The Advance project tackles the gap between the reality of racial and gender disparities in America, and common beliefs about racial and gender bias. We live in a society where women and people of color are not treated equally in areas from employment to housing to the justice system and more. At the same time, it has become less and less acceptable to express openly racist or sexist beliefs. Instead, the rhetorics of “empowered choice” and “color blindness” imply that any individual woman or person of color can do or be anything they want – despite the fact that this is patently untrue in practice.

Why are American beliefs about racism and sexism so far removed from reality? I believe that it reflects some very deep cognitive biases – ones that have less to do with racism and sexism than with what kinds of problems our minds are good at solving. Our minds deal well with models that are agentic, or based on the intentional actions of individuals. We’re much less good at understanding emergent models, which involve many actors acting simultaneously in complex relationships, and where the outcomes may not be the same as any individual actor’s intent.

I believe that changing people’s minds about racism and sexism in America means helping them move from an agentic (individually based) to an emergent model of bias. Of course, that isn’t easy! This type of conceptual change is particularly tough, because it involves an ontological shift – a change in the way that we reason about causality. That means that if we want to change people’s minds about the nature of bias, we have to bring out the big guns. To me, that means designing a game.

We know that simulations are reasonably effective at helping people with conceptual change. Unfortunately, they work best in guided, classroom-style situations. The people we most need to reach with diversity work are unlikely to take classes where such simulations might be used! Because games have built-in goals, I believe a well-designed reward system can replace the overt guidance that simulations require. The playfulness of games may also help get around people’s emotional defenses regarding race and gender, which can be sensitive topics.

I have designed a game that I believe can help players achieve conceptual change in this area. The player takes the role of a head-hunter, placing clients into jobs at a large organization. Each time they place a client, they earn money! However, the organization does not treat all job-seekers equally. If the player wants to earn the most money, they must identify which clients the organization is biased against, and then develop strategies to place them anyhow. Because the organization’s bias is randomly chosen, and because it is expressed through complex systemic patterns, I believe this process of problem-solving will lead players to consider emergent explanations of bias.

My dissertation work tests whether the game is effective at shifting players’ understanding of bias from an agentic to an emergent model. However, I also look at differences between three versions of the game. In the implicit reward version, players have to place discriminated-against clients because otherwise their client list will fill up – but there is no explicit reason for them to do so. In the explicit reward version, players receive a large one-time bonus for identifying the discriminated-against group. In the generative reward version, players receive a bonus every time they place a client who is being discriminated against. I will be examining the differences in effectiveness between the three versions of the game.

I expect that the Advance game will become a useful intervention for achieving conceptual change around issues of race and gender. More generally, this project can show us the effectiveness of game design techniques for conceptual change, and help game designers select appropriate reward systems for their own transformative works.

I am deeply grateful to the Games for Learning Institute and the Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Research Fellows program for their support in this project.

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