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Tapping into player psychology for Games for Change

Game developers looking to make games that promote social change should consider looking to psychology, because "we can't fix the social incidences without fixing the underlying causes," according to Dartmouth College professor and director of game research laboratory Tiltfactor, Mary Flanagan.

Speaking at the Games for Change Festival in New York today, Flanagan said that many games that have been designed to promote social change are only scratching the tip of the iceberg, and to address the issues that are under the water developers need to look at how our social biases contribute to these issues.

Flanagan cited psychology research that supported the notion that teaching people about injustices or discrimination and asking them to be empathetic toward others is ineffective. What is effective, the research found, was providing volunteers with counter-stereotypical messages. As such, she believes that instead of using games to raise awareness of social issues and hoping that the awareness will lead to empathy, developers should consider grounding their games in psychological design.

"Create a player experience that's fun first," she said. "If the game is about bias only, it [won't] work. If you remove the fun, [players] will feel like they're being preached to and it's not a game any more, there's no agency."

Tiltfactor has worked on games that have taken this approach, and Flanagan provided the audience with data showing the effectiveness of psychology-grounded game design in challenging player bias. In Buffalo, a name-dropping game, players choose a blue "person" card and an orange "descriptor" card, and they have to name a person — dead, alive, fictional or otherwise — that fits the description. By using random descriptors, players are forced to think outside of stereotypes. Some examples that were given included "female scientist" and "interracial superhero."

Flanagan gave the audience some key areas to think about when designing games for change, including hiring diverse teams, practicing useful framing, learning to move between research, audience and design, and tackling biases as a core part of the mission.

"We have to understand that bias is a problem every single one of us has to deal with," she said.

Additional information about Flanagan's research and psychological theories can be read here.