A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for prosocial causes

Geoff Kaufman, Mary Flanagan


Prosocial games often utilize a direct, explicit approach to engage players with serious real-life scenarios and present information about key societal issues. This approach, however, may limit a game’s persuasive impact and ability to produce beneficial outcomes, particularly when the apparent aims of the game trigger players’ psychological defenses or reduce players’ potential engagement with – and enjoyment of – the game experience. In contrast, the “Embedded Design” approach that we introduce here offers effective, evidence-based strategies for more stealthily or covertly delivering persuasive content in a game in a fashion that circumvents players’ psychological defenses and triggers a more receptive mindset. This paper provides an in-depth exploration of two key Embedded Design strategies: (1) intermixing: combining “on-topic” and “off-topic” game content in order to make the focal message or theme less obvious and more accessible and (2) obfuscating: using game genres or framing devices that direct players’ attention or expectations away from the game’s true aims. To illustrate the implementation and effectiveness of these strategies, we detail the design of two games that utilize a number of these techniques to reduce stereotypes and biases and present the methods and results of a set of empirical studies testing the prosocial impact of these games. In addition, we introduce a number of other Embedded Design strategies that have emerged in our work and discuss the most viable contexts for the use of this design approach.

Bibliographic citation

Kaufman, G., & Flanagan, M. (2015). A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for prosocial causes. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(3), article 5. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2015-3-5


Embedded Design; game design; prosocial games; stereotypes; prejudice; perspective-taking

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