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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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