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

Special issue: Experience and Benefits of Game Playing

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.

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

Geoff Kaufman

Author photo Geoff Kaufman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. A social psychologist by training, his cross-disciplinary research investigates the affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects of fictional narratives and games; the design and implementation of games, technologies, and interaction platforms as interventions for promoting greater self-insight and social consciousness; and the unique dynamics and affordances of computer-mediated communication for facilitating interpersonal synchrony and interconnectedness.

Mary Flanagan

Author photo Mary Flanagan, Ph.D., is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College and directs the Tiltfactor game research laboratory there. She studies design for social impact and creates games and interventions backed by empirical evidence using a unique interdisciplinary approach. Her research interests range from the psychological influences behind behavior and belief change to the use of experimental art techniques to invoke new thinking.

Adachi, P. J. C., Hodson, G., Willoughby, T., & Zanette, S. (2014). Brothers and sisters in arms: Intergroup cooperation in a violent shooter game can reduce intergroup bias. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037407

Allianz Knowledge (2010). CEO2 [Flash game]. Munich, Germany: Allianz Knowledge. Retrieved from http://knowledge.allianz.com/ceo2/en_ext.html

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.

Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media effects: Advances in Theory and Research, 2, 121–153.

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brehm, J.W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (2013). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. New York: Academic Press.

Cialdini, R. B., Demaine, L. J., Sagarin, B. J., Barrett, D. W., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. L. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social Influence, 1, 3–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510500181459

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1015–1026. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.58.6.1015

Czopp, A. M., Monteith, M. J., & Mark, A. Y. (2006). Standing up for a change: Reducing bias through interpersonal confrontation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 784–803. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.90.5.784

Dillard, J. P., & Shen, L. (2005). On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72, 144–168. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637750500111815

Doyen, S., Klein, O., Simons, D. J., & Cleeremans, A. (2014). On the other side of the mirror: Priming in cognitive and social psychology. Social Cognition, 32(Supplement), 12–32. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2014.32.supp.12

Ewoldsen, D. R., Eno, C. A., Okdie, B. M., Velez, J. A., Guadagno, R. E., & DeCoster, J. (2012). Effect of playing violent video games cooperatively or competitively on subsequent cooperative behavior. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15, 277–280. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2011.0308

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). The good, the bad and the ugly: A meta-analytic review of positive and negative effects of violent video games. Psychiatric Quarterly, 78, 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11126-007-9056-9

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist, 68, 57–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030597

Ferguson, C. J. (in press). Do angry birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game Influences on children’s and adolescents’ aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Ferguson, C. J., & Olson, C. K. (2013). Friends, fun, frustration and fantasy: Child motivations for video game play. Motivation and Emotion, 37, 154–164. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-012-9284-7

Flanagan, M., & Nissenbaum, H. F. (2014). Values at Play in Digital Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068–1074. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01824.x

Genesis Energy (2007). ElectroCity [Flash game]. Houston, TX: Genesis Energy. Retrieved from http://www.electrocity.co.nz/Game/game.aspx

GLS Studios (2013). Fair Play [PC Game]. Madison, WI: GLS Studios.

Grandpre, J., Alvaro, E. M., Burgoon, M., Miller, C. H., & Hall, J. R. (2003). Adolescent reactance and anti-smoking campaigns: A theoretical approach. Health Communication, 15, 349–366. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327027HC1503_6

Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69, 66–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034857

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701–721. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.79.5.701

Half the Sky Movement LLC (2013). Half the Sky Movement: The Game [Facebook game]. Beijing, China: Half the Sky Movement LLC. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/HalftheGame/app_203351739677351

Hass, R. G. (1984). Perspective taking and self-awareness: Drawing an E on your forehead. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 788–798. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.46.4.788

Hyers, L. L. (2007). Resisting prejudice every day: Exploring women’s assertive responses to anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, and sexism. Sex Roles, 56, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9142-8

Kaufman, G., & Flanagan, M. (2015). How awkward: A party game to reduce workplace biases. Manuscript under review.

Kaufman, G. F., & Flanagan, M. (2013). Lost in translation: Comparing the impact of an analog and digital version of a public health game on players’ perceptions, attitudes, and cognitions. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS), 5, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.4018/jgcms.2013070101

Kaufman, G., Flanagan, M., & Seidman, M. (2015). Creating stealth game interventions for attitude and behavior change: An “Embedded Design” model. In Proceedings of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) Conference, Luneburg, Germany.

Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027525

Knowles, E. S., & Linn, J. A. (2004). The importance of resistance to persuasion. In E. S. Knowles & J. A. Linn (Eds.), Resistance and persuasion (pp. 3–11). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N., & French, J. E. (2014). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000030

Metro Trains Melbourne (2013). Dumb Ways to Die [Mobile game]. Melbourne, Australia: Metro Trains Melbourne.

mtvU (2006). Darfur Is Dying [Flash game]. New York, NY: mtvU. Retrieved from http://www.darfurisdying.com/

Nabi, R. L., Moyer-Gusé, E., & Byrne, S. (2007). All joking aside: A serious investigation into the persuasive effect of funny social issue messages. Communication Monographs, 74, 29-54. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637750701196896

Phillips, S. T., & Ziller, R. C. (1997). Toward a theory and measure of the nature of nonprejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 420–434. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.72.2.420

Plant, E. A., & Devine, P. G. (1998). Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 811-832. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.3.811

Play2Prevent Lab (2013). PlayForward: Elm City Stories [iPad game]. New Haven, CT: Play2Prevent Lab.

Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 369–381. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167202286008

Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N., Murayama, K., Lynch, M. F., & Ryan, R. M. (2011). The ideal self at play: The appeal of video games that let you be all you can be. Psychological Science, 23, 69–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611418676

Quick, B. L., & Considine, J. R. (2008). Examining the use of forceful language when designing exercise persuasive messages for adults: A test of conceptualizing reactance arousal as a two-step process. Health Communication, 23, 483–491. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410230802342150

Roccas, S., & Brewer, M. B. (2002). Social identity complexity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 88–106. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327957PSPR0602_01

Russoniello, C. V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J. M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2, 53–66.

Sherman, D. K., Cohen, G. L., Nelson, L. D., Nussbaum, A. D., Bunyan, D. P., & Garcia, J. (2009). Affirmed yet unaware: Exploring the role of awareness in the process of self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 745–764. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015451

Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. (2002). Entertainment-education and elaboration likelihood: Understanding the processing of narrative persuasion. Communication Theory, 12, 173–191.

Tiltfactor Laboratory. (2011). Pox: Save the People [Board game]. United States: Author.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117, 440–463. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018963

Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 625–636. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196322

Wilson, T. D., & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 117-142. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.117

Wilson, T. D., & Schooler, J. W. (1991). Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 181–192. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.60.2.181

Worchel, S., & Brehm, J. W. (1970). Effect of threats to attitudinal freedom as a function of agreement with the communicator. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 14, 18–22. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0028620


web of science logo




PDF views