Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Can a board game make you less sexist?

Ceri Parker
Previously Commissioning Editor, Agenda, World Economic Forum
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Games should be taken seriously.

In economics and politics, “game theory” has become a fashionable term for gleaning insights from the way video games use incentives to persuade us to behave in a certain way. And now a new academic paper suggests that something as simple as playing a flashcard game could help to break down sexist stereotypes.

The key, though, is that players can’t suspect that the game has worthy intentions: that would be no fun. According to research conducted at Dartmouth College published by Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, the game must use “embedded” design – sneaking a social purpose into a genuinely enjoyable format – rather than relying on overt messages.


Figure 2 from Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(3), article 1: This image shows the percentage of participants who assigned “scientist” to a female character. Via EurekAlert!

In the game Awkward Moment, which was designed using funding from a National Science Foundation grant to challenge gender stereotypes and implicit bias in STEM, players compare the best way to respond to various cringe-inducing scenarios. It just happens that some of these include encountering sexism, like the commonplace blight of patronising clothing: “While shopping at the mall, you notice a store is selling t-shirts for girls that say, ‘Math is hard.'” Players then have to decide how best to respond (I would like to see NASA’s female chief scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan, publicly send all similar T-shirts on a one-way trip to Mars – but that’s just me).

Strikingly, just thinking about how to respond in situations like this seemed to prompt players to see gender differently. After playing Awkward Moment, people were asked to match pictures of men and women with possible job roles. Those who had played just one round of the game matched a woman with the “scientist” job title 58% of the time – 33% more than a control group who did not play any game at all, and 40% more than a group who played a neutral game that did not include any reference to gender bias.

Author: Ceri Parker is a commissioning editor for Forum:Agenda

Image: A woman is silhouetted next to a solar panel display at the fourth International Photovoltaic Power Generation (PV) Expo in Tokyo. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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