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Tackling social engineering through play

Mary Flanagan runs the Tiltfactor lab at Dartmouth College.

Mary Flanagan spends a lot of time thinking about fun. She laughs easily, wears her blond hair in pigtails, and spends her days inventing games. Tiltfactor, Flanagan’s 12-year-old lab at Dartmouth College, creates “research-driven games for social impact.” That means employing psychology and education research to create games that have a measurable impact on players’ attitudes toward topics like gender, race, and health.

The lab has cool cement floors, a row of computers, and a huge glass-front cabinet stuffed with tabletop games from the classic Game of Life to newer and more complex hits like Seven Wonders. It’s here that the Tiltfactor team members create analog board games and card games, digital games, and even new sports. Then they conduct studies on how playing those games affects the players themselves. Last month, for example, Games for Health Journal published a paper that found playing RePlay Health, a Tiltfactor role-playing game set in a fictional health care system, changed players’ attitudes toward health care policy.


In many cases, those changes can take place without players even noticing. Take Buffalo, a card game in which players race to conjure up real-life examples of categories like “time-traveling spy” or “Brazilian scientist.” As Flanagan lays out cards on the lab’s designated gaming table, she explains how the game subtly plays the players: The lab’s research suggests that just concentrating on counter-stereotypes seems to tweak Buffalo players’ assumptions about what kind of people belong in certain groups.

Games like Buffalo and ZombiePox, a board game in which players work together to stop a deadly disease (and along the way learn about herd immunity and the importance of vaccines), have multiple potential uses. In some cases, they are intended for use in schools and workplaces that might otherwise rely on more formal, obvious training sessions on, say, the importance of diversity. (As Flanagan points out, very few such programs have been proven effective.) In other cases, they are intended for a general audience of anyone who likes to play games, a growing population in what some have called a board game renaissance, not to mention the ongoing popularity of digital gaming.

Katherine Lee for the Boston Globe

Flanagan, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth, also teaches a game-design class in which students design one game per week on issues ranging from bullying to financial literacy to preventing sexual assault.


Flanagan spoke to Ideas in her office at Dartmouth. Below is an edited excerpt:

IDEAS: How do you make a game that promotes social change while still having it feel like a game?

FLANAGAN: A lot of people try to make a learning game or a social intervention very literal, like, “Let’s have a game about HIV and it will be very literally HIV. You must stop HIV with this condom.” There tends to be a lack of subtlety with a lot of ways people are approaching this stuff. I think this came about because of the idea of gamification being in the news, like, “Everything can be gamified, the workplace can be gamified. We can add points and everyone will want do something! You’ll want to brush your teeth for more points!” It turns out that people actually see play as a very liberating and open experience, and we have to be able to choose to do that. So what we try to do is really bring a sense of professionalism and playfulness that people choose to play. These games have to be good games first.

IDEAS: Can a game like Buffalo really change people’s sensitivity to things like gender and race in the long term?

FLANAGAN: Studies show an effect that runs out in about 24 hours. But if you play the game, your sensitivity increases again. So in a sense, when people like to play a game over and over, it’s like an inoculation. If you make something people really like to play, and you’re playing it every week, it actually would do long-term change, at least hypothetically speaking.


IDEAS: Your new game, Monarch, features a cast of all women. Why?

FLANAGAN: As a female player, you look at all these games, you play them, but you don’t always feel addressed.

IDEAS: There’s so often just one female character, and the illustration of her will be explicitly sexy.

FLANAGAN: I was interested in not making that kind of thing again. The idea was to create a game where you can play as sisters. If you play as sisters, the meaning of the interactions takes a very different tone and tenor.

IDEAS: The game raised more than $17,000 on Kickstarter and has generated a lot of enthusiasm from players. How has it been received so far?

FLANAGAN: We took it to places like Toy Fair [an annual trade show for toys and games], and to these big publishers for board games, and it met a lot of resistance. A major publisher didn’t think his demographic would buy this game because it had female characters. He also told me to change my name to a male designer’s name in order to publish the game.

IDEAS: Are you more interested in changing the gaming industry, or in changing individual players?

FLANAGAN: I think changing players does end up changing the gaming industry. My game-design class is 80 percent female. That’s also the way you change this, by changing the whole pipeline.


IDEAS: Is there a lot of academic energy right now around games and game studies?

FLANAGAN: Although games are 8,000 years old at this point, strangely the academic study of games has been very limited. They were considered an informal pastime, like quilting. No one documented this everyday culture. But in the last few years, there’s something like 400 game-design courses or degree programs in the United States. If games have been outselling Hollywood box-office sales, it makes sense to look at these things critically.

IDEAS: Do all games have a value system, even when we don’t notice it?

FLANAGAN: I would argue everything has values, even a table and chairs. We renovated an auditorium, and we have seats, and not everyone can sit in the seats because they’re made for a certain body type. Those are all values considerations: How many people can we accommodate, who can we accommodate, what’s an idealized body type? There are unconscious biases in many material objects, and those are easier to see. The unconscious biases in systems and software are harder to see, but they’re there nonetheless.

IDEAS: Can you give me an example?

FLANAGAN: In Settlers of Catan, the only character on the board is the robber, and the robber is often a dark or black character. That’s one that’s really easy to see.


IDEAS: When you talk about games for social change, it seems like you’re talking about broadly progressive values. But are there others using the same powers of games to achieve different kinds of ends?

FLANAGAN: The number of people from the casino and gambling industry entering the digital game space is becoming very high. The top 10 apps last week, three of them were casino and gambling games.

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.


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Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story initially listed an incorrect age for Tiltfactor at seven years old. It is 12 years old.