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

Vol.9,No.3(2015)
Special issue: Experience and Benefits of Game Playing

Abstract
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.

Keywords:
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.
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