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How can games contain and convey values?
How can games contain and convey values? Exclusive
April 26, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

April 26, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Serious, Programming, Art, Design, Production, Exclusive

Technology is enabling play across multiple new platforms, but what do they become when we want more from them than entertainment? Dr. Mary Flanagan, author of 2009's Critical Play, believes creative ways of looking at design can lead to games that not only express values, but can convey them to others -- while still maintaining their sense of fun and genuine playfulness.

Her lab, Tiltfactor, is now in its ten-year anniversary, and focuses on games as agents of meaning and intervention -- and investigates how they may lead to a more equitable and just society. At the Different Games conference at NYU Polytechnic this weekend, she shared examples from her work she hopes artists and designers alike can learn from.

"It's really about cultural engagement, for me," she explains of the lab's work, which includes roleplaying, sports, board games and "game-related things" as well as traditional digital games. She's fascinated by the balance between play as whimsy, and play as introspective or analytical experience -- and in particular, how games can be used to deconstruct the social structures that often privilege some at the expense of others.

Is the game industry ready for "inclusive design"? More than ever, Flanagan suggests, citing the culture shift she's observed since the 1980s industry: Almost half the audience for home consoles were women, and women were some of the early innovators in the arcade age.

Yet by the 1990s, the first person shooter genre arrived. "It dominated, and I daresay robbed gamers of innovative and exciting and different games," she says. But the idea that first person-shooters represent the quintessential definition of "game" is surely fading, a relic of "a particular time I think we can finally shake our way out of."

Feminist inquiry, according to a quote from Donna Haraway, is about how to "love each other less violently." How can a game keep people accountable to one another in meaningful way, Flanagan wonders?

Her work is built on the idea that games carry beliefs in their systems and representations. For example, Settlers of Catan is on one hand about commodities, competition and a complicated degree of cooperation and negotiation. Variables can equalize the playing field -- but in Catan, a game about colonialism, the robber character that creates that equalization represents the "conquered" people, and its playing piece is always brown or black.

This is just one example of how games express beliefs inherently, she says. And fans of an individual game might not like when questions about their values are raised, but Flanagan believes it's important nonetheless. "We need to look a little bit deeper when we're designing things... at the values we're designing into our games," she suggests. "I don't think we can afford not to address the very human world of emotions. What do we care about? If crafted well, these can become core principles in a game."

Values, whether community-specific or philosophical, can fit into an iterative design model so they're continuously expressed both in the work and in the creation of it. They can appear in the reward structures, in the point of view, the narrative premise, player rewards and strategies, and in any other aspect including community of play and the context of the experience.

Truly listening to diverse players isn't easy; "One of the things you need to do if you want to be an inclusive designer is have people play the game who aren't like you," she says. "Most people make games for themselves."

"We know we can speak to certain audiences, but I'm really excited about how we can expand what we do," Flanagan adds.

What does playful change look like? Investigating prejudice against vaccinations, Flanagan's team made a game called Pox -- as well as a zombie version -- followed by a study that eventually brought a full-time social psychologist to the Tiltfactor team.

Studies of players of the games tested for systems thinking, players' understanding about vaccination, and social perspectives on disease and ill people in particular. Groups that played the "zombie" version of the game had the best result, even though it was mechanically alike to the non-zombie version: "People's sentiments on vaccinations changed even when faced with a ficticious disease, and people playing zombie Pox ... had significant gains in systems thinking, and understood vaccinations the most."

In other words, the zombie fiction was the only factor proven to enhance players' interest in the game; audiences couldn't relate to the danger of 50 year-old diseases, but understood the drama of popular zombie stories.

This is an important takeaway for designers wanting players to engage with information or experience empathy for others. "The further away a story is from one's own lived reality, the more we can open up and identify with that person or that situation," Flanagan says. "It seems counterintuitive, but the more outlandish the story is, the more open the player can be [to] actually absorb it."

Tiltfactor's card game Buffalo gives descriptors like "Tall world leader" or "Asian-American athlete" and prompts players to name world figures who fit the descriptors. But the names people do and don't think of in conjunction with certain descriptors is telling; Flanagan says never in her presence has a Buffalo player called out any other name for "woman scientist" besides Marie Curie.

The game is intended to prompt people to reflect on their internalized stereotypes and to study the complexity of one's own social identity. Flanagan's studies have shown that players' realizations from playing the game go beyond the embarrassment of being unable to name, say, a Hispanic lawyer -- that in fact the game can positively affect the way people view others.

"The game can cause a statistically-significant shift in players' attitudes about questions of diversity," Flanagan says.

In the card game Awkward Moment, situations like finding a T-shirt for girls that says "Math Is Hard!" are mingled with other situations that may embarrass young people, and encourages them to select a reaction.

In the game, Flanagan mixed cards about situational bias in with cards about garden-variety embarrassment. This encourages players to see prejudice as a situation that requires empathy just as much as, say, having gum stuck in one's hair. It also has the material takeaway of reducing young people's trained biases. Playing the game actually tripled the likelihood that a player studied would associate the career of "scientist" with a picture of a woman. The game won Meaningful Play's best non-digital game award in 2012 (Pox won that year's best digital game award, incidentally).

"Games may not serve as some kind of 'quick fix' to any social issue -- they can just be systems for self expression," Flanagan says. "But it is interesting if we think of games as also able to have that power... as games are so ubiquitous."

And designers can use existing systems subversively to leverage that power: "I can make these games that look exactly like party games... I have never wanted to make a party game in my entire life," she says. Yet once she realized what might be possible by using the party card-game format, she decided to try it out.

"I'm in a space where I'm doing a lot of analog games, but I'm also trying to work in this situation, where this game might reach a lot more people than my art practice has, and that's interesting to me as an artist and a designer."

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Ryan Watterson
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The power of games as a messaging tool is only beginning to have its surface scratched. All the propagandistic powers of media combined with the addictiveness and compulsion of activity -- we can only hope the authorship pool of games disseminates to a wider socioeconomic spectrum and a greater variety of cliques, less the greatest form of mass media ever invented continue to be held exclusively by a group whose character and agendas we've seen enacted for years.

It requires a cultural shift amongst authors, toward inclusiveness, as we see embraced by the different games panel, but also a shift in two other arenas: a) creating more accommodating tools and resources for learning basic programming skills that take that literacy out of the higher education tech silo and spread it around; b) repairing the institutional practices which have built up which reinforce the kind of in-grouping game dev has become famous for, such as proprietary technologies and political and social favoritism for funding/awards/etc.

If these core systemic problems were fixed, the system would allow a flow of authors from diverse backgrounds, cultural groups and genders. These central control authorities, be they DICE or IGDA, regardless of the noblesse oblige of their mission, are structures of cultural dominance that, if the pipeline which produced game authors was truly fair, shouldn't need to exist at all. Because for every good thing they do, they impose their in-grouping and their will destructively in some other way.

The only king who matters is the first king who forms a republic

Erin OConnor
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Good read, but at the end the big question is who's values?

There are Christian, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and a whole smattering of others believes with their own separate set(s) of values.

Even within each there are multiple different sects that can have wildly different sets of values. In Christianity for example there is the Catholics, Jehovah witness, Methodists, Baptists, and Mormons to name a few. All fall under the Christian umbrella but each one has wildly different sets of beliefs and values.

Or how about the constitution of the United States? We hear about how incredibly sacred and important this document is and how is the cornerstone of our values of American society and yet we have managed to circumvent the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eight, ninth and tenth amendment.

We believe that all men [and women] are created equal?
well. That took the 13th [and 19th] amendment to take a step in the right direction.
Have we extended those rights to LGBT yet? No. So then how equal do we really believe people to be?

So again...Who's values?

Michael Joseph
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Excellent points Erin!

We KNOW that media conveys values. But we cannot assume that those values are "good" or "positive" or ""respectful" or righteous" or whatever for society at large. Indeed a lot of the values conveyed are just insincere product marketing baloney and if that means using stereotypes to strengthen a brand, then so be it. Let the black woman be the face of the Summer's Eve commercial so that no negative stereotype is perpetrated against the primary consumers.

But these sorts of things have nothing to do with diversity per se. These have to do with power and if you're in a creative field, the only solution is independence or working for progressive private companies. There is no solution if you're employed anywhere else. Anywhere else all that matters is the bottom line. The one ring.

So if you want to convey messages that can help make the world "better" than you have to be free or work somewhere that appreciates justice and freedom and equality. These places are rare.

Diversity is important but I think before we'll ever see true diversity, you need more opportunities to be independent. Power doesn't give itself away. You have to take it. Groups seeking greater representation first have to do so outside of the establishment. Otherwise you're just going to find yourself on a leash.

Hollywood is a great example of an industry that thinks it has come so far... but really... come on. Few Asians, few Arabs, Indians, Middle Easterners, Native Americans.. a handful of notable American black actors... come on...

Meaningful change comes from without, not within. In other words, making games with certain messages isn't going to change issues related to diversity of people in positions of power. No way. Never.

Christian Nutt
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The values of the creator of the work. Like any other form of art.

Michael Joseph
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@Christian Nutt

You're right of course.

But I think there is a sense that when progressive minded folks talk about values it can be construed in an absolute good vs evil sense (which of course doesn't exist) and I think that is what Erin was pointing out. There's no such thing as absolute morality or values. The values Mary Flanagan's espousing should NOT be taken for granted as shared values across all societies let alone individuals.

Again, we know that media already conveys values. This isn't new and I don't think Mary Flanagan is merely trying to remind us of that fact. The assumption I think from the author is that we can do better and of course that is according to her own moral compass. I think Erin was trying to draw the point out that these are her values and not necessarily universal ones.

Ryan Watterson
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First I want to say I 100% agree the games should be products of culture and reinforce healthy values. Game developers have become a kind of scribe class and we have a responsibility to do good. But this is about next steps

The thing that needs to be done is disseminate authorship to lower classes and different cliques. People should chronicle their own values and morals, not have them prescribed to them by game designers. There's been a lot of talk about gender diversity but think about the class element of this -- even if the morals are universal, or the ideas are indeed good, this is imposing culture on people. When the British invaded Ireland, they imposed their language, their religion, their values, which they perceived to be 'universal values' as are mentioned in this thread -- this is called cultural dominance. It's a bad thing.

Already game designers, male or female, hail from an exclusive group of privileged first world nationals. The same names appear under awardees and big names in indies over and over again: CMU, USC, Swarthmore, Oxford, Dartmouth. And the institutions have built up incestuous selection processes, where judging is pushed toward hegemony by structures where winners become the new judges, a vicious cycle of people incestuously picking people alike themselves with similar agendas to theirs so they can maintain 'ownership' of the structures.

Values in games, yes. Games as culture, yes. It would be nice if this clique ran the structures. The only way that could happen anyway is to make it a bigger clique that can flood the structures with new authors who agree on these kinds of principles (games as culture, games promoting healthy values instead of violence/juvenilism).

But the structures are terrible -- people's culture comes from people, they have to be able to be authors. Privileged people pretending to get into their heads and give them the culture they 'need' -- wars have been fought over preventing this. If a great diversity of people could make games, we wouldn't need society's great minds to figure out games can convey values. Some people would just intuitively do that and the ivory halls could focus on something much further down the line.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I find it fascinating to evaluate the beliefs of gamers when I expose them to different economic models. In the real world people are relatively numb to inequities, as they are born into them. In virtual space they tend to get really annoyed by any perceived inequity. The funny thing is that if the inequity favors them, they don't see it as an inequity. If they outspend an opponent in a pay to win game, then it seems fair to them because "they earned it". If they defeat an opponent because they invested more time in a game than the other player was able to, again they "earned it" by spending the extra time. If they found an exploit and use it to win a game they "earned" that too by being smarter in finding the exploit.

There are so many prejudices that we have that are invisible to us that we don't ever think about until they are presented to us. Even then it is hard to see them as prejudices unless we can see it from the perspective of others.

Philip Minchin
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I'd love to see a lengthier post from you on the subject you raise here. I loved your post about the parallels between the economies of EVE and the real world (and your thoughtful responses to comments).

Among many other things, I'm currently working to promote games (electronic and other) to libraries as a way of increasing systems literacy in the same way that libraries have promoted traditional literacy in the past. I also talk in passing about the (related) ways in which playing lots of games gives people an appreciation of the value of "balance" (but not perfect balance) in making games fun. Since library staff are overwhelmingly motivated by pretty egalitarian values (universal access to knowledge and culture) this really resonates with them. It would be great to have your perspective on this.

If you've already written this and I've missed it, apologies - but please point me at it!

Erin OConnor
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I can't reply to my own post so I will have to put it here.

In every major religion there is an underlying set of values that they all share. Peace, non-violence, love of life (your own and others), compassion and generosity among others.

The Dalai Lama has a great essay (several actually) that you can read online in regard to this.

Trevor Cuthbertson
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Inclusive design has always been there, ready for anyone to tap. They can convey values.

11 years ago, I had the opportunity to develop an educational flash game that simulated waste management. The province I live in (PEI, Canada) has everyone source separate their own waste. A previous game was made that explored the topic (then in concept) in a Super Mario / Kick-Man type game. But then the province was rolling out waste management to everyone. So now there was a demand, the value had changed. The new game required the topic (now in application) to ramp-up the learning. The new game had to reflect the new value, something that was closer to simulating something you’d do in real-life rather than learning through an 8-bit Nintendo-style game.

Over the years, the odd person I’ve talked to actually remembers learning waste watch through the game. And these people who I’ve talked to are not core gamers, nor are they local game developers. They’re regular people. To me, I know I did something great when I helped design the game around the topic value rather than the other way around. And for people to approach me and tell me they remember that second game years later, really makes all the difference.

Maria Jayne
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I think the very best games don't teach you their creators values, they let you discover your own.

Arthur De Martino
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Indeed, a game showing different points of views and letting the player to come to his own conclusions is the strength of the medium.

Arthur De Martino
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double post

Jonathan Lin
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Do you have any examples in mind? And how they allow self-discovery in this sense?

Daniel McMillan
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One thought is to reward certain kinds of "posterity" points for certain kinds of behavior. E.g., a pirate guild sets up a value system that rewards for external theft but punishes for internal theft. Thus, the Pirate guild earns X number of posterity points in Thieving value. If a player / players begin to steal from their own pirate guild family, Pirate guild posterity declines, and in addition, the individual attribute of a player's Trustworthy value rating drops. Therefore if he/she ever intends to be a valued member of another Pirate Guild, they are going to have to raise their Trustworthy value. This could work for many other kinds of in-game values.

Joachim Tresoor
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Very interesting. Usually a caricature fantasy world is seen as sugercoating/obscuring the core message, because the player can just shrug it off as not real. But if I read your zombie Pox example correctly, you're saying the distance from reality circumvents bias and helps absorb the core message.

I wonder if, by extension, using stereotypical "evil just because" villains would actually help convey a moral?

Alan Rimkeit
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I don't play games to get values for life. Neither does my daughter. Sorry, but we play for "fun", not values. I teach my daughter values, not a game. If a child or person needs to learn vales from a game then something very wrong has happened in the raising of that person. She knows that violence in game is not real. She knows that violence should never be used for anything but self defense. That racism is wrong. That people should be treated fairly based upon their behavior. Values should come from parents, not games.

David OConnor
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Games, and other forms of media, can be 'fun'... but moral values are very often part of the 'entertainment' package too. We can learn new values, or reinforce our existing values.

As for me personally, for better and for worse, I learned a lot from my parents, but also from Hollywood too.

Taekwan Kim
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I just want to throw out a question here (and I'm genuinely not trying to attach any judgement here either way): are you saying that values should _only_ come from parents, or that games specifically aren't significant enough to convey values?

Or, to put it another way, would you also say that other media (literature, etc.) have no place in conveying values either? (For a rather loaded example, religious texts, being literature and thus media, should also have no place, etc.)

Jonathan Adams
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I expect that, aside from very generic values like "treat your friends well" and "care for others" or genre-specific conventions (Giant corporations are bad in cyberpunk games etc) it can be difficult to explore values if simply because the people involved in designing or selling the game are going to have conflicting ones. At the same time, there are going to be a limited number of people who are both excellent game designers AND excellent examiners of human moral and ethical values AND who are good enough at writing to portray that.

David OConnor
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It is interesting that the dynamic you describe is also evident in movie production, although not so much in other forms of media.

Craudimir Ascorno
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The power of games as a medium to discuss serious issues and convey values is often overlooked when compared to other forms of entertainment. Unfortunately, most games are looked as mindless fun, unlike movies, plays, books, TV shows, etc.

I don't think anyone is advocating that games should be used to teach children values or to preach some developers' views. However, I think games can be designed to provide food for thought. Not every book, movie or TV show is mindless fun, and intelligent developers can make an interesting game by making the player to think out of his comfort zone, while retaining the gameplay aspects. Games may not change the society (and most probably will not), but if the developers manage to make players think about something else than pressing buttons to eliminate enemies from time to time, the whole gaming industry may earn more respect and stop being the scapegoat for most problems of the modern society.

Max Seidman
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As others have said, while all values are culturally dependent, there are some values that span societies and are shared. These are collected in treaties, in bills of rights, in the UN charter, among other international documents. In addition to Critical Play, Flanagan and philosopher Helen Nissenbaum have the website, which talks about these "big values" and also recognizes, and incorporates, local, community specific values too. They have a library up on that site and a curriculum, as well as a tool called Grow a Game that is used in classes to experiment with values in the design process. The Values at Play project's advisory board and students working with them were international and multicultural; the values were not necessarily American specific, so lots of interesting values are in there.

Jennifer Goss
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The robber is black or brown because the robber *wears* black or brown, not because he 'is' black or brown. Black is the color traditionally associated with stealth. [It has nothing to do with what ninjas or robbers actually wear, it's a tradition that stems from theater stage hands, who wear black, and thus could play 'ninjas' in old plays and seemingly appear out of nowhere]. Brown is also a color associated with camofloague and stealth. This is a game trend with great precedent; Miss peach has a 'peach' token, Professor Plum has a purple token, and Miss Scarclet has a red token: they are colored by what they wear, not by the color of their skin.

Are you sure it is not your own preconceived notions that you are trying to force onto the game?

For example, there is a scientific reason for 'man' to come up more than 'woman' when associating the word 'scientist'. [Not because there have not been exemplary woman scientists, or that woman cannot be scientists]. Women and men are *biologically different*. Women have more neural connections between the two halves of their brain, making us better (on average) at switching between tasks, handling multiple thoughts or problems at once, or multitasking. Men, however, are better by half at solving complex problems (certainly varies drastically by the man...) If a game taught that is an 'equal chance' of all men and women both being identically suited to a given task, it would be biologically incorrect. Some tasks (on average) men perform better at; others women.

However, a *specific* man or a *specific* woman can both be equally suited to the same job, or one could out perform the other. Genetics involves many variables; and temperment, drive, and opportunity also come into play. This is what the term stereotype *used* to mean: that because, on average, 'most of group X are gender B', someone erroneously takes that to mean -all- of group X must be gender B, or that anyone of gender A is incapable of the role. They then would ignore any evidence (aptitude tests, actual work, recommendations, etc) that anyone who didn't fit their preconceived notion could possibly do the job.

Unfortunately, in a well-meaning but logically flawed attempt to correct that stereotype, many games (DnD, etc) have gone the biological nonsense route that "men and woman are exactly identitical in every way except reproduction", rather than the truth; which is that men and women can be unique in many ways beyond the average, or work to excel past any limits they may face; but there are quite a number of distinct physical and psychological differences across the genders.

This can be seen in the science field. Despite that just as many women enter college to become scientists as men (in fact, women recieve about half the doctorates in science/engineering the US), the percentage of women who make careers in science is very low. Whether they dislike working in an environment without many other women, or because they want a family, they tend to fall back. Also, men tend to, in the science sector, become entrepeneurs twice as often as women.
These and other factors all add up to women comprising only about 20% of scientists (varies a bit by field).

It's wrong to tell a woman, at any age, that she can't be a scientist, or won't be as good as a male.

It's also wrong to pretend that men and women are exactly the same, with no biological differences. That isn't 'fighting discrimination', it's just promoting ignorance. I had a teacher back in middle school who used to pick on student's who couldn't run as far as him (since he'd ran a marathon or somesuch). I informed him he was picking on the girls, who had less muscle mass and endurance on average than the boys (because we have less testosterone, hence smaller frames on average), so that only made sense that we wouldn't be as advanced, especially since we hadn't trained. I also told him about some of the advantages of being a girl ;) He didn't believe a word of it, and continued his bullying, believing boys and girls to be "identical", thereby believing we should be 'equally capable'.

The cure for stereotypes isn't falsehood, it's logic. Teach people the truth, but remind them that with training and effort (and not dropping out, like so many women do who want to become scientists before they even graduate!); they can achieve their dreams.