Here’s How Game Design Can Reduce Stereotypes and Social Biases

New research by Tiltfactor published in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace illustrates how games can have a positive impact in our society. Using a new approach in game design— ‘embedded game design’—former Tiltfactor postdoc Geoff Kaufman, now an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and Tiltfactor’s founding director Mary Flanagan, demonstrate how games utilizing this approach can change players’ biases, reduce social stereotypes and prejudice, and engender a more complex view of diversity.

Through embedded game design, an intended persuasive message is incorporated into the overall game’s content, mechanics, or context of play—rather than making the message overt to the players.

For the study, the researchers used two party card games created at Tiltfactor and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to challenge gender stereotypes and implicit bias in STEM: Awkward Moment, which challenges players to react to funny, embarrassing, and stressful situations; and Buffalo: The Name-dropping Game, which asks players to name real or fictional examples who fit the game’s unexpected combinations of attributes. A unique feature of these games is that they do not mention their ability to change players’ biases.

Kaufman says that, “Designers of social impact interventions, including games, must be mindful of people’s natural psychological resistance to any activity they perceive is attempting to alter the way they think or feel about an issue. This may be particularly true in the design of persuasive games, which, to be effective, should ideally be intrinsically engaging, re-playable experiences, ones that people will be motivated to return to again and again.”


Awkward Moment reflects the embedded design of ‘intermixing:’ cards that address situations involving bias against girls in STEM or a lack of gender equity are interspersed with cards that do not address these situations. Kaufman and Flanagan found that the game was “successful at strengthening youth players’ associations between women and science and inspiring more assertive responses to multiple forms of social bias.” Participants who played just one round of Awkward Moment matched a woman with the “scientist” job title 58% of the time, 33% more than a control group who did not play any game and 40% more than a group who played a neutral game that did not include cards references incidents of gender bias.

Flanagan says that “Our work reveals that strategically embedding psychological techniques in a game’s design both enhances the game’s impact and provides a transformative player experience.”

product pics for buffalo game, using product 7/31/2012 product sample

Buffalo: The Name-dropping Game was also designed to reduce social stereotypes and biases by expanding players’ mental representation of numerous social categories. The study examined how the game affected players’ representations of social categories and prejudice, as well as their motivation to control their own biases. It revealed that Buffalo gameplay effectively promoted broader and more inclusive perceptions of social groups, even after playing the game just one time, and raised players’ concerns about their own potential biases, as compared to baseline scores observed in a no-game comparison condition.

After playing Buffalo, students showed increased ‘social identity complexity,’ which is a measurement that predicts intergroup tolerance, as well as increased scores on a measure of “universal orientation,” reflecting lower prejudice and a more complex view of the inclusivity and diversity of their world.

The studies with Awkward Moment and Buffalo demonstrate the ability of games to decrease players’ social biases and promote more egalitarian, diversity-embracing mindsets—if the games are designed to do so.


Read coverage of this work in the press:

Wilson, Mark. “A Simple Card Game Designed To Rewrite Gender And Racial Stereotypes: The Neatest Thing? It’s Been Proven to Work.” Fast Company, 28 Oct 2015.

Shapiro, Lila. “ This Game Can Make People Less Prejudiced. Here’s How.” The Huffington Post, 28 October 2015.

Clark Flory, Tracy. “Sexist Stereotypes Defied With Smart Game Design, Study Shows.” Vocative. 26 October 2015,

Кузнецов, Даниил. “Игры признали эффективным,” N + 1, 26 Oct 2015,

Smith, Steve. “Dartmouth College Researchers Say Newly Designed Game Will Reduce Social Bias And Spread Diversity.” Medical Daily, 27 Oct 2015

Medical Press, “Study illustrates how game design can reduce stereotypes and social biases.” 26 Oct 2015,