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How Games Encode Values

May 7, 2013

This is a really interesting article about Mary Flanigan’s Titlfactor lab and the research they do on games.  In summary, it seems that people absorb values and information better from fictional settings that are a proxy or overstatement of reality:

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 Pox: The The People

Tiltfactor’s Pox: The The People

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