Sexist Stereotypes Defied With Smart Game Design, Study Shows

A new study suggests it's possible to upend racial and sexist stereotypes through game design

Oct 26, 2015 at 4:30 PM ET

Can a card game effect positive social change?

It seems like an absurd question, but a do-gooder party game using a similar format to Cards Against Humanity—minus the references to dead babies and bodily fluids, of course—is attempting to do just that. It seems to work, too: a new study, published in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, suggests it significantly reduces stereotypes among adolescents, especially when it comes to women and science.

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The game, Awkward Moment, was created by researchers at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Lab, which is dedicated to designing games for social impact. It has players compete for the best response to an uncomfortable social situation. One player blindly chooses an “awkward moment” card—for example, “While shopping at the mall, you notice a store is selling t-shirts for girls that say, ‘Math is hard.'” Then the players respond with “reaction” cards—for example, “Say, ‘P.U. That stinks!'” or “Be like Marie Curie and win Nobel Prizes.” Each round, a “decider” picks the best response.

The game’s social mission is totally undercover: cards addressing examples of gender bias, especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), are interspersed with cards about generic adolescent embarrassments, like bending over and having your pants split wide-open in the school hallway.

In order to measure the impact of the game, researchers later asked the players, who ranged in age from 11 to 14, to match pictures of men and women with possible job titles. After just one round of Awkward Moment, participants matched a photo of a woman with the job title of “scientist” 58 percent of the time. That is 40 percent more than a group that played a game without references to gender bias and 33 percent more than a control group that did not play any game at all.

The study found a similar impact with another game created by Tiltfactor, called Buffalo: The Name-dropping Game. The card game challenges players to come up with the name of a fictional or real character who matches both of the characteristics of two randomly chosen “descriptor” cards. For example: “multiracial” and “superhero,” or “female” and “visionary.” After playing this game, participants scored higher on a test that measures tolerance for diversity.

This study only adds to a movement that is already underway. As the paper puts it, “Among designers, researchers, and players alike, there exists a growing belief in the capacity of games to address the struggles of the human condition and solve pressing societal issues.”