With the release of any violent video game, like Grand Theft Auto or Halo, you’ll see media coverage calling out all the negative aspects of the game as well as the impact it might have on the people who play them. Although some aspects of this argument may ring true — violent games have been linked to aggression but not criminal behavior — there are those out there who wish to bring to light the positive aspects of these games. Researchers at Dartmouth College are some of these people, and a study they published in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace does just that.

The study focused not on the marketing of games or how people play them, but instead looked at the way the games themselves are designed and how the design of a game can change players' biases, reduce social stereotypes and prejudice, and instill in gamers a broader vision of diversity. The work was conducted at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Lab — an interdisciplinary innovation studio that designs and studies games’ social impact — and used a new approach to game design called “embedded game design.” Coined by the researchers themselves, the term refers to a persuasive message that’s worked into the content, mechanics, or context of the gameplay, rather than outright presenting it to the players.

For the purpose of their study, the researchers created two party card games that were meant to challenge gender stereotypes and implicit bias in the science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) fields. Neither of the games overtly suggested their ability to change a player’s biases, and the study found that by obscuring the true intent of each game, the players had much more fun and showed more noticeable growth.

"Designers of social impact interventions, including games, must be mindful of people's natural psychological resistance to any activity they perceive is attempting to alter the way they think or feel about an issue," said Geoff Kaufman, a former postdoctoral researcher of psychology at Tiltfactor, in press release. "This may be particularly true in the design of persuasive games, which, to be effective, should ideally be intrinsically engaging and re-playable experiences that people will return to again and again."

One of the games, called Awkward Moment, asked players to respond to funny, embarrassing, or stressful situations. Players submit a reaction card to an awkward moment, such as a store selling girls’ shirts that say, “Math is Hard.” At the end of each round, the chosen person picks the best reaction to the awkward moment. Awkward Moment uses the embedded design principal of intermixing — there are cards in the deck that deal with gender biases or stereotypes in STEM, but also some that are unrelated to biases or stereotypes altogether.

To determine whether participants shifted biases while playing Awkward Moment, researchers asked students to match pictures of men and women with specific job roles. After a single round of Awkward Moment, 58 percent of players placed a woman under the scientist job. By comparison, only 33 percent of a control group who didn’t play the game placed women in the scientist’s spot, while 40 percent of a group that played the game without gender-bias cards did the same.

"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," said Mary Flanagan, Sherman Fairchild distinguished professor in Digital Humanities and founding director of Tiltfactor.

Buffalo: The Name-Dropping Game was the second card game researchers used to test their theory. Buffalo’s goal was to reduce social stereotypes and biases by increasing a player’s awareness of various social categories. To do this, the game tasked players with naming a real or fictional character who accurately matched two displayed adjective cards. Examples of the adjective cards included "multiracial and superhero" or "female and visionary."

After playing a round of Buffalo, researchers found that players increased their so-called "social identity complexity," a measurement that predicts how tolerant the people within a group are. They also discovered an increased score on "universal orientation," which reflects lower prejudice and a more complex view of diversity and inclusivity. The study concluded by suggesting games designed to decrease social biases and promote more diverse views of the world can do so covertly and effectively.

Source: Kaufman, G. Flanagan, M. A psychologically "embedded" approach to designing games for prosocial causes. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 2015.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that recent research published in the journal Cyberpsychology was undertaken at Dartmouth University. It was actually undertaken at Dartmouth College.