O.J. Simpson, 1994 mug shot inverted
Photo (inverted): Public Domain

Gaming the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial

Did gaming the O.J. Simpson murder trial allow for deeper conversations about our most hidden emotions, ugliest prejudices, and disturbing desires?

Now that O.J. Simpson has died, it is worthwhile reassessing what the celebrity’s 11-month murder trial meant for the citizenry—and not just regarding race, Hollywood culture, or even the US justice system. What did O.J. Simpson’s murder trial mean for gaming culture? In retrospect, can it be proposed that the so-called “Trial of the Century” constituted a brief, albeit strenuous moment in US history when race could be explored simultaneously seriously and farcically? 

Vastly different from the US’ more recent reckoning on race (namely, the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020), the O.J. Simpson trial, which ran from November 1994 to October 1995, was theatrical, even ludic in character. The trial provided the perfect fodder to be gamified via board games, toys, and even in the classroom. Today, roughly 30 years hence, the gamified fanfare surrounding the O.J. affair feels simultaneously more macabre, more racist, but also perhaps more productive.

A double homicide is unquestionably gruesome business. Cosplaying an accused murderer is palpably morbid and quite possibly racist. Yet, perhaps only at play can some of the most effective learning occur. Somewhat like the “ironic bigotry” of, say, Cards Against Humanity, did gamifying the O.J. murder trial allow for deeper conversations about our most hidden emotions, our ugliest prejudices, and our most disturbing desires?

The general contours of the case are, to say least, well-known. Between 9 November 1994 and 3 October 1995, the United States – seemingly the entire world—watched transfixed as O.J. Simpson was tried and eventually acquitted for killing his estranged ex-wife, Nicole Brown  Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. In the days and months after police first arrived at the home of Nicole Simpson on 12 June 1994, the subsequent and sensational events surrounding the murder trial included something for everyone: sports, a car chase, talk of institutional racism, lovers’ quarrels, and tense courtroom drama between celebrity lawyers.

When the trial began on 24 January 1995, Judge Lance A. Ito had already made the controversial decision to allow the proceedings to be televised. The case would become the longest and most expensive in US history. It also quickly became a type of Rorschach test for the American public, serving as a way to see ourselves in terms of race, consumerism, and even sexuality. 

The O.J. Simpson trial offered a plethora of episodes that catalyzed deeper yet indelibly awkward conversations on these broader social issues. On 3 February, Nicole Brown’s sister, Denise, testified that O.J. Simpson had abused her sibling. On 15 March, Los Angeles police officer Mark Furman denied using the “N-word”. The 24th of March saw Nicole Simpson’s house guest, Brian “Kaeto” Kaelin, deny having a sexual relationship with her. On 11 April, L.A.P.D. forensic specialist Dennis Fung acknowledged that there had been procedural errors during the collection of evidence. All the while, “sidebars” became part of high schoolers’ lexicon, as Judge Lance A. Ito allowed the procedure upwards of 430 times.

What novelties would tomorrow’s court proceeding bring? How could the O.J. Simpson trial be rendered playful? Would we talk about gender relations, racial reckoning, or jurisprudence? 

There is ample evidence online of board games being thematized around the trial. Of the three games, one is a Monopoly-style game that tasks participants to raise funds for O.J. Simpson’s defense team:

“You have just been selected as one of O.J.’s Defense Attorneys and given an initial retainer of $75,000.00. Your objective is to gain control of as many aspects of the trial as you can, then utilize this control to accumulate more of O.J.’s Defense Fund checks than any other defense attorney”. Another sees players competing to be “acquitted” by reaching the finish line, all the while being stymied by the prosecution and assisted by the defense. Yet another asks players to move around a game board by correctly answering questions about the trial surrounding the case.

Also not to be forgotten are the various “O.J. in the Slammer” Pogs. One can only imagine the ambivalent emotions harnessed and released while slamming the Pogs around. Finally, evidence of both O.J. Simpson and Judge Ito Halloween masks from 1995 can still be found online. The O.J. Simpson masks were reported as being the most popular during the fall of 1995, a fact that in and of itself, became a subject of ridicule. Perhaps it was this particularly playful but also crude moment that provided the inspiration for an episode of the New Girl from eight years ago, when Zooey Deschanel and crew dressed as lawyers involved in the O.J. Simpson trial.    

Of course, the incredibly odd impulse to gamify the O.J. Simpson murder trial did not occur in a vacuum. Teenagers and young adults coming of age in the mid-’90s were the second generation to fully experience the didactic uses of televised media in the US: PBS’s Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was first broadcast in 1968, and Sesame Street hit the airwaves a year later. The link between learning, media consumption, and play-making was already well-established. Educators of the mid-’90s wondered: How would the Nintendo Generation learn when media – and at this time, the O.J. Simpson trial – dominated their lives? 

Those in high school or college during the mid-’90s had already been subjected to the gamification of the classroom. After spending perhaps a whole class period on strategic role-playing video games such as Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? many students rushed home to play Nintendo or Sega Genesis games. Yet others participated in gamified educational endeavors via their family’s household PCs: games like Math Blaster!, Mario Teaches Typing, Time Riders in American History were all products of the 1990s. All told, educational games from the ‘90s “went hard.”

In this environment, perhaps it was only natural that many American teachers infused classes with talk of the O.J. Simpson trial—its drama, the public debates it incurred, and how it could serve as an exploration power of identity politics. Indeed, my teachers cajoled us to dress up like superstar lawyers such as lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, head of Simpson’s defense team Johnnie Cochran, and advisor to the defense team Alan Dershowitz.

Perhaps, teachers seemingly thought, students could simultaneously learn civics, public speaking, and racial politics, all in a game-like manner. Indeed, much of my 1995 school year was spent playmaking a former footballer’s Hollywood story of murder, all under the guise of education. While the girls chosen to interpret the role of Marcia Clark would only (thankfully!) be asked to scrounge up a dark blazer before the debate, Judge Ito’s beard led to some rather (ahem!) hairy makeup and costume elaborations. 

The internet still stores many high school lesson plans—instances of teachers helping teachers—involving the O.J. Simpson trial. Notable examples can be found here and here, therereally, everywhere. Most, like the PBS website, aim at “Facilitating Discussions on Racism, Prejudice, and Discrimination”. Gen-Xers in high school were not the only students subjected to the supposed “didacticism” of the O.J. Simpson trial. Colleges, universities, and especially law schools found the sensational court case irresistible. A particularly telling article published in The Chicago Tribune in January 1995 reported that professors at law schools across the country were “grappling with whether to shy away from century-old theories and crusty cases capsulized in Bible-sized textbooks and opt instead for The People of the State of California vs. Orenthal James Simpson”.

As a historical document, “To O.J. Or Not to O.J.” shows how at least some instructors wrestled with the issue of whether the O.J. Simpson trial was sufficiently compelling as a jurisprudence exemplum. The fact that PBS’ website proposes that students approach the O.J. Simpson trial alongside reading Langston Hughes’ poem, “Dinner Guest: Me” and a few choice passages from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man seems less convincing. From our vantage point, the allusion to such great art in the context of the O.J. Simpson case has aged badly. 

With O.J. Simpson now deceased, his case is more than just closed. Looking back on the spectacle that was his trial tasks educators to return to the connection between gaming and the most pressing issues facing the social world. Recently, some are exploring virtual reality methods to educate students about the importance of history and empathy. Educators are increasingly understanding the importance of pop culture in the classroom and what it can teach. I wonder how many Gen-Xers raised during the O.J. Simpson trial tuned in to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Works Cited

“To O.J. or Not to O.J., That is the Question at Law School”. Chicago Tribune. 30 January, 1995. 

Kane, Sharon. “What Part of Speech Is O. J. Simpson?: Teaching Grammar and Style through the News”. The English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 7. November 1996.

Richardson, Anita. “On Trial in California: The O. J. Simpson Case. A Teaching Tool”. Classroom Use Teaching Guides from the U.S. Department of Education. 1994.

Soloway, Elliot. “How the Nintendo Generation Learns”. Communications for the Association for Computing Machinery, Vol. 34, No. 9. September 1991. 

Wright, Tolly. “New Girl Cast Found Guilty of Having the Perfect People v. O.J. Simpson Halloween Costume”. Vulture. 31 October, 2016.