• Digital Life Initiative

DL Seminar | Games as Social Transformation

Co-authored by Andrew Atkins and Jiaqi Zhan.

By Andrew Atkins and Jiaqi Zhan

Cornell Tech

Games are huge. In 2020, the video game industry was worth more than the film industry and the music industry combined, and with such a massive industry comes massive reach. In her talk Mary Flanagan, Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College and founder of game research laboratory Tiltfactor, discussed how we can use this reach to make positive social change.

The reach of games extends beyond digital games, and can be used in anything from board games to sports! The key element that makes games work for social change is shared across all types of games. They include the goals that players try to accomplish, the rules they must follow, the results of their actions, and the situations that result in them playing. Most importantly, players are allowed to fail in games. All of these key elements can serve as tools to incorporate social movements via the game designing process. However, even if we create the perfect game, how do we get players to want to play it?

Show Don’t Tell

If players are aware that they’re playing a game promoting pro-social values, they’re less likely to alter their mind sets as a result of the game. Because of this, the best results are found by embedding pro-social values within a game in non-obvious ways. This is called “embedded design” and is how Mary Flanagan creates games with her lab Tiltfactor. For example, in many high schools, students grow up attending school sponsored talks about why they should avoid drunk driving. This is great advice, however, many students will get tired of hearing about it and zone out the talk. Embedded design would approach this differently, and instead try to create a game that students want to play that encourages them to make responsible decisions.

Fiction over Fact

Fiction has the power to transform how we view the world. This power is much better at changing people's views than using facts to tell people what they “should do”. Using this knowledge, games can be created so that facts are presented within a fictional setting. Doing this, however, can be a bit tricky. How do we know what fictional setting will map well to the underlying social principles? With Zombie Pox, the idea grew naturally. Originally a game about vaccinations to stop the spread of a virus, Zombie Pox found success by making the virus into zombification. By utilizing the power of fiction, it’s possible to imagine how all kinds of pro-social situations can be turned into something fun and engaging.

Countering Stereotypes

Games can consciously and unconsciously change how we think. Conscious change can be the result of us having our mentality changed and can be quite jarring. For example, when males play games from the first-person perspective and later find out they were playing as a woman, this challenges what they assume about who they play as in games. This is an “Aha” moment, and can alter the way they think about main characters in games in the future.

Unconscious changes are subtler than conscious changes, but can be just as powerful. In the game Undertale, players are given the choice to spare every enemy they encounter in combat. The fact that they can spare the enemies as well as each enemy being given personality can lead players to begin feeling empathy for them. This happens gradually, however, and is something that develops in players throughout the game.

The Power of Associations

Game designers can achieve significant social impact with associations by building the games in different social contexts. One example Mary mentioned is the game “Cops Arrest Manatees”, a play on “Cards Against Humanity”. They aimed to encourage sustainable behaviors via this game. In the experiment, after they simply added in a climate change context in some of the cards, people immediately realized the importance of sustainable behaviors for climate change. As a result, the amount of people who recycled the plastic cups after the experiment rose from 10% to 30%. Similar results happened when they modified their card games by incorporating social movement key words into the cards. People’s awareness of social movements has been greatly increased by these social contexts.

It is very inspiring to see how simply adding a social movement context for the games can be so powerful in reminding and promoting players of social changes.

Power of Play

Interaction and communication in games are crucial to promote social movements. As Mary mentioned in the seminar, initially when they designed the game Pox to promote vaccination, they came up with 3 versions of the game with the same mechanism: Pox board game, Pox digital version game, and Zombie Pox. The result was fascinating. People who played the digital version of the game didn’t communicate nor did they interact with each other. On the other hand, people who played the board game version and the Zombie Pox interacted with each other a lot. As a result, people with the digital version lost 5 out of 6 times while people with the board game version, especially Zombie Pox, won 5 out of 6 times. The result signified that players who are more involved in games will embrace the social movement concept a lot more effectively. Based on this crucial observation, Mary and her team developed more bystander games that enabled players to take on the narrators’ point of view to promote social movements including areas like climate change and drinking problems.


There are so many problems that need addressing, from climate change to racial inequality. By following the ideas that Mary presented, namely the power of play, fiction, counter-stereotypes, and associations, game designers can begin addressing some of these issues. Anything from board games to virtual reality can be used to do this, and they all can be used in different ways. For example, virtual reality allows players to fully immerse themselves in other worlds, and this technology has already begun to be used to promote social change. One virtual reality experience allows players to attend 3D captured protests, while another allows players to experience life as another gender. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as virtual reality is a massively growing industry that only really started to take off in 2016. In the future, it’s possible to imagine players being able to experience life as an underprivileged person in an impoverished country, or as a polar bear as the arctic is melting.

Mary’s talk also inspired us that everyone can have the power to promote social changes in all different fields. Indeed, social movements can be promoted through various paths. For instance, in the finance industry, many investment firms are striving to invest in firms that can bring cultural and social changes. They are using a lot of their resources and power to help these firms grow and achieve their goals in the society and foster a better socio-cultural environment. It is inspiring to imagine if more and more people realize the power they have in social changes and find a path to promote these changes using their expertise, lots of social movements that seemed impossible right now can be easily resolved.




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