Right Games Can Reduce Stereotypes & Social Bias

Dartmouth College researchers used a new approach in game design to show how games can change players’ biases, reduce social stereotypes and prejudice, and engender a more complex view of diversity.

The method, called embedded game design, blends an intended persuasive message into the overall game’s content, mechanics, or context of play, rather than making the message overt to the players.

The work was conducted by Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Lab, an interdisciplinary innovation studio that designs and studies games for social impact, and was led by Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan.

For the study, two embedded design strategies were tested: “intermixing,” which combines “on-topic” and off-topic” game content to make the themes less apparent; and “obfuscating,” which uses game genres or framing devices to redirect players’ focus from the true objectives of the game.

For the study, the researchers used two party card games created at Tiltfactor that were funded by a National Science Foundation grant to challenge gender stereotypes and implicit bias in STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering Math).

The first, called Awkward Moment™, challenges players to react to funny, embarrassing, and stressful situations. The second is Buffalo: The Name-dropping Game™, an endeavor which asks players to name real or fictional examples who fit the game’s unexpected combinations of attributes.

A unique feature of these games is that they do not mention their ability to change players’ biases. In fact, study findings indicated that obscuring the true intent of the games best supported players’ growth and enjoyment.

According to Kaufman, “Designers of social impact interventions, including games, must be mindful of people’s natural psychological resistance to any activity they perceive is attempting to alter the way they think or feel about an issue. This may be particularly true in the design of persuasive games, which, to be effective, should ideally be intrinsically engaging and re-playable experiences that people will return to again and again.”

Awkward Moment was designed to reduce gender stereotypes and biases in STEM. Players submit a reaction card to a chosen awkward moment, which may be a scenario like: “While shopping at the mall, you notice a store is selling t-shirts for girls that say, ‘Math is hard.'” Each round, a decider chooses a winner from the submitted reactions.

Awkward Moment reflects the embedded design of “intermixing” cards that address situations involving bias against girls in STEM or a lack of gender equity, are interspersed with cards that do not address these situations. By using a pair of randomized studies with young game players, the researchers tested the effectiveness of the game’s intermixing strategy in increasing a player’s levels of perspective-taking and its impact on gender stereotyping and response to bias.

Kaufman and Flanagan found that the game was successful at strengthening youth players’ associations between women and science and inspiring more assertive responses to multiple forms of social bias.

To evaluate whether players’ gender bias in STEM had changed after playing Awkward Moment, students were tasked with matching pictures of men and women with possible job roles.

Participants who played just one round of Awkward Moment matched a woman with the “scientist” job title 58 percent of the time, 33 percent more than a control group who did not play any game and 40 percent more than a group who played a neutral game that did not include cards referencing incidents of gender bias.

“Our work reveals that strategically embedding psychological techniques in a game’s design both enhances the game’s impact and provides a transformative player experience,” says Flanagan.

Buffalo: The Name-dropping Game was also designed to reduce social stereotypes and biases by expanding players’ mental representation of numerous social categories. Yet, the game’s purpose is deliberately obfuscated from players, who are challenged to name a real person or fictional character who matches the adjective-noun pairing revealed as two cards are flipped over. Examples include: “multiracial + superhero” and “female + visionary.”

The study examined how the game affected players’ representations of social categories and prejudice, as well as their motivation to control their own biases.

Researchers discovered Buffalo game play effectively promoted broader and more inclusive perceptions of social groups, even after playing the game just one time. The game also raised players’ concerns about their own potential biases, as compared to baseline scores observed in a no-game comparison condition.

After playing Buffalo, students showed increased “social identity complexity,” which is a measurement that predicts intergroup tolerance, as well as increased scores on a measure of “universal orientation,” reflecting lower prejudice and a more complex view of the inclusivity and diversity of their world.

Researchers believe appropriately designed games such as Awkward Moment and Buffalo can decrease players’ social biases and promote more egalitarian, diversity-embracing mindsets.

Source: Dartmouth College/EurekAlert

Group playing a game photo by shutterstock.