Game Design: Helping People Fight Back

A couple of influences came together in an interesting way today, in particular this Radiolab podcast about “Choice”.  We’ve known for a long time that our unconscious minds can have more control then our rational thought.  Telling someone to evaluate someone while holding a warm cup of coffee makes them like them.  Telling someone to forget something makes them remember it.  Even smiling or getting someone to chat or help for even a second makes them likely to stay.  Hundreds of studies have shown, despite our beliefs, that we’re all, rather, predictable.  And there are even whole degrees out there on how to take advantage of that for personal gain.  Marketers, the easiest whipping boy but hardly alone, use such subconscious tricks to get us to do things that aren’t necessarily in our best interests, to use our emotional gut to overwhelm our rational brain.  It’s one of those flaws in capitalism we’re struggling with.  How I ended up with some many unopened games, I imagine.   Malcolm Gladwell has even gone so far as to say we might not have a conscious well as all.

But regardless, all these are tricks.  They rely on your non-awareness, or lack of emotional bias, about what’s happening around.  Manipulators are taking advantage of all of us, every day, to get us to do things that violate our self-interest and belief and benefit them.  Taking advantage of how we’re wired.

And that requires knowledge.  That requires an understanding of the systems in place, both to manipulate and to avoid being manipulated.  We know we are being taken advantage of, but we don’t know how, we don’t understand why it works.  By exposing that knowledge to us, exposing how they operate, we can better operate, respond appropriately.

The best way I know of to expose such bias is through games.  Games are simulations of systems that reward us for exploring aspects of ourselves.  Games can give people that self-awareness – just like mediation can expose you to how you relax, games can expose you to how you are manipulated.  This is not really a new genre for games, it’s a new goal, not necessary fun or even replayable, but a new reason to play.  Think of Train, of course, archetypical in its manipulation, but a learning experience about how people work, even touching on how such a thing could ever happen.  How you are converted, so to speak, from one bias (killing people is wrong) to another (just doing what someone told me to).   Resolving conflicts of interest, through gaming.  Such games might be packaged like “exercises”, moral or personal games like Brain Age that expose your internal or unconscious bias and help you develop a new rational or emotional bias in against that weakness.  Enjoyment that let’s you learn about yourself in the process, learn something about the world, think critical, think morally, think sharply.  And not fall for the trick the next time.  Exposing these untruths and half-truths could even force tricksters to rethink their approach, get more subtle or align better with our interests, and shape our culture towards something more direct, more honest, and more trustworthy.

This isn’t play for flow, or fiero, or social bonding, or immersion or art.  It’s not even play for classroom fact-retention.  This is play to make ourselves better people and to make society a better place.


3 thoughts on “Game Design: Helping People Fight Back

  1. Dan,

    This is great. I’ve been thinking about these kinds of games for a couple years. When LucasArts had the big layoffs in June 2008 I almost started a social issues games company. Wasn’t ready at that time, but I will someday.

    In the meantime, I just finished up an article I’ve been working on for a couple weeks. Your post inspired me to post it because it’s very similar to yours.

    Take care.

    • altugi: I think that’s a serious point. But I’m claiming there’s many biases. There is a challenge to keep our bias from unfairly representing or subverting the player, but that’s true in every media, and it seems that games are actually fairly bad at pulling it off. In a sense (as you point out in your recent article on Train) the system’s biases are more transparent then our own.

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