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

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.)

27 thoughts on “The opposite of fun: how would you build an educational game about bias?

  1. Jessica

    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!

    1. Terri

      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!

      1. Jessica

        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

    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.

    1. Terri

      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

    “(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

    1. Terri

      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

    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.

    1. Terri

      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?

      1. Restructure!

        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.

        1. Terri

          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.

        2. Katherine

          I was thinking some sort of leaderboard (for productivity each week, say, so that it wouldn’t matter who had been playing longer other than they will know a little more about the game) and tuning the numbers would be enough. If the top people on the leaderboard weren’t even remotely close to the theoretical maximum productivity, I’d blast on in and set them straight ;)

        3. Selene

          In a single-player game instead of a multiplayer one, you could have a rival corporation controlled by the computer that does all the right things for diversity and retention, and will stomp the player’s corporation until they shape up. Maybe have several rivals along a scale, where some have made token gestures towards diversity and others have done a lot.

          The player would not initially know what measures the rival corporations have implemented, but would have opportunities to find out over the course of the game.

  5. Amnesia

    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.

    1. Jessica

      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!

      1. Selene

        You might find Emily Care Boss’ tabletop RPG Sign in Stranger interesting. It’s about humans traveling to alien worlds for the first time, with the players making up details of the alien culture as they play.

  6. Restructure!

    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

    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

    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).

  9. Maria X

    As well as Gameful, might want to check out Games for Change: http://www.gamesforchange.org. There are some really good social issue games out there – and plenty where gameplay feels very forced, very much secondary secondary to issue/lesson designed to teach.

  10. Improbable Joe

    From personal experience, the way to sway people might be to wait until the end of the “game”, where everyone thinks they have given the correct answers, and then just when they think it is over and they can claim victory? THEN you hit them with all the BS rationalizations and easy answers they gave.

    Most of these sorts of games have simple and obvious answers: don’t call anyone by an ethnic or sexist slur, hire the black guy or the woman first no matter what, whatever. Most people can figure that stuff out, so the useful game will have someone observing the less obvious mistakes and pointing them out only at the very end of the game.

    1. James Davis

      That could be a good system, it would allow players to play naturally, then get a report about how they did. Still, some players would probably view it as ‘unfair’. (Ironic, yes.)

      Perhaps a system where they play the game, then they are told an analysis “If everyone hired/fired/promoted/raised the way you did, here’s what would happen: ” and then you show them the resultant income/employment/prestige gaps?

  11. Lord Anonymous

    Could you please explain the part about child-rearing? Is absence from work due to child-rearing any different than any other kind of absence?

    1. Terri

      This is pretty much a 101 question, but I can give a short answer:

      In theory, no, absence from work due to child-rearing shouldn’t be particularly different than other reasons for absence. However, many employers will discriminate especially against women for child-related absences, assuming that they somehow lost more knowledge due to hormones, that they will be unlikely to stick with a job due to childcare issues, etc. Such discrimination is so common that many countries have laws against asking in an interview if you have or are interested in having children.

      I’m sure there are resources which can give a more extensive description of issues on the subject, and if anyone would like to provide links that would be much appreciated.

  12. James Davis

    I would think that a game like Dwarf Fortress ( http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/ ), which already involves lots of ‘Hard Decision making’, could be easily modified to account for diversity more. It would be best, I’d guess, if it were realistic. “You let a woman be manager? Lord Urist chauvinistpig is not happy.” “Ah good, a racially diverse task-force, Mayor Urist Populistdwarf is pleased and organizes a party.”

    If you give into the racist/chauvinist dwarves, perhaps their demands for racial/gender purity could get more and more severe, and more and more damaging to the fortress (good, we’ve got no black dwarves working in the nobility, now we need to take their homes), leading to the expected outcome (dwarven race tantrumspiral/riot), whereas following diverse practices would expand your pool of workable dwarves and increase the quality and quantity of your outputs. And yes, the racist/chauvinist dwarves should form stupid little klans and manclubs, and you should have to deal with educating young dwarves so that society changes over time.

  13. Z Sweedyk

    I’m a CS prof who does research in games as social critique. My students built a game called Perfect Parent. The protagonist is an super spy Agent A who, after defeating her arch-nemesis Dr. Doctor, decides to retire and have children. Thirteen years later Dr. Doctor returns to the scene (wasn’t dead after all) and plots his revenge, kidnapping Agent A and her 10 year old son in the middle of the night. Fortunately her 14 year old daughter had sneaked out of the house to meet her boyfriend and avoided capture.

    The player, in the role of Agent A, must escape and re-conquer Dr. Doctor. At the same time she must protect her son and negotiate for help with her daughter, who is able to hack into Dr. Doctor’s computer. Managing the latter turns out to be the most challenging part of the game!

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