Interview with Jessica Hammer: Designing games that change mental models of discrimination and bias

Play As Life met up with researcher Jessica Hammer who was presenting her work at the Meaningful Play 2012 conference on serious games to talk about her game that will help people re-think racial stereotypes.
Play As Life: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Hammer: I am at the Teacher’s college, Columbia University. My doctorate is going to be in a cognitive studies, but I am actually supported by the Mellon foundation, and they have interdisciplinary scholars program through ISERP. It’s an interdisciplinary research program for people who are interested in social and economic policy. So my dissertation work is actually on mental models of discrimination and bias and changing those through play. So they said, that’s great, that’s a social issue and we are interested in the approach you are taking, so we want to be involved.

Play As Life: So, is this about eliminating stereotypes through gameplay?

Hammer: It’s a little bit different. So, when we talk about sexism and racism, it’s actually limited because it turns out that there are many types of discrimination. When we talk about sexism and racism, we could talk about attitudes, but we could also talk about models. Like… what do I value? Do I value equality or do I value “let’s reinforce the status quo”? There are these canonical statements that test your attitudes.

Play As Life: I see.

Hammer: What I’m actually interested in is different. I’m interested in what you think sexism and racism are, and how they operate. So there is a distinction in the research between what they call old fashioned sexism and racism, and modern sexism and racism. So, old fashioned sexism and racism basically says “well, you’re a woman so pshaw!” right? Or, “If you’re not white, then pshaw!” But, it’s no longer socially acceptable to express those opinions in most contexts. So what you find is that discrimination works through institutions, it works through systems, it works through small differences that multiply over time into large differences of outcomes. And it turns out that modern sexism and modern racism are very much about denying and dismissing the effect of institutions and of systems.

It turns out games are really good for teaching people about how complex systems work. So, even if you don’t change your opinions about if you think, women are less important and valuable than men; even if I’ve gotten you to admit that there is another way discrimination might work, that it isn’t just about I did something to you, in isolation. I called you a name, I denied you a job because you’re a woman. If I’ve gotten you to admit that there are other ways that sexism and racism work, that I have changed your model, then I’ve already done something incredibly valuable because I’ve gotten you to see the way that these things actually operate. So now you are looking at the problem with clearer eyes even if you don’t want to admit that it’s a problem.

Play As Life: Wow, so are you actually developing the games?

Hammer: I have designed and developed a game to address this, and I am currently working on assessment and evaluation.

Play As Life: So I guess, the biggest question is, how do you do that through a game?

Hammer: I was a game designer before I went back to school. So in some ways the design problem was actually sort of the easy part of this for me. The problem that I really grappled with in design, was what is called the social desirability bias. Social desirability bias says that basically you tell people what is socially acceptable, and they will just spit back to you what they think is socially acceptable. They won’t actually do what is called deep processing. And if you want people to actually engage with a complicated problem, you have to make them think about it pretty hard. If you provide them with easy outs, people will take the easy outs.

I actually decided to set up a situation where you’re trying to change a bias system. You are trying to profit from it. So you play a recruiter, and clients come to you, they are of many races and two genders, and you work with the organization that you are trying to place them into. But the organization, is biased in this complicated and systemic way. So, in order to get the most profit for yourself, you get money every time you put someone into a job, you’ve got limited time to do it. So you kind of have to experiment and understand the discrimination that is actually going on, in this fictional company, so that you can exploit it. I have a number of mechanics built in, so that you can’t just avoid it. For example, you can only have ten clients at a time. So, if this company is biased against Hispanic people, if you just say, “Fine, I’m just not going to place anybody who is Hispanic, because they are really hard to place,” then your client list will fill up, you’ll have all Hispanic clients waiting and you’ll have to place them if you want to get new clients. So I put you in a situation where you have to solve this problem, and in order to solve this problem, you have to think about how the game represents the bias.

Play As Life: So do institutions say overtly “We don’t want Hispanics”?

Hammer: No. Of course they don’t. So I put in two different models, and they represent two real things that happen in the world. The first is based on Microaggressions theory. Microaggressions theory basically says that people that are from non dominant groups, whether by gender or by race, experience small problems every day, no one of which is severe enough to ever be an issue, but cumulatively has a lot of negative impact, has impact on their health, has an impact on their stress, has impact on cognitive function.

Play As Life: How does that work in the game?

Hammer: So, whoever the non dominant group in the game is, when you’re putting them into a position, you have to think about who they are interacting with, so there is a visual representation of sort of the goodness of their relationships with the people who they are going to be directly working with. And you can see how many micro-aggressions they are exposed to, and that affects how quickly they get promoted.

Play As Life: Wow, so it’s like one discrimination by itself may be so small, but when those add up, that becomes big.

Hammer: Exactly, the way that people get promoted in the game, it’s a model by sort of a meter that fills up over time. So the more Microaggressions that you are experiencing, the slower your meter fills up. And if you are in a really hostile situation, your meter may actually go down, and you will get demoted or fired. So the other way that I am modeling it is that we know that basically if two people do the same- you know the saying that women have to do twice as well to be seen half as good? Well it turns out that that is actually kind of true. It’s true both for women and ethnic minorities. So basically at higher levels, you can look at different levels in the company, you can go up to the senior level of management and down. The people that you control start on the lowest level and you kind of have to nurture them as they go up. But, the standards for non dominant people to get a raise, to get promoted are higher. So you can actually see the slow accumulation of advantage. Now, you can spend money to upgrade them. So, one of the things that I can look at, I’m not looking at this for the dissertation, but for a future research topic is how much money people spend on people from different groups as a way of measuring a. What they think is going on in the game, and b. whether real world biases that we know that we all have, because we all live in the same society are affecting how much money we are spending. So there are multiple dominant groups, if you have white men and white women, as groups who are both dominant, are you still spending more money on men even though they are functionally completely the same. So it lets you ask a lot of interesting research questions.

Play As Life: Can I ask you something a little bit more personal?

Hammer: Yes please.

Play As Life: Are you an ethnic minority?

Hammer: I’m Jewish. One of the reasons that I got interested in this is because Jews in America have a very interesting and sort of fraught racial history. Jews are what I like to call white-ish. So I certainly pass for white. And in urban areas, I’m generally considered white. But not everywhere. And not to everyone. So I have encountered people who have made it very clear that they consider me different. And in ways that was quite shocking and uncomfortable because I have grown up on the east coast, and new York is full of Jews, and Boston is full of Jews. So I was been reading a bunch of stuff about Jews and whiteness which got me interested in can this shift? Because obviously it does shift. If you look at the beginning of the 20th century Greeks were not considered white, Italians were not considered white, Jews were not considered white and they have been incorporated into this dominant category of whiteness over time. What I’m looking at is, I talk about it as race, when I’m talking about it casually, but I’m looking as much at sort of cultural dominance, so the white names that I am choosing, there are two ways of identifying people’s race and gender- number one is through their character picture, and number two is through the name. And it turns out that there is research showing that basically if you choose very WASPy sounding names-

Play As Life: Like Smith!

Hammer: That’s right. Buffy Smith versus…

Play As Life: Carl Rosenberg.

Hammer: Or Darnell Henderson, or Lily Wu. So names actually do enough to evoke those kinds of racial and gender concepts. So you see there is research on resumes, if you see a  “black-sounding name” or a “white-sounding name” there are big differences on hire ability. That’s what I’m getting people to use as the trigger to live these categories. Race and ethnicity are so complicated that I am reducing this complicated thing to something that is kind of simplistic, but I think that’s what people do with this topic all the time. At some level you have to start somewhere. I will be working on this project for a long time, it’s a big project and the dissertation is just the beginning. So I expect that I will be working and thinking about that.

Play As Life: So how do you get people to play this game?

Hammer: It’s a free online flash game, I’m just waiting on the IRB to distribute it.

Play As Life: So it’s not available right now.

Hammer: It’s not available right now. I wish it were, because this would be a great way to publicize it. But actually I have pretty significant connections to press and to people. I just did a little minor study with one day of publicity work I got almost 500 people doing it. So my goal is to get 1000 people to play this game. I think that’s totally reasonable. I’m hoping I’ll get more like 5000. I expect to spend a month promoting.

Play As Life: You should be able to get tens of thousands of players.

Hammer: The problem is that there is the assessment that I’m doing. It’s about 10-15 minutes before the game, so I think a lot of people will drop out when they see that this whole thing is going to take a half an hour. So one of the things that I am trying to do is minimize and keep the assessment as short as possible.

Play As Life: So within 30 minutes your mental models can change? That’s basically what you are saying?

Hammer: So the thing that triggers shifts in conception and mental models in this way, is encountering what they call anomalous data. “I think things work this way, but they don’t.” So that can happen in a moment. Or can take a very long time. So what I’m actually trying to do is create a situation that forces you to engage in anomalous data. So we will see if it works. I have tested the game, and I have tested the assessments, but the effects I expect to be quite subtle, which is the reason that I am trying to do it as that scale. Even if it doesn’t work, I will have learned something because I am actually releasing three different versions of the game. That’s the other reason why, when you come to play the game, you will randomly be assigned to one of three categories. so even if the game doesn’t make a big difference, I’ll be able to say here are the differences between the three versions. Or, there is no difference. It should be a pretty big thing to say, because the differences are all in the rewards system. And everybody is thinking rewards systems are very sexy right now. So even if all I say is there was no difference between the three versions of the game it’s great. Turns out, if you design your rewards system in a way a, b or c, it may not matter.

Play As Life: So what are your next stops now? Are you going to be graduating next year?

Hammer: Yes. And I am hoping to go off to a faculty position. Basically, I like to do research, and I like to teach. One of the reasons that I want to be a professor is because I am interested in helping people create their own projects. So, giving people the tools to realize their vision. There is only one of me, and there are so many things that I think are important and so much richness in this field. I want to be a professor because I want to amplify, and give tools to the people who will change the world.

Play As Life: Do you play games for entertainment?

Hammer: I used to, before I started playing games for my job. It’s difficult for me to “play games just for fun”. I do play a lot of games. But there is always a part of my mind that is in research mode. But I try to play everything. The only thing that I would say that I don’t play are sports games. That I think, has to change. I just haven’t found the time.

Play As Life: Thank you so much!

Hammer: Thank you, it was nice to meet you.


One response to “Interview with Jessica Hammer: Designing games that change mental models of discrimination and bias

  1. Pingback: Reflection on Meaningful Play 2012 « Donghee Yvette Wohn·

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