When Good Intentions Go Awry
The counterintuitive effects of a prosocial online game
Posted Dec 07, 2015
By Gina Roussos
Online gaming is booming—consumers are champing at the bit to play an increasingly large number of fun, free, and easily accessible games. Some entrepreneurs have taken this opportunity to create online games meant to increase empathy and positive attitudes toward certain marginalized groups, such as LGBT people. Unfortunately, it takes more than good intentions and technological know-how to create a game that changes people’s attitudes. It takes an understanding that in games, players get to control the outcome by making decisions about what to do. The belief that people can control their destiny is, as psychologists have known for decades, a big part of the reason people dislike certain groups, especially the poor. People tend to think that being poor is the result of making bad choices, and so blame poor people for their impoverished situation.
When I first heard about an online game meant to increase empathy for the poor by showing players what it’s like to live in poverty, I was excited. I was certain this game could promote positive attitudes toward the poor. I knew that seeing the challenges faced by a person in a certain group and viewing those challenges through his or her eyes could reduce prejudice toward that group by increasing feelings of empathy; this game seemed like a promising way to do that.
Rather than rely on my own subjective response to the game, I decided to test the game’s effect on people’s attitudes and beliefs about the poor by comparing the effect of playing it to playing a control game. To conduct my study, I recruited 54 American undergraduates. The goal of the game is to make it through 30 days in the life of a poor person without running out of money. The first task in the game is to choose a job and a place to live.
During the game, players are presented with various dilemmas like whether or not to stay home from work when they are sick and whether they should choose the more expensive (but healthier) salad for lunch over a burger. Staying home from work means less pay that week but also less time spent being sick. Similarly, choosing the salad is harder on the wallet but beneficial to one’s long-term health. Players decide which of the two options to choose and then they see the outcome of that decision (e.g., having more or less money in the bank account). The situations and their outcomes are realistic and based on interviews with case workers and homeless people.
After I analyzed the results from this study, I was dismayed to find that playing the game had no effect on positive feelings toward the poor. In fact, the game had a negative effect on attitudes among certain participants—including some people who were sympathetic to the poor to begin with.
What was missing from my initial appraisal of this game was an understanding of how the experience of playing a game differs from the experience of watching a film or reading a book. When I’m playing a game, I feel like I have complete control over my outcomes. I click on Door A instead of Door B, and I find a treasure chest full of jewels. I found that treasure because I choose Door A. This feeling of control over one’s outcomes is called personal agency. The belief that people in general have personal agency is a central component of the American ideology called meritocracy, and it’s highly correlated with anti-poor attitudes.
The strongest driver of dislike toward poor people is the belief that poverty is personally controllable—that is, the belief that being poor is a direct consequence of making bad life decisions (like choosing Door B in my example above). So it makes sense that people high in meritocracy beliefs would tend to dislike poor people— according to their view, poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. Given this relationship between beliefs about the controllability of poverty and anti-poor attitudes, any experience that promotes the belief that poverty is controllable will likely decrease positive attitudes toward the poor.
Herein lies the inherent problem with this interactive poverty game. When I’m playing the game, I’m faced with decisions like whether to pay to fix my broken car or start taking the bus instead. I make a decision (taking the bus) and then I see the outcome of that decision (saving money but sometimes being late to work because the bus is unreliable). For each scenario, the outcome (and its consequences) are directly caused by my decision. I feel that I have personal agency. Because I am playing the role of a poor person, I extend this feeling of personal agency to poor people in general. In the end, my attitudes toward the poor are not swayed by the game. Any positive feelings evoked by empathy from seeing the challenges of poverty are off-set—or even outweighed—by the negative feelings brought on by the belief that poverty is personally controllable, which is the inevitable result of playing a poverty game which emphasizes decision-making.
Thus, the online game had no effect on attitudes because the empathy effects were cancelled out by the effects of feeling personal agency. Even more troubling is the fact that the game actually lead to more negative attitudes when the participants were low in meritocracy beliefs (and likely to feel positively toward the poor). Playing the game convinced them that poverty was personally controllable, turning their positivity into negativity.
I’ve since verified that these results stem from games’ emphasis on personal agency by examining the effects of watching versus playing the game (using a different control game) with a sample of 227 U.S. adults. When people merely watch a screen recording of this game, they show all of the effects the game creators intended—more empathy and more liking. Watching the game removes that feeling of agency, letting the effects of perspective taking shine through.
Make no mistake, creating games to reduce prejudice is definitely a good idea; we just need to do our homework first. The key to addressing poverty attitudes is to show the challenges of poverty while at the same time emphasizing its uncontrollability. This could be done by giving players more background information on how external factors like a low minimum wage and a lack of paid sick leave influence poverty or by showing players a range of solutions to a given scenario but having the best solutions be crossed out. This would illustrate how being poor limits one’s options. Further research on these types of prosocial games is important because without a nuanced understanding of how gaming can negatively and positively influence attitudes, we could end up promoting the very beliefs we meant to reduce.
Gina Roussos is a graduate student in Yale's Social Psychology PhD program.