Ready Player One? Games as analogy for stigma & struggle

When I talk about “gamification”, I’m usually talking about exploiting the principles of playing games to encourage or support people with health activities – offering rewards for meeting milestones for example, or fostering friendly competition by ‘playing against’ friends to see who can exercise the most or lose the most weight. A somewhat different, but in my opinion particularly cool (1), use of games is to exploit their structure as an analogy for challenges in the real world. One of the most interesting examples of this is when the analogy demonstrates how the ‘rules’ of the game can favour – or discriminate – certain players.

A fairly famous (to internet folk anyway) example is this post which uses computer games as an analogy to explain the implicit and sometimes explicit advantages that straight white men have in everyday life. The key here is the message that men aren’t immune to playing the game – they have to master skills, overcome challenges and battle for the win like everybody else – but that they are doing this on the ‘lowest difficulty setting’, while stigmatised groups face extra barriers or receive more meagre rewards for their efforts. Similarly, the game “Black & Whites”, created by some psychologists back in 1970, is essentially Monopoly but with players asked to choose whether to play as Whites (start with more money, can buy property anywhere) or Blacks (start with less money and limited opportunities to buy).

But do these games actually change peoples’ perceptions? I don’t think there’s been much research, but there was a neat study in 2009 which asked participants to imagine an alien planet where the aliens faced challenges similar to those of gay people in our society. The authors report that the game helped “inter group perspective taking” – ie. It could put the participants in the shoes of marginalised groups and help them empathise with their experiences. Ever since reading this I’ve been playing around in my head with how to make a similar game about mental health stigma – answers on a postcard please (or in the comments, obv,)

The idea of using games to educate is nothing new of course. Did you know for example that the original game that inspired Monopoly, the Landlord’s Game, was intended to demonstrate the unfairness of the property system, which favoured landlords and ruined tenants? An unfortunate lesson there perhaps, that the version of the game that took off was the one where you ‘win’ by taking everything over. I’m still waiting with bated breath for Monopoly 2: The Housing Bubble, where you have to sell off your buy-to-lets at cut price and the game ends with a generation of frustrated renters storming the Bank of England. It has “massive hit” all over it, that one.

P.S. On the whole game-as-analogy front, but about life for us all, there’s this adorable post by Oliver Emberton on how life is an RPG, where you have to manage your energy levels, find the right combinations of skills, and master mini-games (like finding a partner). It argues that fundamentally life is about time management: spending your precious time resource wisely and investing it in things you want (2). My personal favourite part is the comment “The first 15 years or so of life are just tutorial missions, which suck. There’s no way to skip these.”


(1) Apologies for the research jargon.

(2) To experience this lesson in acoustic form, check out the wonderful Time Trades by Jeffrey Lewis. “Time is gonna take so much away/But there’s a way that time can offer you a trade…”


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