The opposite of fun: how would you build an educational game about bias?

2010 November 10

A friend of mine sent me a link to this article about a $2 Million Grant To Develop Game That Breaks Bias Against Women In Sciences, and he pointed out that making hard work decisions (as you do in the game) sounds rather like the opposite of fun.

The game will aim to put players in situations that could reveal such bias. For instance a faculty member might be asked by the game to hire a top scientist who requires wheelchair accessibility. Or a resume might have a work experience gap because of child-rearing, with the game asking players to consider their knee-jerk response to such situations.

In that example it also sounds a little too easy as a game. Sit down, think diversely, and make that decision. As commenters have pointed out here in previous threads in unconscious bias, it’s fairly easy to game those tests if you concentrate. You’re being led to a certain type of answer, and figuring out what that is can be very obvious. Just like other unconscious bias tests, you’re learning something in the process of having to concentrate, but I feel like maybe you could do better.

So here’s a question: how do you think you could make a different game that examined bias?

Off the wall ideas encouraged: I suspect thinking too conventionally is part of what results in educational games that just aren’t very different from previous attempts and maybe aren’t that much fun. Could you educate about hiring bias using a platformer? (What would an accessible platformer level look like?) Using a massively multiplayer online game? (Could you cause players to lose points for harassing other players? For telling sexist jokes in the trade channel?) Using a casual Facebook game? (bias vs farmville?) Using a role playing framework? (Could you play the minority candidates and experience bias from the other side and have to triumph despite it? e.g. doing the “same” job interview and discovering that your gender/race results in very different questions from the interviewer.)

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This post was written by terri.

Terri is a web security researcher, open source developer, teacher, amateur photographer, naturalist, geek, gamer, musician, and woman in technology. She blogs/tweets under the name terriko, and maintains a web security blog at WebInsecurity.net.


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16 Responses leave one →
  1. Jessica permalink
    November 10, 2010

    This is exactly what I’m working on. It’s a really tough problem for all kinds of psychological reasons you can read about when I publish my dissertation work! :)

    I’m hoping to release my game in January. I’ve been describing it as “Diner Dash” meets “Bejeweled” with a side of prejudice. When it’s out, I’ll be curious to hear whether you have fun playing – because otherwise, why bother to make it a game in the first place?

    In defense of the Wisconsin folks, by the way, they are bringing game designers on board to make sure this isn’t yet another “Do the socially appropriate thing!” game-ulation. I’m curious to see what they actually come up with!

    • Terri permalink*
      November 10, 2010

      Ooh, that sounds interesting! I look forwards to trying it out. And if you’re interested in a little publicity here, ping us when you do the release!

      And yeah, I’m sure that the Wisconsin folks are probably doing a much cooler job of things than that article makes them sound — I find certain types of things tend to get especially mangled by interviewers, and games and gender studies are both on that list.

      But I still love hearing other people’s gaming ideas and couldn’t resist using it as a springboard for a post. I just stopped teaching first year game design tutorials this year to finish my PhD, and I think I’m suffering withdrawl from being exposed to all that neat game-making energy several times a week!

      • Jessica permalink
        November 11, 2010

        I stopped teaching game design last year to finish my doctorate, and I’m in withdrawal too!!

        I’ll definitely ping you guys when I’m ready to launch. Thanks for the offer!

  2. Meg permalink
    November 10, 2010

    I’m a big fan of Boal, who designed interactive theater performances that challenged biases (among other things). One approach he used was having the audience watch a super-frustrating scene unfold, and then afterwards suggest that they see if they can figure out a better solution. An audience member would take on the role of someone in the scene and try to change it for the better, while everyone else continued to be in character and keep the status quo intact. It might be hard to implement (I mean, it’s sort of like a more-complicated Heavy Rain), and it might be super frustrating to play (as nearly everyone else in the game is out to make sure you fail; just like real social activism!), but it could potentially be effective.

    I think it could also be powerful to just have a game with a first-person perspective where the protagonist is a a less-privileged person living in an oppressive world. The rest of the game plays out as normal, but when the Lords of the Land come together for the landesmote they all pretty much ignore what you have to say, talk over the top of you, coopt your ideas and give credit to some straight, white man. It always seemed particularly unrealistic that choosing to be female, or a darker skin tone, or to pursue a same-sex romance plot (in games that have one) never changed people’s expectations of you (except maybe to have men hit on you if you play a female. And even then, they don’t go around calling you names if you turn them down.)

    The closest thing I’ve seen is that street harassment game. Fun? Nope. Evocative of the futility of walking down the street while a particular type of female? Yup.

    • Terri permalink*
      November 10, 2010

      It always seemed particularly unrealistic that choosing to be female, or a darker skin tone, or to pursue a same-sex romance plot (in games that have one) never changed people’s expectations of you

      Actually, one of the games I thought a lot about while I was deciding what to write here was Dragon Age, which actually does alter some of the ways the non-player characters react to you based on your gender, race and background.

      For example, I played as a female city elf, and as a result people kept assuming I was a servant or slave when I showed up to ask questions or offer to lend a hand. It was very disconcerting, even though I’m both female and a visual minority in real life and actually face my share of assumptions–but I get a very different set.

      (It’s worth noting here for anyone who isn’t familiar with the game that it likely should come with some trigger warnings, especially the female city elf storyline. Just want you to be aware in case you want to go searching for more info.)

      So yeah, there’s lots of games where your gender/race/class make very little difference, but there are some where it makes quite a lot of difference too.

  3. zvi permalink
    November 10, 2010

    “(Could you play the minority candidates and experience bias from the other side and have to triumph despite it?”

    not actually the other side for some of your readers

    • Terri permalink*
      November 10, 2010

      I meant other side as in “the interviewee” as opposed to “the interviewer” as described in the example from the article. Sorry about the lack of clarity!

  4. Katherine permalink
    November 10, 2010

    A multiplayer game (facebook? MMO?) in which you have to hire employees from a shared diverse pool where the quality of the employees is just as diverse but not biased. The pool size would be proportional to the number of active players, and the contents would be roughly proportional to real life demographics. The aim of the game would be maximising profits primarily through hiring the most productive people. I’m not sure how best to tune this but there would be things that potential employees would require (accessible workplaces, sensitivity training for the rest of the workforce) to make them able to work, there would be penalties for discrimination (court cases, your product doesn’t sell etc). The player that does the best would be the one able to hire and retain the best employees regardless of their demographic (as the pool is diverse, so the best employees would be diverse), despite the slight extra upfront costs to attract them.

    • Terri permalink*
      November 10, 2010

      Using real life demographics, it seems like plenty of companies get by reasonably well financially while maintaining horribly skewed pools, simply because there’s plenty of talented majority candidates to go around so people don’t always have to search further afield. If the game’s intent is to learn better diverse hiring strategies, would you add extra incentives for diversity so that it would be more obvious that a wider strategy could be ideal for the game? Maybe achievements or something to get people started in trying different strategies?

      • Restructure! permalink
        November 11, 2010

        Using real life demographics, it seems like plenty of companies get by reasonably well financially while maintaining horribly skewed pools, simply because there’s plenty of talented majority candidates to go around so people don’t always have to search further afield.

        In real life, however, there are so many incompetent employees (like programmers who can’t program), and companies are inefficient and make bad decisions. In real life, employers are not omniscient and do not know who the best employees are. Many employers may think that their crew of white men is the best of the lot, because they can’t imagine that a more diverse crew could be higher quality. Many companies are on a trajectory of failure, and the fact that they still exist does not mean that what they are doing is working.

        • Terri permalink*
          November 11, 2010

          Yeah, I was trying to find a way to say that too but couldn’t articulate it. The point being that rightly or wrongly, companies can be financially successful without being optimal, so I think if the game was trying teach bias you’d have to do a bit more to make it clear that partial success wasn’t enough to win the game and why it wasn’t enough since you’re planning to have it played by folk who aren’t necessarily aware that hiring diversely matters.

  5. Amnesia permalink
    November 10, 2010

    I had this one idea about a robot ambassador whose objective is to establish good relations with alien worlds. Some worlds will welcome you as a harmless curiosity, others will actively oppose you as a demon, and others will accept you only as long as you behave according to their customs, which you may or may not know beforehand. There will also be situations in which you are in a position of power, perhaps by means of superior technology or good relations with a privileged population, and have to decide if and/or how you use that power.

    Too abstract? Quite possibly. But, that’s how I would do it. That is, if I could suppress my ADD long enough to get through college/training, find a good job in the game design industry, and pitch the idea. I seriously wish I was joking about that last bit.

    • Jessica permalink
      November 11, 2010

      This could make an amazing pen & paper role-playing game, which needs a lot less training and technology to support it, and is a lot more likely to get deployed in diversity training or institutional settings. If you’re interested in learning more, drop me a line!

  6. Restructure! permalink
    November 10, 2010

    I thought of some weird game ideas.

    One is where you play some life game and try to win. The beginner level is playing as an able-bodied, middle-class, straight, white, cis man, but harder levels is playing the same game except being female, being black, etc.

    Another is playing a life game from the first-person perspective, but you don’t know how you look like and find out what your race/gender is from the way that others interact with you.

  7. Laura James permalink
    November 10, 2010

    You might be interested in gameful.org which has only recently opened – a forum for people interested in making games with some positive social value. it’s still somewhat beta but there are a lot of people gathering there who care and know about the issues in this area.

  8. Lindsey Kuper permalink
    November 11, 2010

    You’re being led to a certain type of answer, and figuring out what that is can be very obvious.

    I agree — that kind of a game wouldn’t do much to examine bias. I’m reminded of a Star Wars game that came out several years ago. Your character is a Jedi, and throughout the game, you make choices that presumably align you with the light or dark side of the Force, but the choices are always laughably transparent. “There is a puppy. Do you (a) feed it or (b) kick it?” Not much critical thinking involved. Playing the game as the minority candidate seems like a better approach (but still hard to do right).

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