nominated by Trump to take the seat of the retiring Anthony Kennedy. In a series of Tweets, Shepherd said he believed Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Last week, Ford and Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Kavanaugh denied the claims. The vote on Kavanugh’s confirmation has since been delayed so that the FBI can investigate.
In his thread of Tweets, Shepherd took aim at “power structures that deliberately diminish women, particularly those who have been targets of abuse. Our institutions should have higher standards than to admit men who need those structures to shield them from the consequences of their actions.”
What’d this have to do with the game? Shepherd said that his goal was to educate people about the court but that the potential inclusion of Thomas had already made the dating context difficult.
In an interview with Kotaku last week, he said he reached out to activists to get their perspectives and said he was leery of excluding one of the Court’s few minority justices. “We want to raise awareness about the real person Clarence Thomas and what he’s done, and we don’t want to be in a position where we’re making apologies for him that he’s never made for himself.”
Today, after reflecting on Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony, Shepherd told Kotaku via email: “If I were in the position now to choose whether or not to quit my job and work on a game like this—a quirky, faux-romance game about the Supreme Court—I would seriously reconsider. However, other indie developers that I know well have encouraged me to finish taking the game to Kickstarter and let the audience decide.”
On September 21, the official Supreme Courtship Twitter account had explained how they came to the decision to include Clarence Thomas: he would still be a character in this romantic game, but you would not be able to date him. “After much discussion we’ve arrived at a course of action. #ClarenceThomas will NOT be a romance-able character in #SupremeCourtship,” the Tweets said. “We will not write a redemption arc for a man who has neither admitted to nor apologized for his actions. We will, however, keep #ClarenceThomas in the game, so that we can talk about his background and judicial beliefs. Lastly, we will discuss his behavior and sexual harassment in the game itself, doing our best to treat the topic with the seriousness it deserves.”
In a phone call today, Shepherd said that after listening to Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony last week, he also has no interest in portraying Kavanaugh in the game. Luckily, Supreme Courtship has already sidestepped that issue.
As it stands now, Supreme Courtship will focus on Ginsburg, Roberts and Kennedy. Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat last year after Republicans had blocked Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, will appear as a background character. The game will actually be set right after the events of Scalia’s death in early 2016, and the player takes on the role of the ninth justice in that Gorsuch seat. With Kennedy still in the court in the game version of America, there’s no room for Kavanaugh on the bench. Bullet dodged.
Sheryl McCloud, a Washington State Supreme Court justice whose advice Shepherd sought, told Kotaku that after a skeptical first reaction, she’s hopeful the game will have a positive impact. “We’re at a low ebb in civics understanding and civics teaching throughout the country,” she said. “I think the advantage [of this game] is people learning more about the third branch of government, the one that’s not usually taught about, the one whose power really depends on respect for the judiciary, respect for the courts. Courts and judges don’t have a standing army or a standing police force. We can certainly enforce judgments, but the first line of enforcing them is through people agreeing that they’re worthy of respect. And I do think that we’re in an era where the judiciary, where judges’ authority, is being undermined.”
Shepherd plans to launch a Kickstarter for Supreme Courtship in January and hopes people will find the whole enterprise worth supporting. “Ultimately, I still think there’s still a lot of good that can come out of this project—perhaps now more than ever,” Shepherd said. “But I’d be lying if I said the stakes weren’t staggeringly high, especially for a small team working on their first game.”