This Video Game Could Make You a Better Person

November 2, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Man playing video game on an Xbox
Photo credit: dave.see/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Research shows that video games have the power to diminish our biased ways of thinking through subliminal game design.

Rightfully so, video games take a lot of heat for encouraging violence and aggression as well as unrealistic body images. But a new study shows that video games don’t always have to be linked with negative psychological impacts on gamers. In fact, game-developers have shown that persuasively-designed video games can actually reduce stereotypes and social biases.

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The researchers in the study conducted at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Lab, an innovation studio that designs and studies games for social impact, used a new approach called “embedded game design,” a term coined by the authors. This approach incorporates an intended persuasive message into the game’s content of which the players aren’t aware. In order to make the themes less apparent, the video game designers combined “on-topic” and “off-topic” content to mix it up.

The research focused on a game called Awkward Moment™ — a game funded by the National Science Foundation grant to challenge the implicit biases and gender stereotypes in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In the game, players are faced with funny, embarrassing, and stressful situations, and have to choose how to react.

For example, the players might react to the given situation: "While shopping at the mall, you notice a store is selling t-shirts for girls that say, 'Math is hard.'” Then, a decider chooses the winning reaction from each round. This game employs the method of intermixing themes to keep the game’s intended messages more subliminal, so some of the “awkward” scenarios had nothing to do with stereotypes and biases.

The study was led by Geoff Kaufman, a previous postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Tiltfactor, and Mary Flanagan, Tiltfactor’s founding director. The researchers determined that the Awkward Moment™ game successfully strengthened the players’ associations between women and science and motivated more assertive responses to many forms of social bias.

After the gamers played Awkward Moment™, the researchers assessed their stereotypes and biases by asking them to match pictures of men and women with potential job roles. Even participants who had only played one round of AM matched women with the “scientist” job title 58 percent of the time — 40 percent more than a group who played a neutral game and 33 percent more than a control group.

"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," Flanagan said in a press release.

With “embedded game design,” perhaps video games of the future will be hardwired to make us more accepting members of society. Or they could just as easily do the reverse — many speculate that violent video games intentionally but significantly influence gamers. Evidently, subliminal messages and hidden psychological influences are powerful tools that could be used to brainwash the masses, for better or for worse. Let’s just hope “embedded game design” is used for positive and productive initiatives rather than the contrary.

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